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An E-Waste Retrospective: Episode 7

“Digital recording is here!” - from Sony’s half-page newspaper ad, August 1997.

In the early 90s, CDs were the preferred choice for high-quality audio. Cassette tapes--the popular holdover from the 80s--made recording your own mixtape easy. At that point, nothing with both features existed. 

At least not until 1992, when Sony announced the MiniDisc and first MiniDisc player, the Sony MZ1.

MiniDisc introduced the idea of compressed digital sound recording to the home user. This new technology offered both running time and audio quality of a CD, but with the recordable functionality of a cassette, in a smaller, more portable design.

Released for an eye-popping $750, the MZ1 was cutting-edge. MinDiscs were stylish and compact. Technophiles loved it. 

MiniDisc stored over one hour of hi-fi audio. Sony claimed it could be recorded over 1M times without sound quality loss. It featured 10 second shock-resistant memory and bass boost. Plus, the ability to divide tracks, combine them, or erase them individually. This nifty gizmo had all the tools you’d need to craft your own discs or mixtapes. It even allowed you to customize track and title disc info for display on the MZ1’s digital screen.

Aside from the advanced specs, MiniDisc just looked cool. Like a futuristic movie prop from a sci-fi thriller. The sheen of the tiny disc was housed in protective plastic. It could be handled casually with no worries of scratching. 

Unfortunately, consumers didn’t care. Especially its teenage target market who couldn’t afford it. Recording and tagging tracks was also a bit complex. But, the real killer? Record labels weren’t interested. This meant few pre-recorded minidiscs were available to buy outside of Japan.

Despite Sony’s $70M revival ad campaign in 1997, the MiniDisc was ultimately a commercial disappointment. Failing to outlive the Cassette format. Flash-based mp3 players (with help from Napster) ultimately replaced it by 2002 as the more advanced technology. Then, iPod came along and put the final nail in the coffin.

Sony halted production in 2012. Despite its demise, a devoted MiniDisc fanbase still persists today as 28 music labels announced 54 official releases this year to commemorate International MiniDisc Day 2020. Driven by nostalgia for this digital tech pioneer, MinDisc collectables also thrive on the resell market. The Top Gun Soundtrack recently sold for $120. 


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