The Sony Walkman RH1: a fantastic piece of kit, but 6 years too late to save the MiniDisc format

Which is unfortunate.

I bought one earlier this week and have been playing with it for the last 24 hours. As you may know from my previous posts, I also have a Creative Zen Vision: M, which has a capacity of 60GB.

So why did I buy a new MiniDisc player? The RH1 is the only model MiniDisc player that allows me to convert my old MiniDiscs into uncompressed wav files (which I can then convert into mp3 using other applications). It also happens to be gorgeous and it isn’t exactly big, being a shade larger than the discs themselves. It’ the 3rd recorder I’ve owned an the previous 2 recorded superbly; this one isn’t any different. The RH1 also supports mp3 and wav playback natively.

The audio quality is also better than anything I’ve tried, supporting gapless playback (most players don’t, though 5th gen iPods do) and even sounds better than my Zen Vision: M, which isn’t exactly bad (it’s certainly superior to my old iPod).

But it’s come far too late to revive the MiniDisc format for the mainstream market:

  1. Price: Unless you’ve got £210 to willingly spend and you don’t need to do any audio recording, then it’s not for you.
  2. Not only do you have to buy the player, you also need the discs as the RH1 doesn’t come with any. The 1GB discs are still expensive at £5 each… considering that the 80GB iPod is £159, there is no contest for most people who are willing to part with that amount of money for a high capacity mp3 player. Standard MiniDiscs are far cheaper because so many companies made players, but only Sony produced products that would use the 1GB Hi-MD discs.
  3. The only limit on the storage capacity is the number of discs you have but you do need somewhere to store them. It’s no different to owning hundreds of CDs/DVDs/VHS tapes/cassettes in that you need somewhere to store them (admittedly you need a far smaller space). Having around 130 discs, it seemed a sensible purchase for me, but for most people it just isn’t worth buying into the format.
  4. The software: the name SonicStage sends most people who know what it is into oblivion. An example in point is editing tracks if you’re playing music through the application; an error message will pop-up, telling you to stop playing the track before you can edit anything!
  5. Like wma and aac (m4p), Sony’s ATRAC is superior to mp3 as an audio file format (especially in it’s ATRAC 3+ incarnation); but only Sony players support it (and even then Sony have announced that they are closing their Connect music store and are registering with Microsoft’s Play For Sure programme for their new players).

If only it was available in 2000; I believe that many people would have switched to MiniDisc if it existed then, especially as CD-RWs were more expensive and much bigger. And you can edit the tracks directly with the player.

The discs are also far more durable than other optical discs (CDs/DVDs and even HD DVD/Blu-Ray), which have no protection when not in a box. The plastic case means that only a small part of the surface is exposed at any one time and then only when inside a player. At least Sony learned from Betamax, as the format was licenced to other manufacturers who made MiniDisc players.

I won’t be surprised if it outlasts my Zen; my original MiniDisc recorder (which I had in 2000) still works and I used it daily for over 4 years. It’s also been designed so that the battery is replaceable and in the unlikely circumstance that you break one of the discs, you can simply buy another (try replacing an iPods Hard Disk).

It has so much more going for it, but the world has changed thanks to the iPod and the mobile phone market; music players are now being designed for style over substance (the iPhone being a good example, is costs far more on all of the contract options than Nokia’s N95 which has far more features).

It is the last piece of kit I need to digitise all of my music to mp3 files and I’ll be using it for some time to come. But it has come far too late to save the MiniDisc as a mainstream format.

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~ by Ian on Saturday 22nd September 2007.

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