The Ode: The Sony MiniDisc (1992–2013)

Sony kept the faith even post-iPod.

minidiscBorn to Japanese electronics giant Sony in 1992, the MiniDisc was a recordable 2.5-inch optical disc intended to replace the loathsome analog audio cassette. Neither good enough nor cheap enough to become ubiquitous, the MD nevertheless achieved ample sales in Japan and a niche cult following elsewhere—notably among broadcasters, musicians and people bent on making bootleg recordings of live performances. More than two decades elapsed before Sony executives could bring themselves to euthanize their disappointing offspring.

By the early 1990s, the high-fidelity compact disc was a decade old and stunningly popular, yet plagued still by annoying deficiencies: it was not recordable and skipped in portable players. Those dubbing discs to tape suffered a tremendous deterioration in sound quality. With sales of prerecorded tapes worth billions of dollars a year—and portable players hundreds of millions more—the race to market a recordable digital standard was on. Smaller than a CD, recordable and skip-proof thanks to shock-resistant memory, Sony’s MiniDisc seemed a strong contender. Although its sound quality was slightly shabbier than a CD’s, Sony claimed only the most discerning of audiophiles would notice. Other electronics brands like Aiwa, JVC and Sharp joined the MD camp. Sony’s Dutch nemesis Philips Electronics, meanwhile, teamed up with Panasonic and simultaneously released the digital compact cassette (DCC), essentially a glorified tape. Pundits tritely concluded only one would succeed.

Neither did. In retrospect, both suffered the same fatal defect: players often ran $1,000 or more, and blank media cost as much as prerecorded CDs. Neither company seemed to recognize they’d priced themselves above the market that might have appreciated their strengths: young adults and teens. Global sales were disappointing, and recording labels seldom released albums in either format. MDs attracted inevitable comparisons to Sony’s earlier dead-on-arrival media, the Betamax videocassette. Philips quietly abandoned its DCC in 1996.

The MD should have died with it. Reasoning that CDs also took a while to catch on, however, Sony executives instead relaunched it every two years. Declaring 1998 “the year of the MiniDisc,” Sony waged the largest promotional campaign in its history, hiring supermodel Claudia Schiffer and actor Jon Lovitz to pretend they liked the moribund technology. “As a MiniDisc person, I believe passionately that the format will work,” declared a Sony PR man in an interview. Meanwhile, the price of recordable CDs and burners plummeted, and college students downloaded huge volumes of pirated MP3s. That year, the first MP3 player, the clumsy Diamond Rio, reached the market.

By the time Apple unveiled its first iPod in 2001, even Sony executives had to know the MiniDisc’s days were numbered. Still, regular resuscitations continued: subsequent MiniDisc players were retooled to play MP3 and other electronic file formats. Sony even tried pushing the MiniDisc for data storage and installed MiniDisc drives on some notebook computers. Still, the electronic albatross would not fly: Sony discontinued MiniDisc Walkmans in 2011, and the last stereo systems ship in March.