At last, and at length…
LaserDisc players were never a widely adopted technology, at least in North America, but they played a key and under-appreciated role in the adoption of CDs and DVDs.
The notion of recording video on a disc dates back to Phonovision in 1927, which used the needle and wax record technology of the time. This and other early attempts appear to have been dead-ends. Technology patented in the 1960s, and refined during the 1970s, led to the LaserDisc. Sound and video are converted to a lot of tiny pits in a reflective plastic-coated metal disc. For reproduction, changes in how a laser light is reflected from the pits provide the information required to recreate the sound and image.
The on/off of the laser reflections is binary coding, but, for the video signal, it’s not digital information that’s encoded. It’s analogue — basically, how bright each of three colours is for each position of the 600 or so horizontal dots in the roughly 400 vertical lines that make up each 1/30 of a second (approximately) frame in the video. That’s a lot of information.
The coding of that information is complicated, involving math and terms like eight-to-fourteen modulation (EFM), non-return to zero inverted (NRZI), and pulse width modulation (PWM). (I have no idea what any of that means, even after reading about them). The point of this coding complexity is to reduce the number of pits required. Despite this, a LaserDisc has up to 25 billion pits per side. The 30cm disc, slightly larger than a vinyl audio record but twice as thick, can hold about an hour of video per side.
Home Video Formats
By the late 1970s, there were several competing formats for home video. Videotape, developed during the 1950s, had evolved into cassettes long enough to hold feature films and small enough to be practical in home machines. Sony had their Beta format, derived from their larger and shorter industrial Umatic format, and a consortium of other electronics manufacturers had their similar VHS format. RCA had developed a video disc format that used a needle and groove, like a record player, while MCA offered the LaserDisc.
The RCA video system was last to the market, in 1981. When introduced, the player and the discs were half the cost of the other options. It also offered better quality than the tape systems. But the tape systems had the benefit of being able to record video, either from home cameras or broadcast TV. That, and rapidly dropping prices for video tape recorders and pre-recorded films, doomed the RCA system and sales ended in 1984.
The LaserDisc format survived, despite high costs and the lack of recording ability, due to the high quality images it offered —equivalent to broadcast TV at the time, and much better than videotape. The high quality meant the format could be used in settings like school and university auditoriums to show films. As with renting a film from a distributor, you had to pay performance fees, but disc rental was often cheaper than film rental (especially if available from a local video store), usually better quality, and easier to project. The high quality also made the format popular for well-heeled movie fans.
By the mid-1980s, audio could be recorded digitally on LaserDiscs, allowing high quality stereo audio, sound tracks in multiple languages, and commentary tracks — all features appreciated by the movie buffs who bought the costly players and discs. Many DVD commentary tracks on older movies were originally recorded for a LaserDisc release.
LaserDiscs were not just for movies. Their ability to quickly present any part of the disc for playback (not possible with videotape) saw them used for interactive display kiosks in educational and sales settings, and as high-quality graphics sources for a few arcade video games, notably Dragon’s Lair. Unfortunately, as I learned when I serviced arcade video games in the 1990s, the players were too delicate for the rough life of arcade games. Improved computer graphics ended this use.
LaserDisc players were also popular for karaoke machines (another feature possible due to random access and high quality sound). That feature, and more competitive pricing in Asian markets, resulted in greater adoption of the machines in Asia than in North America and Europe. In addition, LaserDiscs lasted longer than videotapes in humid climates, and many anime titles were only released on LaserDisc.
CDs and DVDs
CDs hit the market in 1982, four years after LaserDisc players came out. CDs use the same laser and pit technology as LaserDiscs, though for digital audio only, and on a thinner 12cm (4 3/4″) disc. Within a few years, LaserDisc players could also play single or multiple CDs, and by 1990 a combination player was half the cost of buying a CD player and a LaserDisc player separately. This helped the LaserDisc format survive, although the costs of CD players soon dropped.
At first there was only a depression in the loading tray for CDs, but eventually CDs either had their own tray and door, or there were five depressions in the tray for loading multiple CDs. Multiple disc standalone CD players were also sold, using the mechanisms developed for combination LaserDisc/CD players. (The earliest LaserDisc players were top loaders, like record players, but by the 1980s they all used a front-loading sliding tray). The separate loading tray for CDs increased the mechanical complexity of the players, a consideration I am all too aware of.
The later DVD format, though using different coding for the video signal, is the same laser and pit technology. In other words, LaserDisc was the technology foundation for CDs and DVDs, and a learning experience for manufacturers before the mass adoption of CDs and DVDs. For example, the problem of laser rot was first discovered in LaserDiscs, though it can affect any optical disc. Laser rot is neither rot nor related to the laser. It’s oxidation (rust) of the aluminum layer, and generally caused by poor manufacturing. Unfortunately, it can appear at any time, and cannot be stopped or repaired. It’s usually visible as dark marks on the disc, so if you have photos or anything else on CDs or DVDs from years ago, check them, and make sure you have copies.
Playing a LaserDisc is not much different than playing a DVD, except the disc is larger and heavier. Unlike DVDs, there are never restrictions on accessing any part of the disc at any time. There is also no copy protection. The combination of the small market and the complexities of adding copy protection made developing copy protection impractical. The LaserDisc format was developed before there was anything to copy discs onto (in homes), and the copy protection system developed for videotapes did not work for the LaserDisc format. For DVDs, manufacturers ensured features like copy protection and navigation control were part of the format.
The image quality of a LaserDisc movie is similar to a DVD. Unlike DVDs, there are never compression artifacts — the boxiness in dark areas that afflicted early DVDs. Scratches may cause momentary noise in the image, but LaserDiscs don’t have the freezing or skipping problems DVDs, especially rental or library copies, can suffer from.
By the late 1990s, DVD players and higher home video resolutions made LaserDisc players obsolete. The DVD format stores video information as a series of numbers that describe the images mathematically rather than as charted areas of brightness and colour. This allows much greater compression through various math and visual tricks. For example, if part of a picture does not change from frame to frame (and there are about 30 frames per second), that part of the picture is described only once, and then left on screen until it changes. Some visual information in the source may be removed for the DVD, since while it may be visible on a theatre screen it would not be visible at what is now called Standard Definition. These tricks allowed feature films to fit on the 12cm DVD disc.
However, production of LaserDisc players continued until 2009, meaning the format lasted three decades. Some players in the 2000s could play DVDs and CDs, in addition to LaserDiscs. If you have or had a computer with a DVD burner, you may be wondering if there were ever LaserDisc burners. These were technically possible, but not developed.
LaserDisc Players and Vanishing Videos
Unlike other obsolete technologies that still have some practical application (typewriters, for example), there’s little reason to love LaserDiscs. The players are large, mechanically complex, delicate, noisy, and provide lower quality images than newer technologies. (Videotape players are also mechanically complex due to the tape loading mechanisms, but their mechanisms are completely internal, while LaserDisc trays are exposed to dirt and rough handling.) However, love often has little to do with reason. There are fans of the 8-track audio format, and they make persuasive arguments in the documentary So Wrong They’re Right. In any event, it’s not nostalgia that led me down the LaserDisc path, but a desire to see rare films.
In the 1980s, I couldn’t even afford a VCR, let alone a LaserDisc player, and I didn’t buy movies. That says less about my financial circumstances than the costs of the equipment and movies at that time. Early VCRs were $1000, and movies started out costing as much as $100. The first VCR I purchased, in 1992, was over $400, and movies might be $30 or more to buy when you could rent them for under $5.
The high cost of buying movies meant there was a strong movie rental business with many titles available. On the supply side, studios rushed to release their back catalogs and flops on home video for extra cash. On the demand side, every corner store had at least a few movies for rent, Blockbuster and other large chains were a reliable source of popular films past and present, and specialty video stores had classics and rare films. One way to draw business was to offer films other stores didn’t have, and have a wide selection to encourage more rentals, especially if a new release was not available. Usually, once a store purchased a tape or LaserDisc to rent, it was permanently part of the store’s offerings (unlike streaming services, which often have time-limited offerings).
As movies became cheaper, hastened by the lower manufacturing costs of DVDs compared to tape cassettes, it became cheaper for consumers to buy than rent, and the rental places went out of business. Margins shrank, discouraging home video releases of midlist films, never mind flops. By the late 1990s, some DVD movies were distributed free in cereal boxes. Sales focused on new releases, and streaming ended the home video market. Now the only source of old films is often the library, and only because they have stock purchased long ago or donated from closing video stores.
Streaming services are convenient, but the selection is limited. For example, Netflix Canada currently offers about 4,500 movies and TV shows. Sounds like a lot, but Blockbuster opened its first store with 10,000 titles, and an independent speciality store might have had 20,000+ titles. In other words, it is much harder to find some movies now than it was twenty or thirty years ago.
In the course of my work on film classification and censorship, I was looking for an uncut version of the 1982 French erotic film Aphrodite. I’d seen it in the early 1990s, on videotape, so I knew it existed, but I later learned the uncut video version was rare. Most home video versions have been cut by several minutes, and sellers usually don’t know what version they have. I finally found the uncut version of the film on LaserDisc. Then I needed to find a player. Ebay to the rescue. I purchased a Pioneer CLD-S303 player, made in 1994.
Pioneer LaserDisc Players
The LaserDisc format was originally owned by American entertainment giant MCA (Music Corporation of American, now part of Comcast) and Dutch conglomerate Philips (Koninklijke Philips N.V., literally Royal Philips). A group of manufactures worked together to develop standards for the players, among them Pioneer, of Japan.
Pioneer had been founded in 1938 as Fukuin Shokai Denki Seisakusho, literally Gospel First Electric Works. The founder was a devout Christian who believed electronics could aid in missionary work. He designed a speaker, and named it the Pioneer, which later became the name of the company.
In 1980, Pioneer purchased the rights to LaserDisc technology, while MCA continued to make the discs. Although several manufacturers made the players, Pioneer was the most popular and innovative. They sponsored content, including anime and music videos for karaoke discs, and they sold more than half of the almost 17 million players made. Pioneer also made players sold under other brand names.
My 1994 player worked long enough for me to watch my movie a few times, and I used a video capture card in my computer to create a backup copy on DVD. Then the player power supply failed. Specifically, a capacitor on the power supply circuit board leaked. This is not unusual for capacitors approaching three decades of use, and I could replace it, but the oil that leaked may have caused other damage. I purchased another player.
My second player was a Pioneer CLD-V2800. I was looking forward to receiving this, as this unit was only 22 years old. Built for industrial service, it used stronger components in areas such as the power supply. Unfortunately, though the seller claimed it was tested and working, the tray would not open. When I removed the cover, there were loose gears and a motor torn from its mount, indicating severe physical damage to the tray. It may work if I can rebuild the tray and manually insert the disc. The seller promptly issued a full refund, so my disappointment did not extend to a financial loss.
My third purchase was a Denon LA-210 player from 1992 (manufactured by Pioneer).
Denon had been founded in Japan in 1910, by an American, as Nippon Denki Onkyō Kabushikigaisha, literally Japan Electric Sound Company. After decades of mergers, the name was shortened to Denon (from Denki Onkyō). The company is not related to home audio manufacturer Osaka Denki Onkyo, later Onkyo Corporation, but did swallow up Marantz in 2002. Denon has long specialized in professional and high-end home audio-visual equipment (as did the American-founded Marantz.)
My Pioneer branded players had led rough lives. Wear and marks suggest multiple owners before ending up in the hands of eBay used electronics resellers. My Denon, on the other hand, looks new. The person I purchased it from had it in storage for many years, and still had the original packing and manual. They also answered my questions about the condition, which turned out to be ‘not working.’
I’ve already resolved a stuck tray issue, but the player will not go into Play mode. It appears to not register the disc as present, and I am checking various sensors.
Given that I have seen and copied the one movie that led me to purchase a LaserDisc player, there’s no urgency to repair the players I have, or find another one. But having a working LaserDisc player is not just an affectation or the pleasure of solving a problem — I may find the legendary copy of Star Wars where Han shoots first, or another film or film version not available in other formats. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it as the explanation for my stack of broken or worn-out LaserDisc players.