Fun with Sound 


Monday, November 15, 1999 - MP3 vs. MiniDisc Revisited (A Letter)

I recently received a couple of cogent and intelligent letters from "MDF" about how great MiniDisc is. I also received a letter from Gregg Tavares, a long time reader who moved to Japan, about how huge MiniDisc is in Japan.

My previous comments have been interpreted as negative to MiniDisc and these two people want to set the record straight.

To summarize my feelings - when MiniDisc came out years and years ago in the US, Sony failed to make the actual "disc" part the next floppy disk replacement. This irritated me, because we needed something like that pretty badly. Now we have ZIP disks which are fine but cost a lot more money! Sure, they hold about 50% more, but they are bigger and the drives are bigger too!

Around the same time the horrible Philips abomination of Digital Tape (or whatever it was called) came out. Both formats - MD and Digital Tape got soundly trounced in all reviews because they said they were CD quality. This is because they are "near-CD" quality and most of the time I can't tell the difference.

According to MDF, the MD encoding called ATRAC has also improved over the years, and is better than MP3.

But to be super-brief - my main problem with MD wasn't the sound quality or the format - it was the lack of licensing from Sony that was needed to make it ubiquitous - available everywhere. I like the hardware a lot - I like the small disk size, the price, and the small size of the players. I just don't like the proprietary nature of the format. To be fair, MP3 is a licensed format too - it's just much easier to license, and free for personal use.

But here is MDF's letters, combined together and edited slightly, along with a pointer to his web page that promotes MiniDisc. The more information, the better, I say ...

Hello, I'm commenting because it bugs me when my favorite music format is misunderstood! MiniDiscs are slowly gaining ground in the U.S. and they are huge in Japan. I've yet to meet someone who isn't sold after actually using & listening to one.

The concept of "MP3 vs. MD" makes little sense because MP3s must be copied TO something to be used outside a PC. MP3s (especially 160k and higher) sound great on MD with a digital-out soundcard. The ability to re-record (and insert) songs a million times after the fact makes MDs ideal for MP3, especially considering their spotty quality. If you download a mediocre track you can always replace it with a better version later. Redoing a CD-RW requires a much greater time investment and forget it with CD-R.

[Then I wrote back and said: "How did you get your MD to play back MP3s? Do you have MD for your PC? Where does the digital audio card go?" and MDF said:]

I just run a coax digital cable from my (Turtle Beach Malibu) soundcard to the coax input of my MD deck. With a Winamp playlist it's very easy to make mixes. Tracks are numbered just as if you were recording from CD.

If an MD deck lacks coax input a soundcard's analog outputs will work fine (just more noisy).


MDF's web site is at I totally approve of his approach - MiniDisc is the logical successor to cassette tape. Because by that comparison it over-delivers. And the truth is, at this point, MD might be the way to go for portable cheap sound playback, because the MP3 player's aren't going to have the infrastructure support that Sony has. The best thing on the horizon for MP3 playback besides RIO (which is not really cost-effective [but get it if you think it's cool enough]) is a new player with a little 4 gig hard drive in it. But how long do you think those batteries last?

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