Sharp to intro MD player

Sharp Electronics of Canada is hoping the introduction of its MiniDisc portable player this month will rock the audio market and send the cassette tape the way of the dodo bird.The Toronto-based company is working to get distribution for what it...

Sharp Electronics of Canada is hoping the introduction of its MiniDisc portable player this month will rock the audio market and send the cassette tape the way of the dodo bird.

The Toronto-based company is working to get distribution for what it says is the world’s smallest and lightest device for playing the small-format, digitally encoded disc known as the MiniDisc, or md.

The players are now being sold in several electronics stores in Quebec.

Sharp’s foray into the md market – joining Sony which pioneered the technology and last year became the first company to launch a player in Canada – has helped to fuel a noisy debate in the audio electronics industry.

Stake holders, on both the hardware and software sides of the business, are anxiously waiting to find out which new type of digital audio technology will strike a chord with consumers.

Will it be the md? Or will it be the digital compact cassette (dcc), a rival technology also being introduced? Or will both prove to be a bust?

‘Our goal with the introduction of the md is to do for the portable market what the compact disc (cd) did for the home market,’ says Sharp’s MiniDisc product manager, Lorne Grossman.

Indeed, many marketers expect the introduction of the md and dcc technologies will be as significant to the audio electronics industry as that of the cd a decade ago.

Robert Jarosz, Sony of Canada’s md product manager, says when the cd was introduced, consumers were sceptical.

‘People would say: `You’re telling me this technology sounds better, but you can’t record on it, it costs $1,500 and you’ve only got classical titles. There’s no way in hell I’m going to buy it,’ ‘ Jarosz says.

But look where we are 10 years later, he says.

The market is ripe for the introduction of a new technology, according to Sean Fugimoto, audio marketing manager at Matsushita Electric of Canada, which plans to introduce a portable dcc player this fall.

Traditional analogue cassette sales have been leveling off, which is a good indication there is room for a new technology, Fugimoto says.

However, many industry experts are less enthusiastic.

‘Both technologies are withering on the vine,’ says Paul Alofs, president of HMV Canada.

‘I wouldn’t say it’s dead because you have too many people investing in both technologies,’ Alofs says. ‘But there is a kind of technology burn-out factor and people also don’t have a lot of money to spend on frivolous technology or hardware.’

Alofs argues few comparisons can be drawn between the introduction of the cd and that of the md or dcc.

Because the cd offered a clear improvement in sound quality, it had a hardcore group of supporters right from the beginning, he says.

But neither the md nor the dcc offers better sound quality than the cd. And the new formats are significantly more expensive than existing portable analogue cassette players.

Alofs says md and dcc players are priced in the $700 to $900 range, which is likely to be a significant deterrent to consumers.

The total audio market in Canada is about $700 million annually, according to Grossman.

The portable audio segment – which includes boom-boxes, cassette players, portable cd players and headphone-equipped devices such as the Sony Walkman – composes between 36% to 40% of the market.

The most obvious difference between the dcc and the md lies in the medium. Both offer digital audio sound yet dcc is similar in most other important respects to the traditional analogue cassette.

The advantage of dcc is that it offers downward compatibility, meaning consumers can listen to their existing analogue cassettes on the digital player.

The md, which is three inches in diameter, is a smaller version of the cd. Unlike the cd, however, it is encased in a computer-like hard disc cover and it is recordable, so audiophiles can compose their own musical compilations.

Sony has granted md manufacturing licences to 32 hardware companies. Philips and Matsushita hold the licence for dcc and have granted a similar number of licences.

Both formats have about 200 music titles in circulation in a range of musical genres from classical to rap.