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27:aug//2K - mini disc or MP3?


Frankly, if you are still using audio tapes then you really are living in the technological equivalent of the Stone Age, the market penetration of both Mini Disc and MP3 are such that you would be wise to put that Walkman of yours up in the loft next to the Amiga or Super Nintendo.

Prices of both Mini Disc recorders and MP3 players are now at reasonable levels, of course they could be cheaper, especially in the UK, but in general they are now affordable for the mass majority of people. Really the only question is which format do you buy into? It is fairly confusing but by the end of this article you should have a better idea about what to do.

Mini Disc has been around for a while, since 1992 in fact - it is based around Magneto-Optical technology that allows you to write to disc, but it is read back by a laser, rather like a CD. A sort of hybrid floppy disk/compact disc if you will. Obviously at the time that was its major advantage over the CD, it recordability but these day you have CD-R and CD-RW, so what's the point?

Size is the major factor, it is far more portable than a CD - being around 7 square centimetres in area, and about a third of a centimetre deep. It means that you can carry a fair number of the discs in your jacket pocket along with the player, something which isn't really possible with CD. The players themselves are smaller than the palm of your hand and make even the latest Discmen or Walkmen look stupidly big in comparison.

There are a couple of problems though, the recording system, ATRAC, is a form of compression - in order to store the same amount of data on the disc as is possible of CD it goes through the data stream and removes bits that are inaudible to the human ear. Some people have been known to be able to tell the difference and it is noticeable if you play the CD and then the MD back to back, but for general listening, it doesn't effect your enjoyment of the music. Recording is also slow: it takes however long your album is to transfer the data to the MD, something which would have been fine back in 1992 but today seems like a major disadvantage. Also, if you are unlucky enough not to have an optical output on your stereo and have to use Analogue recording methods to record, then you can be stuck with a big mess of extremely long tracks. The MD requires 2 seconds of low sound in order to mark a track and these days with all the mixing straight into the next track, it can get annoying.

MP3, on the other hand is a bit different. Being more a compression standard than a media format, it fills a gap in the market that wasn't serviced before.

MP3 players are really just a big chunk of memory attached to earphones - in order to actually have any music in MP3 format you need a PC. This is because you need to create a compressed version of the CD, something that is currently only possible through computer programs called CD rippers. This takes the data from the CD and compresses it extremely quickly, certainly much faster than recording with MD.

The advantages to MP3 are that it is solid state, that means that the player has no moving parts and therefore can not break and also the music file can not degrade with continual use as is the case with audio tape or even MD. There is also a thriving black market in pirated MP3 files, so if you are that way inclined you never need pay for any more albums once you have your MP3 player. However, the music industry is about to wake up to this fact and I expect much tighter controls on the format in future - maybe a music industry developed MP4 perhaps?

There are numerous problems with the format however, the nature of the compression means that playback quality can vary greatly depending on what settings were used during the initial recording. The settings you use impact on the file size and therefore the amount of music you can store on your MP3 player. Some people can live with the dodgy music quality but if you can then why not just record out via the headphone jack to an audio tape?

The average file size for a track of "near CD quality sound" is 4Mb, it makes you think though - if I'm going to have all my music stored on my hard disk in MP3 format how big will it need to be? I have a fairly small music collection of around 40 albums. Lets say that there is an average of 12 tracks per album, at 4Mb a track that works out at 4x12x40=1.92Gb That's a lot of hard disk space and if your MP3 player can only store a fraction of that at a time, then you're going to have a lot of trips to the PC to download new tracks into the player.

The issue is further confused by the arrival of the Sony Memory Stick format, which is a cross between MP3 and Mini Disc. It is solid state and requires a PC to transfer data like MP3, but uses ATRAC and Media like Mini Disc. It is probably the format the music industry would like to see win out, but it is still too expensive and is for the future.

It comes down to personal choice, do you prefer having racks of discs with your music collection on them or would you rather have it all stored on the PC? I'd go with Mini Disc, cause its far easier swapping disc than it is to get back to your PC when your on a plane.


Kiljaeden, was kind enought to point out a new MP3 Discman called the Mambo X (www.mambox.com), which plays both standard CD's and also CD's full of MP3 files which removes a couple of the complaints I made in MP3's direction. However, until these become as common as standard MP3 players the above still stands and in fact it removes a couple of MP3's benefits - its "jog proof" nature, the fact that the palyers are small and you need to own a CD-R drive. Also if you have visited the site, the Discman is really ugly and looks like a very cheap standard Discman which isn't good.

//agi. [agi@fsmail.net]