Laserdiscs, those shiny LP size discs that a majority of people over the age of thirty know about but have never seen in person; reflective givers of joy that in many cases made falling asleep in-front of a film quite a dangerous experience, especially if you were watching on a big screen or projector as half way through you would wake to a sea of dark blue burning into your retinas signalling the need for you to have to get up (yep physically move), throwing blankets, beer cans and peanuts asunder to open the disc tray to either turn the disc over, or perhaps load another disc into the machine. Of course, there were latterly machines that would turn the disc over for you and some that even had a memory function that would prevent your viewing/sleeping pleasure from being interrupted by such an incursion. However, not in the late 70s or early 80s when they were first released. Hell, back then a remote control on a wire was an optional extra that few could afford.
I imagine, with little to no thought of research to prove my assertions (somewhat like a Fox News anchor then) that at least in Europe and the US Laserdiscs and their players were aimed at men; they were big expensive things and they had a rather dangerous and mysterious sounding object in their title: Laser(s). You see, much more so back then than now, lasers were shrouded in mystery. People knew (at least from watching James Bond movies and the like) that if only in their imaginations, lasers could be used to make weapons – weapons that could melt through vault doors or burn through your legs. Naturally, whilst these things were/are technically possible, for reasons I won’t go into here (mainly because I don’t know entirely what I am talking about) such applications were entirely unlikely. However, no matter how improbable this was and how safe consumer products with lasers in them were in actuality, like a toddler with a feral cat, many men carried these into their home at arm’s length and presumably stared in wonderment at them (hopefully just the buttons and things on the outside of the case - staring at the laser would be a bit dangerous). Adverts at the time captured the moment quite well: Pioneer specifically had a magazine piece with Benjamin Franklin clutching both a CD and a Laserdisc in his hands, staring in wonderment; whilstin the foreground Pioneer’s latest laserdisc player took pride of place. The tag line of the advert was “Catch the spirit of a true pioneer” – a rather obvious pun referring to the company’s name and the pioneering nature of both the product being sold and Franklin himself. Using lasers to do things other than burn objects or people was in a way quite pioneering and this, in my opinion is what makes the advert so effective.
In some respects, by invoking such images of pioneering endeavors and placing such equipment in the company of great thinkers is an attempt by the manufacturer to dull the impact of the very high price tag for these machines. Adverts such as the one mentioned above seem to be pragmatically implying that this product is expensive by default and the potential consumer should be expecting and accepting of this; it is both pioneering in nature and made by Pioneer. However, much like Faustus selling his soul to the devil, one assumes that if your significant other ever found out truly how much they cost, you would wish you had too.
So other than the wonderment surrounding the laser and the general shiny nature of the media, what were the benefits of having such a machine in your home? Were they worth buying and indeed is there any point in keeping or buying one of these today? The answer to these questions are respectively “The benefits were limited, at least in the first instance”, “No” and “Hell yes!” If this sounds confusing, paradoxical and oxymoronic it probably is. However, as with all obscure technologies that are not considered a necessity, there is a certain desirability factor that needs to be taken into consideration. One does not need a pink VW Beetle to go to work in, however, some people would love the idea of owning one. Equally, one does not need to buy a Bang & Olufsen television when something from Walmart will do the same job insofar as allowing you to watch television. The same can be said of Laserdisc players. They were not an essential purchase in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s and they most certainly are not an essential purchase now. However, I personally made it my mission to buy one after (oddly enough) seeing my maths teacher watching a film on one in his office. With that preamble out of the way, on with the vindication of my (and presumably the actions of many before me) laserdisc purchasing decisions:
The first laserdiscs (films) sold into the consumer marketplace were simultaneously labelled LaserVision or Laser Video Discs. The term Laserdisc wasn’t really used that much till a few years later. In any case, those early LaserVision discs (of which I have several) were recorded with an analogue, single channel sound track and it seems that the video “file” was a direct transfer of the master tape of the original film. Note that I said tape. Whilst Laserdisc always was an analogue format and not digital, these early discs seem to have the artifacts of the tape from which they were copied onto them and as such the image/sound replicates the “noise” that would be associated with watching the same content on a tape based player. So, in effect were you essentially buying a player much like a VCR with the same tape degradation issues? Put simply, no. Whilst Laserdiscs do degrade over time, the degradation is a much more gradual process and is more the result of a physical oxidation; usually bought on as a consequence of poor storage and handling whereas, if you watched a video cassette, the physical movement of the heads over the tape cause it to stretch and damage so that this damage is evident in subsequent viewings. Thus, Laserdisc film recordings mirror exactly the artifacts found on the original tape media that was used to transfer the content onto the disc. However, these artifacts become a part of the recording and remain constant. They are not indicative of the gradual degradation of the media as Laserdiscs don’t degrade in this way. In summary however, if I had been around when the first players were available and bought a copy of Death Wish (for example) and eagerly placed it in my top-loading machine, I would have been disappointed. Yes I could watch the film over and over again without the picture quality degrading and yes the sound would be better. However, equally, I could just buy a new copy of my favourite films on VHS several times over as and when they got stretched instead of investing so much money in this new piece of equipment.
That said, as the product matured, so too did the technology used to transfer the video content onto the Laserdiscs themselves and image quality improved greatly with less evident artifacts Furthermore, as stereo sound became more prevalent, discs were recorded with both stereo digital soundtracks as opposed to the analogue monophonic sound of the early releases. Also, when companies such as THX (a spin-out of Lucasfilm) and Dolby started encoding films such as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogy, purchasing a Laserdisc player became a more rewarding experience. To my mind the sound quality is absolutely fantastic with THX or Dolby encoded discs and depending upon the compression ratio of a film recorded on DVD, a Laserdisc version of the same movie can look markedly better.
So to conclude, if you are of the geeky persuasion or just simply like watching films I can definitely recommend buying a player. I personally gain hours of pleasure from watching films on these machines and the artwork on the LP-sized covers for the physical media is often fantastic. Yes, as the product reached the end of its life in the mid-nineties, studios got a bit lazy and instead of turning out beautifully designed gate-fold covers they just had pictures placed on the back and front of a single sleeve, but the early special edition or box-set versions of films truly are something to behold. Also, there are some films that were released on Laserdisc that have never made it to DVD due to copyright issues for soundtracks and other reasons so it is possible that you can pick up an obscure title that may be worth a small fortune in the future. That said, there are many drawbacks and pitfalls to buying such equipment and media. This will probably be the subject of another post. However, in summary, like many retro items these players have gained quite a cult following over the years and have gone from being “useless” items that most people didn't want and as such could be picked up from places like Cash Converters for around £30.00 and thrift stores and boot sales for far less, to items that have such prefixes as “RARE” or suffixes such as “This cost £1000 when new, grab yourself a bargain and buy this now at [insert ridiculous price here]”. It is true that these machines are becoming more obscure as with all consumer electronics – eventually they fail and end up in landfill. This issue is compounded by the fact that these are notoriously difficult to repair by hobbyists that do not have specialist knowledge and long gone are the days when you could take such a player to your average TV repair shop. That said, in many respects, it is because of these issues that you should consider such purchases carefully. Should you really invest £150 or more in an average player or £500+ on a flagship model that is inevitably going to break at some point in the near future? I would suggest not. So, if you are thinking of buying one, consider importing from the US (please note that American NTSC players unless stated will not play PAL, European discs) as players seem to be cheaper there. Or, hope that you get lucky on an eBay auction or thrift store find.