In the great pantheon of audiophile eccentricity, the Edison Laser Player laser turntable takes the highest prize. Unlike so many oddball products bashed together on someone’s kitchen table, this one cost vast sums of money to develop. Indeed, it’s a testament to this that the thing ever worked, as getting an ultra fine and precise laser to track an undulating LP groove was a stiff engineering challenge, to put it mildly. Indeed, it’s claimed that the work-up costs came in at $20 million!
In 1977, American engineer William K. Heine presented a paper called ‘A Laser Scanning Phonograph Record Player’ to the 57th Audio Engineering Society convention, detailing a method for making a single 2.2 mW Helium-neon laser track a record groove and reproduce the stereo audio signal. Called the ‘LASERPHONE’, it had been in development since 1972 and got awarded a US patent in 1976. Four years later, Stanford graduate student Robert S. Reis wrote his master’s thesis on ‘An Optical Turntable, then went on to found Finial Technology in 1983 with engineers Robert E. Stoddard and Robert N. Stark. The deck debuted at CES in 1984, but was a non-working dummy, then finally got to CES as a working machine in 1986, with $2,500 price tag.
The deck never made it to production however, instead being bought by the Japanese subsidiary of British turntable maker BSR in 1989, called CTI Japan. This company became ELP, and further development continued until the ELP LT-1XA Laser Turntable went on sale in 1991, with a list price of $20,500. The National Library of Canada was an early customer, and the US Library of Congress in Washington got another in 2001. The LT-2X arrived in 2003 with remote control, and by 2007 some 1,300 decks had been sold worldwide – in 2013 it is nearly 2,000…
One reason that the deck and its intellectual property had been passed from pillar to post, is that it emerged at precisely the wrong time. The nineteen eighties was a decade obsessed with Compact Disc and digital audio, and a laser tracking turntable seemed completely at odds with the trajectory of history at this time. Indeed, you can feel this when using the deck – it’s undeniably very clever, but you still find yourself wondering quite why it exists. The deck plays LPs, singles and 78s, offering much of the convenience of CD, but from the notoriously unpredictable analogue vinyl format. It even sports remote control and full track selection, with fast forward and rewind.
Still, it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d buy instead of a CD player back in the nineteen eighties or nineties – the unit was physically very large and heavy, not to mention expensive, with prices ranging from £8,000 to £14,000 in the UK back in 2004. Indeed, in a way it was quite hard to discern precisely who it was designed for. The special selling point was the fact that there was no physical contact with the record, meaning zero record wear, no rumble or background noise of any kind. All well and good, but not necessarily worth spending over £10,000 to achieve?
Another benefit is the lack of cartridge or tonearm-induced resonances or frequency response anomalies, and in this respect the deck performs superbly, with a very flat frequency response. There are no tracking errors either of course, or inner groove distortion, although that doesn’t mean it won’t play back the inner groove damage on vinyl caused by lesser contact-based turntable systems! The manufacturer also claims ‘no skating or jumping’, and in a strict sense that is true – but the ELP doesn’t track in an absolutely rock-solid way. The laser-reading height needs to be tweaked with some older records too, so isn’t quite the seamless experience that the company suggests.
In practice, the biggest problem with the deck is that – unlike a conventional turntable – the laser doesn’t plough dirt and dust out of the way in the record groove as it plays. A standard deck with a stylus in the groove is – to an extent – self cleaning, whereas the ELP is not. That means you have to be scrupulously clean with your LPs; even brand new ones can click and pop badly from a few stray dust particles, whereas the sort of thing you’d buy from a secondhand shop definitely needs a clean from a proper record cleaning machine beforehand.
Properly set up and with pristine LP records, the ELP sounds amazing – in several ways. It’s probably best likened to high quality open reel tape in its security and general rock-solid stereo image placement. It has a sense of unerring stability, which is expected from top-quality digital but still rare even with top quality conventional players. The closest that ‘contact-based’ vinyl players come are decks fitted with parallel tracking tonearms, as only they seem able to approach the vice-like grip on the recorded acoustic that mastertapes display.
Another great aspect is the sheer flatness of the sound – there’s no sense of cartridges imposing their characteristic colourations or phase issues on the result. Instead, the music just comes out in an ultra-neutral, open and even way, with no bumps, peaks or plateaus in the frequency response. The sound is smooth and incisive, with massive amounts of detail, and the ability for you to cut through complex mixes with relative ease; compared to the ELP, most conventional high end decks seem to make a meal of it.
Some listeners may find this deck rather sterile, however. This may be due to the complete lack of conventional LP ‘nasties’ that we’re all so used to, but it may also be that the LT2 doesn’t quite get to the musical heart of the matter. As ever with high end turntables though, you pays your money and takes your choice. Whichever way you look at it, this is a remarkable product and a true audiophile legend.