Skip to main content

Status Symbols: MiniDisc

Status Symbols: MiniDisc


In 1992, when the quirky new music format was introduced, Sony could do no wrong in consumer electronics

Share this story

md lead
md lead

Status Symbols are devices that transcend their specs and features, and become something beautiful and luxurious in their own right. They're things that live on after the megapixel and megahertz wars move past them, beacons of timeless design and innovation.

The MiniDisc represents Sony at the height of its 1990s arrogance. In 1992, when the MiniDisc was introduced, Sony could do no wrong in consumer electronics: the best TVs were Trinitrons, the Walkman was still booming and the Discman was a hit, and Sony’s legendary hardware design was at the peak of its powers before software changed the world. It’s no wonder the company thought it could launch a quirky new music format around the world through sheer will alone.

The reasons for creating the MiniDisc sort of make sense, if you think about it: while Sony was successful in launching the CD format alongside Philips, the CD wasn’t a direct replacement for cassette tapes: they were too delicate and scratch-prone for portable use, the Discman players were larger and skipped during playback, and consumers couldn’t record their own CDs at the time, cutting into blank media sales. Sony wanted a new Walkman alongside the Discman, and so the MiniDisc was born.

We spent months making mixtapes on these strange new transparent discs that looked like the future

The concept was terrific: MiniDiscs were small, encased in plastic so they couldn’t scratch, and the portable players all had memory buffers to make them skip-proof. They were like small floppy discs with tiny CDs inside, and I loved them. (I even wrote a Usenet post about them when I was 15.) Sony sold bundles of the home MDS-JE500 recording deck and the MZ-E40 portable player at Best Buy, and it seemed like half of my high school got the box for Christmas — and then we spent the next few months making mixtapes for each other on these strange new transparent discs that looked like the future. It took a long time to do things just right: MiniDiscs supported track names, so you had to sit there with Sony’s giant remote tapping out letters as you recorded each song. But it was worth it. Again: future.

Eventually, though, those E40s all broke, one by one. By the time I got to college in 1999, I’d traded up to cheaper, smaller MZ-E33, which was as ubiquitous as any MiniDisc player ever was in the States — the format was a hit in Japan, and a large percentage of my early Netscape experiences involved browsing and looking at Sony’s ultra-sleek domestic-market players. The E33 was far uglier by comparison, but it still drew admirers and even a few converts to the format among my friends.

But those friends quickly regretted their mistake, and so did I. We were all sitting in our college dorm rooms with PC towers running Napster on the fastest internet connections in the world, and we didn’t need fancier cassette decks anymore. We went from ripping CDs into MP3s to sharing MP3s to burning audio CDs then straight to MP3 CDs and finally MP3 players and the iPod in two years flat. The MiniDisc never had a chance.

Sony made sure to kill any slim chances of success as thoroughly as possible

And Sony made sure to kill any slim chances of success as thoroughly as possible. Sony’s record label was fearful of piracy, and so the MiniDisc was hostile to consumer recording: digital recordings of CDs were locked-down with proto-DRM that restricted the format to just one generation of copies, and the audio format was Sony’s proprietary ATRAC system, which meant that the data on a MiniDisc was basically unusable anywhere else. And Sony's SonicStage app for connecting MiniDisc player to a PC was one of the worst pieces of software ever foisted on music fans.

Not that it mattered, because MiniDisc drives for computers were a myth; a whisper on the forums of Web 1.0. Not even a star turn on the pilot episode of SeaQuest DSV could convince Sony that the MiniDisc could be used to kill the floppy disk instead of the cassette, and Sony just watched as the iPod and other MP3 players replaced both the Walkman and the Discman in one fell swoop. Worse, it took Sony years to learn from these fatal mistakes: the company’s early digital Walkman players still used the ridiculous ATRAC format, required the terrible SonicStage software, and didn’t play MP3s natively for years, by which time it was far too late. Sony set out to replace the Walkman with the MiniDisc, but it ended up killing an icon when it should have invented the iPod.

Sony stopped making MiniDisc products just this year; the format hung on as a semi-pro recording system for another decade, which isn’t too bad. But for a minute the MiniDisc could have been much more — and we might think about digital media much differently.

MiniDisc gallery


Photo Credit: Michael Shane