Will The Mini Disc Be A Megahit For Sony?

it's not easy being a music maven. Once, all you needed was a turntable. Then you just had to have a cassette deck, and later, a compact disk player. And may we suggest digital audio tape? Now, there's even more new technology to bring you even more listening pleasure--or death from bewilderment, whichever comes first.

This time, it's the Sony Mini Disc, a midget 2 1/2-inch silvery CD that can record and play back up to 74 minutes of sound, almost as much as its five-inch forebear. On May 15, Sony Corp. President Norio Ohga revealed the new low-cost digital recording scheme and a strategy aimed directly at the millions of young shoppers who want music on the go. Mini Disc recorder-players, the size of Sony's Walkman personal stereos, will hit the market next fall priced somewhere above $300. And unlike portable CD players, mini CD players won't skip when jarred.

Sony sees Mini Disc as creating a new market, an optical-disk format for personal audio. But the ultimate target is the conventional music cassette. Sales of recorded cassettes still dominate the estimated $24 billion worldwide record industry, with a 60% share of album-length recordings in the U. S. While no one expects the music cassette to succumb any time soon, sales have stalled, as CDs continue their climb (chart). In Japan, "sales of music cassettes have dropped sharply," says Ohga. "MD is the next-generation compact cassette, developed to save the shrinking market."

That doesn't mean that Sony is giving up on digital audio tape. But it has decided that DAT players, which can exactly replicate the sound of CDs, aren't a mass-market product. The company is repositioning its premium-priced DAT players for sale to professionals and audiophiles.

LASER BEAM. For the Mini Disc, Sony borrowed a magneto-optical technology that it introduced three years ago for high-volume computer data storage. The blank disk, which Sony figures will cost the same as a high-end blank metal cassette tape, includes a thin magnetic layer. To record, a laser momentarily heats a tiny spot on the disk to 400F, while a magnetic head writes the signal into the heated part of the magnetic layer.

To play the disk, an optical pickup analyzes the polarity of the light reflected from each spot. But the same system also can read light intensity, the way today's CD players read light reflected from pits stamped into the CD's aluminum layer. That means Mini Disc albums can be made on the same equipment that produces five-inch CDs. But wait, music fans: You'll still need new equipment. Because Sony has to compress the audio signal by almost five times in order to cram it onto the miniature disk, the new disks can't be read by today's players.

ROYALTY BRAWL. There is good news, however. Sony has overcome the skipping that plagues portable and car CD players when they're jolted. The head on the MD player repositions itself after a bump, and a memory chip stores up to three seconds of sound that might have been lost.

About the only thing that is needed now is for the record industry to endorse the new formats with catalogs of recorded music. That won't happen soon, at least on a broad scale. Politicking over home taping stalled DAT for years, and Sony is fighting a lawsuit brought by artists and composers who want royalties from blank-tape sales.

That may not matter much longer. When consumers find there's a better way to get music on the go, they'll buy it, if the price is right. For Sony, that's an invitation to replace all those personal stereos. And for the record industry, including Sony's music division, it's a chance to sell you the same albums all over again.

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