MiniDisc Makes Headway

Four years after its first unsuccessful foray into the American consumer marketplace, Sony's MiniDisc appears finally to be winning serious numbers of converts. Several large-scale retailers, including Best Buy, Circuit City, Service Merchandise, and (soon) Sears department stores, have dedicated MiniDisc displays, with home recorders, portable players, and blank discs available individually or as a package deal. The displays were built with Sony's support, according to Mike Viken, senior VP for Sony's personal audio/video marketing division.

Sony has tried three times to break the MiniDisc into the US market, each time cutting prices for both hardware and software. This year it has engaged in a consistent advertising blitz emphasizing the individuality of self-made recordings and the convenience of the portable player. The ad campaign, combined with a further price reduction, seems to be winning serious market share for the format. There are now about 9000 retail outlets selling blank MiniDiscs, including discount outlets like Target, and drugstore chains such as Walgreen and Eckerd. MD's acceptance by these stores came as a surprise, Viken said. "We didn't expect the mass merchant and drugstore channel to come in this year," he said.

Sixty-minute blank discs are now $2.99 each, and 74-minute discs are $4.49 when bought individually. The longer discs are $2.99 each when purchased in packs of eight, which were introduced in the summer. The blank discs are now approximately the same price as good-quality cassette tapes of the same length. A year ago, the cheapest MiniDisc blanks were twice as expensive when purchased in bulk.

Retailers are "very enthusiastic about MiniDisc" said Sony Electronics president Teruaki Aoki at a recent press conference. Sony expects to reach a target of 500,000 MD units sold in fiscal year 1998, he said, twice the number sold last year. MD machines are also made and marketed by JVC, Sharp, and Pioneer, all of whom are "very aggressive in the MD market in the US," according to Aoki. Multiple manufacturers give the format more credibility with consumers, he noted, making Sony's goal easier to reach.

John Atkinson adds: Previous controversy about MiniDisc involved its ATRAC lossy data-reduction algorithm, which, in its early versions at least, was neither audibly nor measurably transparent. Internet newsgroup eminence grinch Arny ("I love the smell of hot equipment in the morning!") Krüger has recently published some meaurements on two modern machines---a Pioneer PDR-04 CD recorder and a Sony MDS-J920 MiniDisc recorder---on his website. They make for interesting reading.