by Dave Oliwa

It's the beginning of the age where the line between "professional" and "consumer" equipment isn't as thick. After all, a digital anything designed and manufactured in the '90s is going to sound better than what we were working with just a few years ago.

Case in point: the MiniDisc a recordable, magneto optical technology, like a compact disc, that can be rewritten over and over again. Introduced by Sony a little over a year ago, this Japanese product competes directly with Phillips' Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) for the consumer's dollar as the European inventor of the analog audio cassette struggles to maintain its market share of a rapidly changing digital audio universe.

Enter the Sony MDS 101 MiniDisc recorder.

Although this consumer unit is designed for stationary use, the Sony MDS 101 looks like an overgrown AM/FM/Cassette machine for your car three inches high, a little less than nine inches wide, and a little more than eleven inches deep, connector to knob. Unfortunately, these dimensions mean two 101s ain't gonna fit side by side into a standard rack width.

The front panel is black with a menu driven LED screen that shows a program "number block," a teeny L/R VU meter and a "No Disc" prompt upon power up. There are buttons for Power, Play/Pause, Record, Stop, Track/Scan, analog or digital Input Selector, Edit Yes/No, Play Mode, Display, Clock Set, and of course, Eject. The front panel controls are small when considering big fingers, but let's not forget this is a consumer machine.

Two front panel knobs allow the user to set Record Level and Headphone Volume. There are jacks for headphones and a microphone input on the front panel, but they are stereo mini plugs.

The MDS 101 has an infrared remote that must be used if you're going to write information to the table of contents, but the front panel sensor is concave and takes a signal from the remote almost 90 degrees to any side of the box if only my cable remote was even close!

The remote does not do all of the front panel functions and can do some functions not found on the front panel. It also has the keypad needed to input disc and track names. But Sony has made the remote "idiot proof" in that it cannot control the unit's editing functions. The remote also gains access to the 101's clock that date and time stamps every recording, as long as the machine has been set with the current date and time. Setting the clock on the MiniDisc is similar to setting the clock on your car radio.

The MiniDisc itself looks like a computer's 3.5" diskette case with a shutter that opens inside the machine to reveal the optical disc, except that it's only 2.5 inches. The sixty minute disc will record up to 60 minutes, 54 seconds using a digital compression technique known as ATRAC (Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding) which records "only those frequency components actually audible to the human ear," according to the manual. There is also a 74 minute disc available. A total of 255 tracks can be recorded.

When the MiniDisc is pushed into the slot, the transport grabs it (much like a VCR) and reads the TOC. The name of the disc scrolls across the screen, and then disappears to show the number of recorded tracks and their total time. Toggling the display changes the screen's readout to the disc name, then the remaining disc time, then back to number of tracks and total recorded time. The display will show "Blank Disc" with a brand new disc, or one that has been "erased" (in actuality, only the TOC has been changed to show there is nothing you want on the disc, similar to the "directory" on a computer floppy.)

Pressing Record sends the unit into the digital standard, "ready to record/pause" mode, lighting a red "REC" block on the display, and enabling the very small VU meter provided the disc is not write protected with a sliding tab. Since the machine knows from the TOC what is on the disc, it's not going to let a new track record over anything else, appropriately making the material you're about to record a new cut number. A full two seconds of silence will automatically trigger a new cut number while in record, yet the 101 returns to the place you originally started from when Stop is pressed. Going to Pause while in record will also ramp the cut number up by one. The display shows the running time of the current recording and the remaining time on the disc when the display is toggled in the Record mode. The unit will sit in "ready to record/pause" mode for ten minutes before returning to stop.