Now, A Sound System For Life's Bumps And Bounces

As if life isn't confusing enough, Sony just dropped another audio format on the music market. This time, it's the MiniDisc, a portable digital recording system that offers high-quality sound on a laser-read disk 2.5 inches across. MiniDisc gives listeners the same ability as compact-disk players to call up any cut on a recording instantly, and the disks hold the same amount of music as CDs. But they have the added advantage of being able to record. And, unlike CDs, the small disks don't skip when the player is jostled, making them a better choice for car and portable stereos.

But the MiniDisc has a major drawback: It is incompatible with every other music format you own. So you still need separate players for your records, cassettes, and CDs. For that reason alone, if you're looking for near-CD quality in a system that records, Philips' new digital compact cassette (DCC) might be more practical (BW--Nov. 30). A DCC home deck plays standard analog cassettes as well as digital ones, and Philips says it'll start shipping a portable version of DCC in the fall. So if you feel bad about all those LPs you never play anymore, at least you won't have to kiss your cassettes good-bye, too.

PREMIUM PRICES. Sony argues that such compatibility is not that important, since tape, with its tendency to break, jam, or stretch, will probably be outmoded by the end of the decade. "We think it's more important to offer the state of the art going forward, rather than backward compatibility," says Paul Foschino, director of new-technology marketing for Sony Corp. of America. Sony insists that MiniDiscs are not meant to replace CDs. Since the latter still have slightly better sound quality, you can continue to play them in your audio system at home and save MiniDisc for the road. "We are answering a need for a cassette replacement," says Foschino.

Whichever new format suits you, you'll be paying a hefty premium to own it this early in the game. A portable MiniDisc machine that just plays music costs $550, the same as the planned DCC portable model. A MiniDisc unit that can both record and play back runs $750--a bit less than a DCC home deck but substantially more than the $50 or so shelled out for most portable cassette players. Sony expects the price of the player to follow the same trend as that of other consumer electronic products: The more sold, the cheaper the product gets. The smaller disk, however, won't necessarily mean smaller prices. A prerecorded MiniDisc lists for $15.98, the same as a CD, while a 60-minute blank disk costs $13.99.

To prevent skipping in portable MiniDisc models, Sony developed a technique called shock-resistant memory. The music, instead of being transmitted directly to the listener, goes into a buffer that can hold up to 10 seconds of sound. So it doesn't matter if the player is jostled. The stored music will flow uninterrupted while the laser beam resumes tracking. The skips are eliminated from the sound in the buffer. No standard CD players have this ability.

Like DCC units, MiniDisc machines have a window that shows a readout of the album and selection being played, including any title you decide to give your own home recording. They also display the date and time you made the recording. And the disks come with a protective case that slides into the player, so there are no worries about ruining unshielded disks that are carelessly handled. The portable player is about the same size as a Sony Walkman and weighs 1 1/2 pounds.

TONE KILLER. To get 74 minutes of music on a disk almost half the size of a CD, Sony compresses the data by eliminating tones above and below the range audible to the human ear. The technique does result in a "subtle difference in sound," Foschino says. On the other hand, the MiniDisc records. But in an effort to combat piracy, you can only make one digital recording per disk. If you try to copy the copy or rerecord on the same disk, subsequent versions will have analog sound.

Sony has licensed the MiniDisc technology to several other manufacturers, including Sharp and Sanyo Electric, both of which plan to introduce portable players later this year. And Sony says it will soon have a $980 car-stereo model. Approximately 300 albums have been released on MiniDisc, and about 20 new releases a month are planned. So if this format intrigues you, start clearing out more storage space in your music library.

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