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Sony Revives MiniDisc in Package Deal

Electronics: Errors in marketing and pricing doomed the format the first time around, but the company has faith in 2 1/2-inch optical disc.

August 27, 1996|KEVIN HUNT | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Get ready for another creepy, tales-from-the-crypt production. It's called the MiniDisc.

MiniDisc? The same MiniDisc declared deader than Elvis two years ago, one of the colossal duds in consumer electronics history? From the same company that distributed 1.1 million discs to Rolling Stone subscribers in a hugely expensive, perhaps unprecedented, promotional giveaway?

Yes, that MiniDisc. After acknowledging errors in marketing and pricing, Sony has revived the format that plays and records audio on a 2 1/2-inch optical disc. This time around, Sony is still targeting the MTV/Rolling Stone audience--consumers 18 to 34 years old--but with more realistic pricing and a self-contained MiniDisc Studio sold in a convenient "bundle."

The MiniDisc Record Rock & Roll Set includes an MDS-302 recorder, an MZ-E3 portable player, headphones, five blank 60-minute discs, a sampler disc, the two-disc "Forrest Gump" soundtrack and a MiniDisc storage crate. The retail price, $599. (It's a long way from 1992, when Sony introduced the MiniDisc with players that started at about $550 and recorders at $750.)

Sony also is dropping the price of blank 74-minute MiniDiscs to $9.99 from $16.99. A three-pack retails for $21.99, or $7.33 a disc. Although that's still more expensive than the analog cassette tape, it's roughly half the price of the competing digital medium, the compact disc.

Although MiniDisc's logical target is the analog tape market, it would be a tough sell. "Better sound at twice the price" simply would not work as a slogan. The MiniDisc is designed for people who wish to make affordable digital copies of their compact discs without the hiss and inevitable deterioration of analog tape.

Sony envisioned a huge MiniDisc market in 1992 but priced itself out of the younger market. Hard-core audio enthusiasts also rejected the format because the rate of compression necessary to fit music on such a small disc affected sound quality. Yet another competing format, Philips' Digital Compact Cassette, also was rejected for similar reasons.

Not since consumers chose the longer-playing VHS format over the technically superior Beta in the VCR market had Sony experienced such a defeat. Barely 1 million MiniDisc players/recorders sold.

If it's any consolation, the MiniDisc is a cute little format. The five-pack of blanks looks like newborn quintuplets from Mother Floppy Disk. The MZ-E3 is truly portable, smaller than even the smallest CD portable. It can fit in a shirt pocket. It has 10-second shock memory, like many CD units, and plays four hours on two alkaline batteries. An LCD unit that attaches to the skimpy headphones shows the track number, artist and name of each tune. The MTV generation will love it.

Likewise, the home recorder/player is more versatile, with more features, than the average CD player or cassette deck. After you get over the kick of seeing artist and song title names scrolling across the front panel, you'll want to try several of the unit's features.

For basic maneuvering, a knob will get you to the next track or the preceding track with a simple turn. When making a recording, individual tracks can be marked to create your own playback order. A single track, parts of a track or everything on the disc can be erased--or protected from accidental erasure.

When you erase a track, all subsequent tracks are renumbered. So there's no need to record over material. You also can name each track, with up to 1,700 characters for each disc displayed on the front panel.

As to Sony's claim that MiniDisc creates a clone of your favorite CD, forget it. The compression built into the MiniDisc prohibits it. But it is still a clean sound, the difference probably not noticeable to the casual listener.

And the disc should outlast even the most dedicated user. Sony says a single MiniDisc can be played 1 million times.

Even if Sony has accurately adjusted its target market and pricing, it is no easier to sell MiniDisc now than it was in 1992. At some point, Sony probably will peel the "Kick Me" sticker off its back and put MiniDisc to rest forever.

But I've been wrong before.

I bought a Betamax.

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