Previous Minidisc article (not required reading): http://www.roxics.com/ode-to-the-minidisc-the-forgotten-format/
It’s been twenty-three months since my post titled Blu-ray is the new Vinyl. I’ve stayed pretty true to the things I said there. I still have yet to buy a new turntable or any new albums on vinyl. I cooled my jets on the format. I still think the format is neat, but the cost is really the killer for me. Just today I stopped into the record shop with my girlfriend to see a couple of Tori Amos albums for $25 a pop. That’s a pretty average price for new vinyl albums these days. No thanks. I think it would be great to own them and hear them on that format. I just can’t bring myself to spend that kind of money on one album that will only degrade the more and more I play it. That said, I’m still pulled to the format. Part of me thinks that one day I’ll break down and buy a decent turntable and some albums I think would benefit from the character that format offers. But that may require winning the lottery first or at least getting a big raise.
Instead, over the last two years, I’ve turned my attention back to the minidisc(MD) format. This format is a little more my style anyway. It’s small and portable, recordable and still a lot of fun. It offers a character all its own.
Sadly my first minidisc player broke. I bought it in 1999 for $200 from Best Buy and it stopped working this year. Still, that’s a pretty good run. So I bought a different one off ebay. Used. Another Sharp brand model. This one a couple years newer than my first. Introduced in 2001. Same color scheme as the old Sharp and the build quality seems about the same. This one only takes one AA battery though, so that’s a benefit.
My goal is to pick up a couple more portable minidisc player/recorders. I’d like to get a Sony and probably a Panasonic as well.
Then of course there are the discs themselves. So many pretty minidiscs out there. A lot of really great color schemes and designs. All of which are out of production now, so the prices are only going up. For some of the nicer designs that are new and unopened, I routinely see prices of $5-$6 a disc. I’m of course talking about recordable discs, not prerecorded albums. I have no interest in those. Never did, even when I bought my first MD player. What always interested me about MD is that it’s easily recordable like a cassette tape, but with the benefits of a CD, such as track skipping and no degradation in sound quality with multiple plays or rerecords. It’s also cool you can label the tracks. Though something I’ve rarely used.
The big downside to minidisc versus vinyl, is that they aren’t being made in any real quantity anymore. Even today you can walk into a chain store like Best Buy and they have a few boxes of brand new vinyl albums for sale and two or three new turntables to choose from. You won’t see a package of blank minidiscs in sight. Same with prerecorded minidisc albums. Same with the players and recorders.
You can still find new packages of minidiscs on Amazon from Sony or Quantegy, but you’re looking at thirty-five plus dollars for a five pack or fifty plus for a ten pack. Long gone are the days you can walk into a big box chain store and grab a five pack of MDs for $10-$12 and have a selection of several brands and designs.
You’ll definitely have to turn to the used market for a player or recorder. Luckily you can still find some of them for pretty cheap. I got my Sharp for $25 on ebay. Some of the more desirable or unopened models can be in the hundreds of dollars. But that’s not unexpected for any niche format.
When you consider all of that, minidiscs still cheaper than vinyl. Even at $5-$6 for a black disc, that’s still cheaper than $18-$35 for an album on vinyl. Plus you can put whatever music you want on that MD. Later you can erase it and put different music on if you like. Sony says you can rerecord minidiscs up to a million times. I don’t know how true that is, but even if it’s only five percent of that, that’s still fifty thousand times. Not a number you’re likely to come close to. But the benefit is that you can easily find used minidiscs for sale online for anywhere from $1-$2 a disc. Just erase and record. If there is even anything on them. That brings down the overall cost of owning minidiscs even more.
I realize that vinyl and minidiscs are two radically different formats that both play audio. So for some, my comparison may seem odd. But in my opinion, both are about experiencing your music in a unique and tangible way. There are other formats like cassette tapes, reel-to-reel and even CDs that are also popular among certain crowds. Often times among the same crowd who enjoy a variety of formats. I personally think they are all cool in their own way. I think the higher end reel-to-reel machines are some of the prettiest designed machines I have ever seen. But that’s another format that would require a lottery win for me to even consider.
Why minidiscs and not CDs?
I do have a ton of CDs. Most of which are boxed up in the attic.
As a teenager of the 1990s the CD was the first format I really started collecting, like most people in my generation did. I owned a few cassette tapes before then, but didn’t get really involved with music until getting my first discman around age thirteen.
CDs quickly became the standard format for years and their sound quality is hard to beat for something so readily available, even today. You can still walk into a big box store and buy prerecorded albums on CD. You can find inexpensive CD-Rs to burn your digital music onto. You can then take any of those discs and play them in anything from a stock car stereo, to a playstation, to a computer. They are universal, like the DVD is for movies.
I have no hate for the CD format. That’s for sure. But I have no real passion for it either. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s still such a common format. I’m still routinely popping discs into my car player and that hasn’t changed in twenty five years. It’s a regular experience for me, whereas even though I’ve owned minidiscs for nearly as long, I took a break from them for many years. I don’t have a car player for my MDs. I can’t put them in my computer or my Playstation and the entire experience is very different. Minidiscs are more akin in experience to cassette tapes for me than they are CDs. Despite the fact they are small digital discs.
When you record to them, you are hitting a physical button on the face of the recorder and letting it record in real time, versus burning a CD, which is a very digital experience of selecting files and then hitting the burn button on screen. I know there are CD-R decks out there that record like a minidisc does, I used to own one years ago before it broke, but the experience is still not the same. Often you burn a disc once and then that’s that. With an MD, you can record a track or two and playback and then record more to it later or erase and record something new. It feels very different to me.
I also think the size of MDs and the fact that they come permanently enclosed in plastic shells just gives them a whole different feel. Add to that the fact they never had much of a run as anything other than an audio format and it just feels like a purpose built format for only audio. Whereas a CD or similar sized disc(DVD, HDDVD, Blu-ray UHD Blu-ray, etc.) can have anything from music to digital documents to movies on it. While it’s great those 120cm discs are so universal, it also takes away some of that physical format’s uniqueness. Something the minidisc still retains as a mostly audio only format with only a few rare exceptions where it was used for data or pictures.
Maybe I’m just making excuses for the minidisc over CDs. But I do enjoy them for what they are. Maybe I still would even if they were a regularly used format of the masses that played 8K video and stored generic computer data. But I have a feeling that at least the latter would take away some of the appeal. There is just something about being able to store spreadsheets and pdfs of your tax returns on a format that takes away some of the sexiness of it.