I had a fever dream some years ago. In this dream I fed a MiniDisc into the dash of my E36 and smiled as it clunked into place. Once awake, I decided I would install a MiniDisc head-unit in my car. I wanted to be as cool as Neo in my BMW E36. And I wanted period-correct electronics.
It would have to be a Sony head-unit, given the MiniDisc’s provenance and my love for MD Walkmans. But BMW did technically approve; it produced at least two MiniDisc head-units, though only for the E46 3 Series and the R50 Mini Cooper, so my E36 was out of luck. I could’ve tracked down a Becker Mexico Pro MD, a good fit for my dash, but it would also cost much more.
Yes, I could have just replaced my factory head-unit with something modern and convenient, but I felt nostalgic. It was Sony MD or bust. I wanted to fuss with the durable MiniDisc casings and rediscover all of my old mixes. I must have wasted entire days in the late ’90s creating playlists and adding metadata, in spite of Sony’s middling software.
MiniDiscs were like the cassettes of the aughts. And there were a surprising number of MiniDisc head-units out there. Alpine, Pioneer, Nakamichi, Blaupunkt and JVC are just a few of the companies that made them. They existed in single- and double-DIN configurations, too.
Sony made a few that really captured the zeitgeist of the MiniDisc era:
You can’t convince me this wasn’t a Winamp skin:
I confess I only made it to the “Oh, God, what have I done” phase of my plan. I bought a Sony MDX-U1 and a Sony MDX-66XLP but did not install them. I sobered up and realized that keeping the factory radio and adding an auxiliary port was more sensible. But I wish I had seen it through, especially now that MiniDisc is enjoying a very slight resurgence.
Now, in 2020, I’m convinced the apotheosis of head-units — at least in older cars like mine — is a blank dash plate that will interface with the iPhone’s MagSafe feature and can provide both power and data pass-through. It wouldn’t need a screen, either. The iPhone’s will do.
But there’s less fun in using an iPhone, a fully-functioning pocket computer that can access thousands of songs on demand while providing a reliable telecom feature-set. What I really wanted was an MD unit, for more or less the same reason we love an air-cooled flat-six or a manual transmission. What I really wanted was a bygone object with its inherent technological limitations and enduring charm.