Retro Tech Spotlight: Sony MZ-1

As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at the Sony MZ-1.

Sony first rolled out its new MiniDisc format in Japan in September 1992, with releases in Europe and North America two months later. (US Cost: $750, or the equivalent of more than $1,300 today.) It was part of a wave of new digital products that inundated the marketplace in the early ‘90s, and Phillips released the Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) almost simultaneously as a direct competitor that quickly faded from the market. Still, the MiniDisc failed to gain wide acceptance beyond Japan and the United Kingdom throughout the ‘90s, save for a small group of tech enthusiasts and musicians, as MP3s became preeminent as the millennium came to a close.

The MZ-1 was a bulky machine by today’s standards, but it was bulky even by Sony’s standards at the time, as it was nearly twice the size of its streamlined Walkman cassette product. It needed to be that big to accommodate all of the circuitry and tech needed to play the MiniDiscs, which came encased in a roughly square (68×72 mm) sliding housing that was 5mm thick. As time went on, Sony was able to scale down the size of players significantly, but this first player was a bit of a brick, much like their initial Walkman offerings.

One reason that musicians especially gravitated to MiniDiscs was that they were small, digital, portable and recordable, so you could easily record, copy and carry demos on the format. Radiohead made news last year after the theft of many of their “OK Computer”-era demo recordings by releasing more than a dozen MiniDiscs worth of demos on Bandcamp to undercut the digital bandits.

There was some compromise in sound with the MiniDisc in that it utilized a lossy auto data reduction scheme called ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding), which was noticeable when you played MiniDiscs on higher-end systems. That said, most MiniDisc devotees were using the format for its portability while on the move, and as such, the MiniDisc provided greater fidelity than cassettes and greater ease of mobility than CDs.

YouTuber Techmoan, one of the finer vloggers focused on old audio tech out there, put together this MiniDisc appreciation video a few years back if you have 45 minutes or so to spare.

Then came MP3 players, and what advantages the MiniDisc enjoyed quickly faded to next to none. The format continued to limp along through the new century, with ever-reducing sales and fewer and fewer commercial titles being offered (at this point almost exclusively in Asia). Sony shipped its last MiniDisc player in 2013. Second-hand players can be found fairly readily on the Internet, given the relatively recent end of the format’s drawn-out lifespan. However, commercially-produced prerecorded discs, new or used, sell for a premium.