Sony announced the MiniDisc in September 1992 and released it in November of that year for sale in Japan and in December in Europe, North America, and other countries. The music format was based on ATRAC audio data compression, Sony's own proprietary compression code. Its successor, Hi-MD, would later introduce the option of linear PCM digital recording to meet audio quality comparable to that of a compact disc. MiniDiscs were very popular in Japan and found moderate success in Europe; although it was designed to be the successor of the cassette tape, it did not manage to mass replace it globally.
In 1983, just a year after the introduction of the Compact Disc, Kees Schouhamer Immink and Joseph Braat presented the first experiments with erasable magneto-optical Compact Discs during the 73rd AES Convention in Eindhoven. It took almost 10 years however before their idea was commercialized.
Sony's MiniDisc was one of two rival digital systems, both introduced in 1992, that were targeted as replacements for the Philips Compact Cassette analog audio tape system: the other was the Digital Compact Cassette (DCC), created by Philips and Matsushita (now Panasonic). Sony had originally intended the Digital Audio Tape (DAT) to be the dominant home digital audio recording format, replacing the analog cassette. Because of technical delays, the DAT was not launched until 1989, and by then the U.S. dollar had fallen so far against the yen that the introductory DAT machine Sony had intended to market for about $400 in the late 1980s now had to retail for $800 or even $1000 to break even, putting it out of reach of most users.
Relegating the DAT to professional use, Sony set to work to come up with a simpler, more economical digital home format. By the time Sony came up with the MiniDisc in late 1992, Philips had introduced a competing system, DCC, on a magnetic tape cassette. This created marketing confusion very similar to the Betamax versus VHS battle of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sony attempted to license MD technology to other manufacturers, with JVC, Sharp, Pioneer, Panasonic and others all producing their own MD systems. However, non-Sony machines were not widely available in North America, and companies such as Technics and Radio Shack tended to promote DCC instead.
Despite having a loyal customer base largely of musicians and audio enthusiasts, the MiniDisc met with only limited success in the United States. It was relatively popular in Japan and the United Kingdom during the 1990s, but did not enjoy comparable sales in other world markets. Since then, recordable CDs, flash memory and HDD and solid-state-based digital audio players such as iPods have become increasingly popular as playback devices.
The initial low uptake of MiniDisc was attributed to the small number of pre-recorded albums available on MD as relatively few record labels embraced the format. The initial high cost of equipment and blank media was also a factor. Mains-powered Hi-fi MiniDisc player/recorders never got into the lower price ranges, and most consumers had to connect a portable machine to the hi-fi in order to record. This inconvenience contrasted with the earlier common use of cassette decks as a standard part of an ordinary hi-fi set-up.
MiniDisc technology was faced with new competition from the recordable compact disc (CD-R) when it became more affordable to consumers beginning around 1996. Initially, Sony believed that it would take around a decade for CD-R prices to become affordable – the cost of a typical blank CD-R disc was around $12 in 1994 – but CD-R prices fell much more rapidly than envisioned, to the point where CD-R blanks sank below $1 per disc by the late 1990s, compared to at least $2 for the cheapest 80-minute MiniDisc blanks.
The biggest competition for MiniDisc came from the emergence of MP3 players. With the Diamond Rio player in 1998 and the Apple iPod in 2001, the mass market began to eschew physical media in favor of more convenient file-based systems.
By 2007, because of the waning popularity of the format and the increasing popularity of solid-state MP3 players, Sony was producing only one model, the Hi-MD MZ-RH1, also available as the MZ-M200 in North America packaged with a Sony microphone and limited Apple Macintosh software support.
The introduction of the MZ-RH1 allowed users to freely move uncompressed digital recordings back and forth from the MiniDisc to a computer without the copyright protection limitations previously imposed upon the NetMD series. This allowed the MiniDisc to better compete with HD recorders and MP3 players. However, most pro users like broadcasters and news reporters had already abandoned MiniDisc in favor of solid-state recorders, because of their long recording times, open digital content sharing, high-quality digital recording capabilities and reliable, lightweight design.
On 1 February 2013, Sony issued a press release on the Nikkei stock exchange that it would cease shipment of all MD devices, with last of the players to be sold in March 2013. However, it would continue to sell blank discs and offer repair services. Other manufacturers continued to release their own MiniDisc players long after Sony stopped with TEAC & TASCAM producing new decks up until 2020 when both its consumer and professional products, TEAC MD-70CD and TASCAM MD-CD1MKIII, ended production.
The disc is permanently housed in a cartridge (68×72×5 mm) with a sliding door, similar to the casing of a 3.5" floppy disk. This shutter is opened automatically by a mechanism upon insertion into a drive. The audio discs can either be recordable (blank) or premastered. Recordable MiniDiscs use a magneto-optical system to write data; a laser heats one side of the disc to its Curie point, making the material in the disc susceptible to a magnetic field; a magnetic head on the other side of the disc alters the polarity of the heated area, recording the digital data onto the disk. Playback is accomplished with the laser alone: taking advantage of the magneto-optic Kerr effect; the player senses the polarization of the reflected light and thus interprets a 1 or a 0. Recordable MDs can be rerecorded repeatedly; Sony claims up to one million times. By May 2005, there were 60-minute, 74-minute and 80-minute discs available. 60-minute blanks, which were widely available in the early years of the format's introduction, were phased out and are now rarely seen.
MiniDiscs use a mastering process and optical playback system that is very similar to CDs. The recorded signal of the premastered pits and of the recordable MD are also very similar. Eight-to-Fourteen Modulation (EFM) and a modification of CD's CIRC code, called Advanced Cross Interleaved Reed-Solomon Code (ACIRC) are employed.
MiniDiscs use rewritable magneto-optical storage to store the data. Unlike the DCC or the analog Compact Cassette, the disc is a random-access medium, making seek time very fast. MiniDiscs can be edited very quickly even on portable machines. Tracks can be split, combined, moved or deleted with ease either on the player or uploaded to a PC with Sony's SonicStage V4.3 software and edited there. Transferring data from an MD unit to a non-Windows machine can only be done in real time, preferably via optical I/O, by connecting the audio out port of the MD to an available audio in port of the computer. With the release of the Hi-MD format, Sony began to release Macintosh compatible software. However, the Mac compatible software was still not compatible with legacy MD formats (SP, LP2, LP4). This means that using an MD recorded on a legacy unit or in a legacy format still requires a Windows machine for non-real time transfers.
At the beginning of the disc there is a table of contents (TOC, also known as the System File area of the disc), which stores the start positions of the various tracks, as well as meta information (title, artist) about them and free blocks. Unlike the conventional cassette, a recorded song does not need to be stored as one piece on the disk, it can be stored in several fragments, similar to a hard drive. Early MiniDisc equipment had a fragment granularity of 4 seconds of audio. Fragments smaller than the granularity are not kept track of, which may lead to the usable capacity of a disc actually shrinking. No means of defragmenting the disc is provided in consumer grade equipment.
All consumer-grade MiniDisc devices feature a copy-protection scheme known as Serial Copy Management System. An unprotected disc or song can be copied without limit, but the copies can no longer be digitally copied. However, as a concession to this the most recent Hi-MD players can upload to PC a digitally recorded file which can subsequently be resaved as a WAV (PCM) file and thus replicated.
The digitally encoded audio signal on a MiniDisc has traditionally been data-compressed using the ATRAC format (Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding). This is in fact a 'psychoacoustic' data reduction system which omits some of the musical content. It is claimed by Sony that the content that is omitted is inaudible regardless. Some original sounds have been known to defeat ATRAC which typically introduces a crackle or whistle onto the data stream.
ATRAC was devised for MiniDisc to support the same amount of audio on a CD. ATRAC reduces the 1.4 Mbit/s of a CD to a 292 kbit/s data stream, roughly a 5:1 reduction. ATRAC was also used on nearly all flash memory Walkman devices until the 8 series.
Sony's ATRAC codec differs from uncompressed PCM in that it is a psychoacoustic lossy audio data reduction scheme and is such that the recorded signal does not require decompression on replay. Although it is intended that the reproduced signal may sound nearly identical to the original as far as the listener is concerned, it differs sufficiently that listening on a high quality audio system will betray the difference – other true compression schemes generally share this characteristic to a greater or lesser degree.
There have been four versions of the ATRAC data reduction system, each claimed (by Sony) to more accurately reflect the original audio. Early version players are guaranteed to play later version ATRAC audio because there is no processing required for replay. Version 1 could only be copied on consumer equipment three or four times before artifacts became objectionable, as the ATRAC on the recording machine attempts to data reduce the already reduced signal. By version 4, the potential number of generations of copy had increased to around 15 to 20 depending on audio content.
The latest versions of Sony's ATRAC are ATRAC3 and ATRAC3plus, both of which are true lossy compression schemes and both require decompression on replay. Original ATRAC3 at 132 kbit/s (also known as ATRAC-LP2 mode) is the format that used to be used by Sony's now-defunct Connect audio download store. ATRAC3plus was not used in order to retain backwards compatibility with earlier NetMD players.
In the MiniDisc's last progression, Hi-MD, uncompressed CD-quality linear PCM audio recording and playback is offered, placing Hi-MD on a par with CD-quality audio. Hi-MD also supports both ATRAC3 and ATRAC3plus in varying bitrates, but not the original ATRAC.
MiniDisc has a feature that prevents disc skipping under all but the most extreme conditions. Older CD players had once been a source of annoyance to users as they were prone to mis-tracking from vibration and shock. MiniDisc solved this problem by reading the data into a memory buffer at a higher speed than was required before being read out to the digital-to-analog converter at the standard rate required by the format. The size of the buffer varies by model.
If the MiniDisc player were bumped, playback could continue unimpeded while the laser repositioned itself to continue reading data from the disc. This feature allows the player to stop the spindle motor for long periods, increasing battery life.
A buffer of at least six seconds is required on all MiniDisc players, be they portable or stationary full-sized units. This is needed to ensure uninterrupted playback in the presence of disc fragmentation.
The data structure and operation of a MiniDisc is similar to that of a computer's hard disk drive. The bulk of the disc contains data pertaining to the music itself, and a small section contains the table of contents (TOC), providing the playback device with vital information about the number and location of tracks on the disc. Tracks and discs can be named. Tracks may easily be added, erased, combined and divided, and their preferred order of playback modified. Erased tracks are not actually erased at the time, but are marked so. When a disc becomes full, the recorder can simply slot track data into sections where erased tracks reside. This can lead to some fragmentation but unless many erasures and replacements are performed, the only likely problem is excessive searching, reducing battery life.
The data structure of the MiniDisc, where music is recorded in a single stream of bytes while the TOC contains pointers to track positions, allows for gapless playback of music, something which the majority of competing portable players, including most MP3 players, fail to implement properly. Notable exceptions are CD players, as well as all recent iPods.
At the end of recording, after the "Stop" button has been pressed, the MiniDisc may continue to write music data for a few seconds from its memory buffers. During this time, it may display a message ("Data Save", on at least some models) and the case will not open. After the audio data is written out, the final step is to write the TOC track denoting the start and endpoints of the recorded data. Sony notes in the manual that one should not interrupt the power or expose the unit to undue physical shock during this period.
All MiniDisc-recorders used the SCMS copy protection system which uses two bits in the S/PDIF digital audio stream and on disc to differentiate between "protected" vs. "unprotected" audio, and between "original" vs. "copy":
Recording from an analogue source resulted in a disc marked "protected" and "original" allowing one further copy to be made (this contrasts with the SCMS on the Digital Compact Cassette where analogue recording was marked as "unprotected").
Of those recorder/players that could be connected to a PC via a USB lead, although it was possible to transfer audio from the PC to the MiniDisc recorder, for many years it was not possible to transfer audio the other way. This restriction existed in both the SonicStage software and in the MiniDisc player itself. SonicStage V3.4 was the first version of the software where this restriction was removed, but it still required a MiniDisc recorder/player that also had the restriction removed. The Hi-MD model MZ-RH1, was the only such player available.
MD Data, a version for storing computer data, was announced by Sony in 1993 but never gained significant ground. Its media were incompatible with standard audio MiniDiscs, which has been cited as one of the main reasons behind the format's failure. MD Data can not write to audio MDs, only the considerably more expensive data blanks. It did see some success in a small number of multi-track recorders such as Sony's MDM-X4, Tascam's 564 (which could also record using standard MD-Audio discs, albeit only two tracks), and Yamaha's MD8, MD4, & MD4S.
In 1997, MD Data2 blanks were introduced with 650 MB. They were only implemented in Sony's short-lived MD-based camcorder, the DCM-M1.
In 2000, Sony announced MDLP (MiniDisc Long Play), which added new recording modes based on a new codec called ATRAC3. In addition to the standard, high-quality mode, now called SP, MDLP adds LP2 mode, which allows double the recording time – 160 minutes on an 80-minute disc – of good-quality stereo sound, and LP4, which allows four times more recording time – 320 minutes on an 80-minute disc – of medium-quality stereo sound.
The bitrate of the standard SP mode is 292 kbit/s, and it uses separate stereo coding with discrete left and right channels. LP2 mode uses a bitrate of 132 kbit/s and also uses separate stereo coding. The last mode, LP4, has a bitrate of 66 kbit/s and uses joint stereo coding. The sound quality is noticeably poorer than the first two modes, but is sufficient for many uses.
Tracks recorded in LP2 or LP4 mode play back as silence on non-MDLP players.
NetMD recorders allow music files to be transferred from a computer to a recorder (but not in the other direction) over a USB connection. In LP4 mode, speeds of up to 32× real-time are possible and three Sony NetMD recorders (MZ-N10, MZ-N910, and MZ-N920) are capable of speeds up to 64× real-time. NetMD recorders all support MDLP.
When transferring music in SP mode using NetMD with SonicStage, what is transferred is in-fact padded LP2. That is to say that the quality of the music is that of LP2 but recorded as SP.
NetMD is a proprietary protocol, and it is currently impossible to use it without proprietary software, such as SonicStage. Thus, it cannot be used with non-Windows machines. A free *nix based implementation, libnetmd, has been developed. In 2019 a coder named Stefano Brilli compiled the linux-minidisc CLI into a web browser-based application, allowing users to transfer music via USB to modern devices. The libnetmd allows the user to upload SP files in full quality.
Hi-MD is the further development of the MiniDisc-format. Hi-MD media will not play on non-Hi-MD equipment, including NetMD players. The Hi-MD format, introduced in 2004, marked a return to the data storage arena with its 1 GB discs and ability to act as a USB drive. Hi-MD units allow the recording and playback of audio and data on the same disc, and are compatible (both audio and data) with standard MiniDisc media – an 80-minute Minidisc blank could be formatted to store 305MB of data.
Modes marked in green are available for recordings made on the player, while those marked in red are available for music transferred from a PC. Capacities are official Sony figures; real world figures are usually slightly higher. Native MP3 support was added in Second generation Hi-MD players in the spring of 2005. SonicStage version 3.4, released in Feb 2006, introduced ripping CDs in bitrates 320 and 352 and added track transfer in ATRAC 192kbps to Hi-MD devices.