The Story of the MiniDisc, Sony’s 1990s Audio Format That’s Gone But Not Forgotten

“If I had asked peo­ple what they want­ed, they would have said faster hors­es.” Whether or not pio­neer­ing car­mak­er Hen­ry Ford actu­al­ly uttered that quip, it has long held near-Bib­li­cal sta­tus in the realm of Amer­i­can busi­ness. On the oth­er side of the Pacif­ic, Sony founder Akio Mori­ta put it less mem­o­rably but more gen­er­al­ly: “If you ask the pub­lic what they think they’ll need, you’ll always be behind in this world. You’ll nev­er catch up unless you think one to ten years in advance, and cre­ate a mar­ket for the items you think the pub­lic will accept at that time.” And had Sony, cre­ator of the Walk­man and co-cre­ator of the Com­pact Disc, asked its cus­tomers what they want­ed in the late 1980s, they may well have said dig­i­tal cas­sette tapes.

In fact Philips, Sony’s part­ner in the devel­op­ment of the Com­pact Disc, did want to make a dig­i­tal cas­sette tape. But Sony saw the future dif­fer­ent­ly, imag­in­ing opti­cal discs that were even more com­pact, and rewritable to boot. The result was Mini­Disc, which with­in a few years of its launch in 1992 man­aged to see off the Dig­i­tal Com­pact Cas­sette, the com­pet­ing for­mat Philips end­ed up devel­op­ing with Mat­sushi­ta. But then the sto­ry gets even more inter­est­ing, and you can see it told in detail by the half-hour This Does Not Com­pute doc­u­men­tary above. Though the Mini­Disc was­n’t a straight­for­ward suc­cess, it turns out nei­ther to have been the sort of Beta­max-style fail­ure many Amer­i­cans seem to remem­ber today.

As a con­sumer audio for­mat, Mini­Disc actu­al­ly became a mas­sive phe­nom­e­non, at least back in Sony’s home­land of Japan. The pecu­liar eco­nom­ics of the Japan­ese music mar­ket, espe­cial­ly back in the 1990s, made CDs about twice as expen­sive there as they were in the Unit­ed States. Enter the music-rental shop, where cus­tomers could check out a dozen albums for the cost of buy­ing a sin­gle one of them, then go home and copy them all to their Mini­Discs. Ver­i­ta­bly print­ing mon­ey, Sony and oth­er Mini­Disc hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers came to the defense of music-rental chains when the dis­pleased Japan­ese record indus­try took them to court. By the time the issue was set­tled, Mini­Disc had already entrenched itself in the Japan­ese mar­ket to the point that its devices sur­passed CD play­ers in sales.

Con­fused by the sud­den pre­pon­der­ance of options, most of them pricey and of uncer­tain val­ue, Amer­i­can music con­sumers of the ear­ly 1990s stuck with what they knew: the high-qual­i­ty CD for home lis­ten­ing, and the “good-enough” ana­log cas­sette tape else­where. In the world of pro­fes­sion­al audio, and espe­cial­ly among radio pro­duc­ers, the flex­i­bil­i­ty, reli­a­bil­i­ty, con­ve­nience, and clar­i­ty of Mini­Disc proved unde­ni­able. But nev­er cheap or wide­spread enough for the aver­age lis­ten­er, nor quite high-fideli­ty enough for the exact­ing audio­phile, it spent most of its life in the West as a niche prod­uct. Today, a decade after its dis­con­tin­u­a­tion, the his­to­ry of tech­nol­o­gy has come to rec­og­nize Mini­Disc as the evo­lu­tion­ary link between the Walk­man and the iPod, each of which rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way we lis­ten to music. And what with the new­ly retro appeal of 1990s tech­nol­o­gy, its aes­thet­ic stock has nev­er been high­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sto­ry of How Beethoven Helped Make It So That CDs Could Play 74 Min­utes of Music

All Praise Lou Ottens: The Inven­tor of the Cas­sette Tape Dies at Age 94

Home Tap­ing Is Killing Music: When the Music Indus­try Waged War on the Cas­sette Tape in the 1980s, and Punk Bands Fought Back

A Cel­e­bra­tion of Retro Media: Vinyl, Cas­settes, VHS, and Polaroid Too

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (7)
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  • Jay Francis says:

    There was anoth­er missed oppor­tu­ni­ty by con­sumers. One that I and a few friends took full advan­tage of. The VHS recorder. It had a built in timer func­tion. The VHS cas­sette tapes cost around $6. And the 3rd gen­er­a­tion VHS recorders offered High Fideli­ty sound. So, One could put six hours of high fideli­ty music on a $6 VHS cas­sette.
    I used mine to make music for par­ties. I also had sev­er­al favorite music shows on my pub­lic radio sta­tion, for exam­ple, The World Cafe, that broad­cast for a cou­ple of hours while I was at work. I set my timer to record the pro­gram, with its live guest per­for­mances and David Dye’s selec­tion of music, and I would lis­ten when I got home.
    Talk about a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty for record­ing music. 6 hours ver­sus 74 min­utes on a CD.

  • Mordalo says:

    I remem­ber the Mini­Disc, and I was absolute­ly in love with it. Had a cou­ple play­ers and made mixdiscs. It was portable and perfect…except for Sony’s pro­pri­etary ATRAC codec?. Sup­pos­ed­ly, it was bet­ter for clas­si­cal music, but not much else.

  • david klein says:

    I still have 50 or more packed-to-the-gills mini­discs and an actu­al stand-alone play­er — in my crawl­space. Many of us toss away obso­lete tech­nol­o­gy on prin­ci­ple, but my mini­disc col­lec­tion remains, because one day when I the­o­ret­i­cal­ly might want to spin a few of them and recall that rar­i­fied era and the stuff I stole from var­i­ous sources as if gorg­ing at a ban­quet of dig­i­tal delights.

  • James maskell says:

    To true have my sony mini­disc play­er and a col­lec­tion of 100 mini­disc and still say that they are bet­ter qual­i­ty than the cd
    Still using my mini­disc play­ers

  • Scott Strother says:

    I use MD in the ana­log domain. My only inter­est is of archiv­ing out-of-print vinyl that I add to my col­lec­tion. Philips Com­pact-Cas­sette, using DBX pro­cess­ing was always enough for me… I’ve always held this esca­lat­ed race of cor­po­rate greed in deep con­tempt. Mutu­al coop­er­a­tion, and respect gained them good rev­enue dur­ing CDs peak, but per­son­al­ly I will always lament the clo­sure of the ana­log cas­sette. TDK’s MA‑R was an object of true beau­ty. I gleaned true delight just wit­ness­ing it per­form.

  • Scott Mansfield says:

    Already hav­ing pur­chased ver­sions for some of the same albums as LPs, 8‑tracks, cas­settes, and then CDs…when the MDs came out, many of us thought it was just anoth­er way to get us to buy the music yet again–as well as a new way to play it–and said, “Oh, fuck no.”

  • Steve says:

    When Howard Stern went to satel­lite, I invest­ed in a mini disc ‘deck’ recorder and a portable MD play­er. I could get an entire show on one disc in the long play mode, at the same, or bet­ter, qual­i­ty than cas­settes. I even­tu­al­ly stopped pay­ing for Sir­ius and the MDs wore out.

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