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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  • 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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