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Compact Discs Make Greats Even Greater

October 20, 1985|ROBERT HILBURN

I love my CDs.

That recent realization surprised me because my reaction when compact discs came on the market in 1983 was, "Who needs 'em?"

Sure, the early claims by CD manufacturers were impressive: The sound of the digital CDs is far purer than that of records or cassettes. You can play the discs repeatedly without loss of quality and they are much easier to store than traditional LPs.

But the price was steep. Early CD players cost nearly $1,000 and discs went for about $18 each. Added drawbacks when CDs were introduced: You couldn't play your existing tapes or albums on the CD players, and only a few albums were available on compact disc.

FOR THE RECORD - IMPERFECTIONS
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 3, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Page 87 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Stan Becker of Rhino Records, reacting to Robert Hilburn's article about the aural joys of the compact disc player, says Little Richard-loving CD owners should rest easy: a CD with 18 of Mr. Penniman's greatest hits is coming in time for next Valentine's Day.

Plus, I had seen so many of these revolutions in sight and sound come and go over the years--notably eight-track tape cartridges and quadraphonic sound--that I knew to be cautious.

The green light for me was the June issue of Consumer Reports, which stated flatly: "In theory, a CD system is . . . capable of delivering high-quality sound reproduction. But we were simply not prepared for the uniformly excellent performance of these players. By every criterion we used, the players were far superior to any sound-reproduction device we have ever tested."

Two other Consumer Reports findings were significant: There was no noteworthy difference in sound quality among more than a dozen tested models, and the prices had become more reasonable. While suggested retail prices for the models examined ranged from $390 to $550, discounts are "widely available," the magazine reported.

Following up, I found a CD model in a local discount store that was marked down to $199--a model that was ranked fourth of the 15 tested by Consumer Reports. The differences between the machines are in the area of features, according to the magazine's research team, not sound quality.

That was enough for me. I bought the player, plugged it into my stereo system (the same way you plug in a cassette player or a turntable) and then slipped in a disc. The sound quality: breathtaking.

The state of recording in the '50s and '60s keeps many of the albums made in that era from matching the sound dynamics of more recent releases, but every disc I played sounded cleaner and more dynamic than the same record did on the most expensive tape or turntable setup.

There are so many new albums to enjoy and explore that I haven't spent much time in recent years listening to old albums, but CDs make the old albums seem fresh again through this new dimension in sound.

The intimacy that is established with this clearer sound is so much greater than what we have been accustomed to with traditional stereo hookups that you feel a renewed sense of discovery listening to Janis Joplin's voice again or the opening synthesizer effects on the Who's "Who's Next."

But the world of CDs isn't without problems: The discs remain expensive (about $12 each in discount shops) and the number of titles is limited. Of the umpteen-thousand pop titles available in album or cassette form, only a fraction have been released on CDs.

Leslie Rosen, executive director of the New York-based Compact Disc Group, estimates there will be 1.5 million CD players in use by the end of the year, but only about 1,600 pop-rock titles available in the CD format. And the outlook is for only a few hundred to be added during 1986.

"Ultimately everything will be put on CD," Rosen said. "The problem at this point is this phenomenon has grown so fast that there aren't enough manufacturing plants to handle the demands for CDs. That means companies have concentrated on newer titles, which have more sales potential. As soon as more plants are opened, the companies will go back in their catalogues and make older titles available."

This limited selection can be frustrating. A Joni Mitchell fan, for instance, can buy "Court and Spark" in CD, but not "For the Roses" or "Blue." There is no Chuck Berry or Little Richard album in CD yet, according to the latest Compact Disc Group catalogue, and the only Jimi Hendrix album available in CD is "Kiss the Sky." Most surprisingly, legal complications have kept Capitol Records from putting any of its Beatles albums on CD.

Despite this frustration, Consumer Reports is so bullish on CDs that the magazine predicts CD players will soon be a standard part of component hi-fi systems. The magazine even advises "those assembling their first component system to consider a CD player instead of a conventional turntable and begin their disc collection with CDs."

This seems extreme for anyone who has wide musical interests because of the limited title selection. You not only can't hear many old, classic albums, but you can't hear a lot of new acts until they become best-sellers. If I only had a CD player, I couldn't listen to some of my favorite albums of the year: the Blasters' "Hard Line," 10,000 Maniacs' "The Wishing Chair" or the Meat Puppets' "Up on the Sun."

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