Technology may not always deliver on its promise to improve our lives, but if a recent demonstration by the North American Philips Corp. of its new Compact Disc System is any indication, a music lovers' utopia is not very far off.
By 1984 (are you listening George Orwell?), audiophiles will be able to enjoy perfectly reproduced, distortion-free sounds from a virtually indestructible disc less than half the size of the standard long playing album.
And the price will not be prohibitive; Philips says it will be able to offer the compact disc playback unit, comparable in size to the average cassette deck, for about the same price as a good turntable, while the new discs should not cost any more than the average LP.
The primary innovation in Philips' new machine is the reproduction of sound by means of a miniature laser beam - a process similar to the new video-disc technology. Since the laser does not come into contact with the disc in the conventional sense, but "reads' the sound from a microscopic track contained in a spiral on one face of the disc, record wear is eliminated. One of the favorite lines repeated at Philips' press conference was that "sound quality on the 500th playing is identical to the quality heard on the first." The music is unaffected by scratches, dust or even children's smudgy fingerprints (the bane of any record collector's existence) on the disc's surface. And since the "grooves" (now a "helical track of pits" according to Philips spokesman P. J. Sinjou) are much closer than on a conventional LP, a mere 1.66 microns apart, an hour's worth of music can fit onto the one playable side of the 4 1/2 inch laser disc, as opposed to our rapidly aging 12 inches which run 40 minutes on two sides if the artist is feeling generous.
Among other changes signaled by the advent of the laser disc is that the troublesome record needle will eventually become extinct. A hopeful Robert Cavanagh, vice president of North American Philips, says "There's a strong likelihood that Compact Discs will become the dominant format within the decade, allowing the stylus a gradual, well-deserved retirement after 100 years of service."
Although a spokesman at RCA would only say that they were still in the "experimental stages," RCA is reportedly committed to prolonging the life span of the needle, still featured in their video and audio disc units. But if Cavanagh's prediction comes true, various disc cleaners, preeners, anti-static cloths and other record-care products - not to mention turntables - will also be rendered obsolete. Philips feels that another factor in favor of the CD system is its compactness, making storage easy, both at home or in an automobile.
But do not start emptying your piggybanks and discarding your used turntables just yet. Estimates of when the compact disc system will be available in your local hi-fi (there's a vestigal term for you) store vary from two to five years. It must be remembered that Philips is the same company that unveiled the optical video disc bank in 1972; it did not get onto the market until last December when Magnavox, a Philips subsidiary, began to offer them in the cities of Atlanta and Seattle (where reportedly, demand is exceeding supply at the moment). With more than 200 million record-playing units in current use around the world, and an average of 15 records per unit, simple logistics dictate that these current configurations will not appear over night.
Aside from the time it will take to mass produce the Compact Disc system, Philips also must wait for certain other evolutions to take place. First, the record companies must be convinced that laser discs are the wave of the future. "The basic factor is the availability of the discs," concedes Cavanagh, "The hardware can be there but unless there's a broad selection of programs available of the latest titles, the average consumer won't be very much interested." In other words, aside from the fanatic who will snap up any new-fangled stereo invention (the same folks who purchased quadrophonic systems, the music industry's answer to the Edsel), most record buyers will not convert to the CD system until popular artists like the Bee Gees, the Rolling Stones and Donna Summer are available on laser discs.
Secondly, Philips is pinning its hopes on the recording studios to make the full transition to digital recording. Since the sound on a laser disc is digitally coded, only when master tapes are universally recorded on digital machinery, using a process called pulse code modulation, will the full benefit of the CD's superior sound capacity be felt. Until that time, masters recorded on conventional multi-track, on analog, machinery can be converted onto a laser disc, but the resulting sound quality will not be appreciably better than on a standard LP. When original recordings are done digitally, the CD system will offer a quantum leap in sound reproduction, but upon its introduction to the marketplace, the main value of the CD will be its immunity to damage and what Philips calls its "ease of handling."
Even though such notable recording artists as Fleetwood Mac, Stephen Stills, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder have already tested the digital recording waters - and top engineers like Penn Stevens, technical director of Record Plant studios in New York, call it "an enormous leap forward" - the industry-at-large is still far from a full conversion. Among the drawbacks of digital recording so far are the exorbitant costs of installing digital equipment, the lack of sophisticated editing capabilities, and the confusion created by several competing digital systems. (Philips does not have to contend with the latter problem; they are currently the only company to manufacture a Compact Disc unit.)
But as these relatively minor stumbling blocks are overcome - 3M, manufacturers of the digital machines, may have an editing machine ready by the end of 1979 - digital recording equipment would appear to be the inevitable next acquisition for any state-of-the-art recording studio.
Once the public is able to buy a CD system (which will be compatible with all present-day amplifiers and speakers), with laser discs cut from digital masters, they will enjoy the following audial benefits: a remarkably high signal-to-noise ratio; wider dynamic range; greater separation of stereo channels; elimination of wow, rumble and flutter; and flatter frequency response. All this technical jargon may not mean very much to the casual music listener, but Philips' demonstration of their CD system seemed to convince most of the attending press and sound experts that there was, indeed, a noticeable improvement over the conventional LP. After the unveiling of the CD, Cash Box, a music industry trade publication, reported that "there was no doubt that the Compact Discs played at the press conference offered superior sound quality...the recordings evidenced superb bass response, transient response, sensitivity to timbres and concert hall ambience."
While the CD system is not likely to cause any immediate shockwaves, Philips' brainchild may eventually do to the long playing record what the LP did to 78s and extended-play records in the 1950s. Not since the wax cylinder was replaced by the pressed record early in this century has such a potentially sweeping structural change been introduced into the recording field.By applying video technology to audio, Philips may succeed in their aim of "(demolishing) the distance (and the difference) between the recording studio and the listener's living room."
But don't start hastily discarding your long players, even when the Compact Disc revolution comes...your record albums will be antiques. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Juanita Mondello for The Washington Post