Question: It seems as if we've spent half our married life buying audio equipment for our three teen-agers. Now the big pressure is for a compact disc player. It seems to me that we've been through these fads before, and a lot of expensive electronic stuff ends up on the back of closet shelves. Why should we think this is any different--especially with the records costing an arm and a leg? Also, what do we do with a 25-year collection of LPs?--W.G.
Answer: The Hula-Hoop and the Pet Rock were fads. Whatever you may think of the compact disc player, it's way past the fad stage.
Developed jointly by Sony and Philips of the Netherlands in 1982, the compact disc (and player) approaches the whole business of music recording (and playback) entirely differently from the old analog process. The music and entertainment industries almost immediately found the new process revolutionary, earthshaking and on a rough par with the invention of gunpowder. But, even for an industry that lives and breathes hyperbole (where "stupendous" translates in anyone else's vocabulary as "above average"), it may almost be understating the case with the compact disc.
Initially, of course--good or not--the whole thing seemed like a moot point in '82 because the price tag restricted the market to the true, dedicated audiophile. Players sold in the $750-to-$1,000 range, and records were between $18 and $20. Heady stuff even by Beverly Hills teen-ager standards.
Prices Are Lower
Today, however, perfectly adequate players (although not the top brand names) start at about $140, "excellent" players fall in the $200-$300 range and top-of-the-line players such as the Denon DCD 1500 and the Sony CDP 302 rarely exceed $600.
Whatever the price range, the quality of the sound reproduction is almost invariably excellent, and, as the price rises, the consumer is simply stacking up optional features that may or may not be important to him. And the list of features available is nothing if not impressive--things such as pause capability, remote control, display of elapsed time, display of time remaining, selection index, programmability, skip forward, skip backward, repeat a track, repeat a section, headphone jack, headphone control--and on and on.
Rarely, if ever, has the normally skeptical Consumer Reports magazine (June 1985) ever given such an unqualified rave review of an entirely new technology: "In theory, a CD system is inherently 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."
So, what's the difference between the analog process, which has dominated the sound-recording industry since Thomas Edison's invention of the concept, and the compact disc?
From Edison's scratchy wax cone, through development of long-playing records in the 1940s, stereo in the 1950s, and linear tracking turntables in the '60s, the principle has remained the same: A wiggly groove is cut into the surface of a record and the sound is electronically embedded. The sound is recovered by dragging a stylus (and everything from cactus needles to steel to diamonds have been used) along the groove. Despite dramatic improvements in both record surfaces and styluses, distortions have never been entirely eliminated, and the more a record is played, the more the grooves break down.
How is the compact disc player different? Well, instead of starting with the standard-LP slab of vinyl, you start with a much smaller (about 4 3/4 inches in diameter) disc of clear, molten plastic.
The technique? Since it would be folly for a man who still considers the incandescent light bulb as the ultimate in high tech to explain this, we refer you again to Consumer Reports: "The high quality of CD sound starts with the 'digital' recording method. The signals representing sound waves are not converted into wiggles inscribed on the walls of a record groove, as with analog recording. Instead, sounds picked up by the microphone are electronically 'sampled' and transformed into numbers--a train of ones and zeroes, the binary digits or 'bits' that a computer can read. The digits describe these sound waves accurately and precisely. As long as the digits don't get lost or jumbled, the original signal can be reconstructed accurately enough to sound flawless to the listener. The recording and playback equipment need only follow the switching between ones and zeroes, which neatly avoids much of the sound distortion, pops, crackles and hiss that creep into other forms of recorded music."