The January 1993 issue of What Hi-Fi? proves to be a fascinating insight into the world of home entertainment, both then and now. Not only does it enthuse about an exciting new medium for music playback just emerging into the market, but it also questions just how long some of the older formats, long-time reliable favourites of a quarter of a century and more, could last in the face of the onslaught of modern technology.
All of which sounds rather familiar, of course. Plus ça change etcetera and so on…
Yet another format war
Format wars have been a thing since, pretty much, the dawn of music-playback time. From the days of 78/33⅓/45rpm vinyl records through reel-to-reel, eight-track and compact cassette, to VHS vs Betamax and beyond, there is always something ‘better’ coming towards the consumer on the horizon.
The analogue to digital battle though, felt rather different – potentially a complete changing of the guard. And it wasn’t simply ancient versus modern: Sony’s MiniDisc was up against another global giant, as the Philips digital compact cassette tried to offer the best of both worlds with backwards compatibility with analogue tape.
A shiny new format
The enthusiasm for the new format was palpable in the magazine though, and we went all out in our feature to extol the virtues of MiniDisc – which proved to be an impressive performer throughout the decade, and was only really conquered with the arrival of digital streaming. Which killed it pretty much stone dead.
The versatility of the format was clear, however, and we waxed lyrical about the potential for in-car use as well as the more obvious (for a format that was much smaller than the compact disc) benefits for the portable market. Any of us who remember suffering the frustrations of a portable compact disc player could easily see the huge benefits of MiniDisc’s 10-second buffering ability. The CD portable could be practically unlistenable; now we could take a step – a jog even! – without the music jumping uncontrollably.
Out with the old? Not quite yet…
The January 1993 issue of the magazine, then, was also signalling the death-knell of the analogue cassette, a medium that had been at or near the top of the music-reproduction tree for a couple of decades – certainly as far as convenience and portability were concerned. As is so often the case, the decline takes time, and there was still plenty of value and enjoyment to be had from the old medium for years to come yet – in the portable and car markets in particular. Despite its great performance benefits, MiniDisc never quite took hold in the way that Sony had envisaged.
It was a CD milestone as well
As if to round off the apparent changing of the guard from analogue tape to the digital abilities of MiniDisc and DCC, the team at What Hi-Fi? also celebrated the first decade of the compact disc with a test of some high-end CD players. Interesting to see that, in the opening spread’s standfirst, reference is made to “the ‘classic’ turntables we know and love”. Even then, it was becoming obvious that vinyl was never really going to go away.
I’m not sure the team 30 years ago, though, would have quite believed just how much of a revival the venerable format would undertake.
And long may it continue its upward surge. MiniDisc, after all, shone for only a decade, if that; and, fine tech though it was, it never quite shone as brightly as we anticipated.
Did you dabble with MiniDisc? What are your memories of the format? Let us know in the comments.