the Compact Disc story

Sony CDEconomic austerity, high unemployment, inflation, severe weather, humiliation for our national football team, wars in distant lands – some things never change! Looking back soberly, 1982 was hardly a vintage year, but one particular moment marks it out as special. On October 1st, Sony launched its CDP101 in Japan, and along with it the brave new Compact Disc format. Life would never be the same again…

These days, people’s views of CD are coloured so much by their own personal experiences of the format. Some love it and think it beyond reproach, others have been quietly seething that it’s never quite matched the vinyl LP that it was supposed to replace (but never did, completely) in the sound quality stakes. Many now just see it simply as a data disk to rip music from, just as they would a CD-R. In 1982 however, CD was about as exotic as new technology got – alongside digital watches and microcomputers, it was proof positive that we all were thrusting forward into a glittering, laser-etched future of digital perfection. Marantz’s Ken Ishiwata remembers the time well, “What a thrilling period that was! Coming from analogue, it was confusing at first but then realising the potential of the new technology made me so excited”.

In the music sphere, all this razzmatazz was set against the backdrop of lingering dissatisfaction with the vinyl LP. Even before the announcement of CD, there was a sense that the format was in the late autumn of its life. The world’s (then) universal music carrier was felt to be too long in the tooth, and its obvious drop in manufacturing quality was beginning to annoy many – noisy, static-prone recycled vinyl was increasingly being used, and quality control was on the wane. Sales reflected this – the high watermark of the LP record was in 1975 (thanks in no small part to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells) when they sold 91.6 million [source: BPI] in the UK. By 1981 sales had dropped to below 60 million, and in 1982 alone sales were down by 9%. What the music – and indeed the consumer electronics – industry needed now was the shiny and new Compact Disc. It hadn’t come a moment too soon…

Make a list of all that was wrong with the LP record, at least as far as the general public was concerned, and CD was the answer. From scratch resistance, surface noise and end of side distortion, to automatic track access, playing time and size, the new disc was a major advance on analogue vinyl. When launched in 1982, it was the absolute state-of-the-art in music reproduction. This was achieved by cleverly combining two existing technologies in one apparently futuristic package that the public could readily use. Optical discs read by lasers weren’t new, as LaserDiscs – which were already popular in Japan – had pioneered the technology in the consumer marketplace. Neither was the notion of digital audio a new thing, as this had been around for decades.

So the wonder of Compact Disc was the way it brought these two technologies together in a cute, user-friendly and affordable product. It took the might of two of the world’s largest consumer electronics companies to make it work though – Compact Disc had Philips and Sony DNA coursing through its little digital veins! On the storage side, year zero was 1958, when the laser was invented, but it was Dutch physicist Klaas Compaan who used a glass disc to store black and white holographic images using at Philips in 1969. In 1973, Philips engineers started to plan a videodisc system. At the 1977 Tokyo Audio Fair, Sony, Mitsubishi and Hitachi all demonstrated digital audio discs, and this prompted Philips to develop an audio standard for it, which was shown in 1979. Sony signed up a year later and the famous ‘Red Book’ specification was formally proposed. A year later, Sharp successfully mass produced the semiconductor laser, making CD a commercial reality…

Much work on digital audio coding had been done by the time CD surfaced – it wasn’t new. The basic theoretical work had likely started in 1841, when Augustin-Louis Cauchy first proposed sampling theory. Then Harry Nyquist developed on this idea in the nineteen twenties,  before Alec Reeves conceptualised Pulse Code Modulation in 1937 – which is the coding system CD uses to this day. The invention of the transistor in 1948 made digital circuitry viable, and theoretical work on error correction in the nineteen sixties was the final piece of jigsaw. By 1967, Japan’s NHK Technical Research Institute was demonstrating a digital audio recorder running 12bit resolution and a 30kHz sampling rate, and by 1970 Sony had a 13bit machine running at 47.25kHz.

It was the combining of these two technologies in a reliable, useable and affordable way that made the little digital disc successful. This wasn’t done by magic – key decisions about its specification were still being taken at a relatively late stage. Philips, for example, reputedly were expecting it to be a 14bit system until very late in the day, and together with Sony didn’t finalise the precise size of the disc for a long time. The story goes that the original target for storing music was one hour, but that Sony president Norio Ohga wanted to fit all of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on one disc, and fit that disc into his suit pocket. Hence the proposed size of 115mm had to be changed at the last minute to 120mm, which squeezed 74 minutes of Red Book-standard digital audio in!

When the ‘Red Book’ specification was finally signed off in 1980, it defined (what was then called) ‘Compact Disc Digital Audio’ as an optical disc storing 650MB of linear PCM audio in 12mm deep pits on a  single sided, lacquer coated, 120mm diameter aluminium disc. This permitted up to 79.8 minutes of uncompressed stereo digital music at a bitrate of 1,411.2kbps. A 780nm semiconductor laser read the disc, which gave up to 99 tracks, with 99 index points. Minimum track duration was four seconds.

CD’s 44.1kHz sampling frequency meant that the theoretical frequency response was 20Hz to 22.05kHz, its 16-bit word length made dynamic range 96dB. The reason CD’s sampling rate is 44.1kHz and not 48kHz that was popular in professional applications, reputedly comes from the coding system’s early development work being done using video recorders to store digital data – it turned out that the NTSC and PAL video formats could only store a maximum 44,100 samples per second, which was carried over to Compact Disc. “The CD standard of 16/44.1 was depressing because it clearly was not enough to match, let alone usurp the LP in sonic terms”, says Linn’s Ivor Tiefenbrun. “There was little understanding of how discriminating our sense of hearing was and how demanding and challenging the task of equalling let alone surpassing the LP would be.”

Throughout the late nineteen seventies, there had been assorted reports in science journals, and indeed the hi-fi press, about a new digital audio disc system being developed, but by 1981 there were pictures of working prototypes appearing. So the 1982 launch of CD didn’t come as a complete surprise. There was also a steady news feed about the software too; news of the world’s first CD being manufactured (at a Philips/Polygram plant in Langenhagen, Germany) in August 1982 was well reported.

Unsurprisingly, the first Compact Disc titles were very mainstream – Abba’s (then) new album The Visitors was said to be the first. There were also a great many classical music titles, reflecting the anticipated age demographic of the early adopters, who were unlikely to be Duran Duran fans! Around 150 titles were available at launch, retailing for around a third more than the equivalent vinyl LP. “As there were so many classical digital recordings that Deutsche Grammophon had done in the nineteen seventies, it was very easy for them to come up with many classical titles, but the key was popular music,” says Ken Ishiwata, “so Dire Straits was needed to get CD to take off. It helped a lot, I must say”.

American and European customers had to wait until March 1983 to experience CD, even though Philips CD100 and Sony’s CDP-101 had been on sale in Japan for nearly half a year by then. By this time, over 1,000 discs were available, and sold for around £15 in the UK. Along with obvious classical music standards, early titles included Roxy Music, Phil Collins and Dire Straits. Indeed the latter’s digitally recorded and digitally mastered (DDD) Brothers in Arms album was the first silver disc to sell over a million copies.

Despite a very warm reception in the media – including UK hi-fi magazines, most which were quite fawning in their praise – the format got off to a slow start in Great Britain. This wasn’t entirely surprising, considering the parlous state of the economy and lack of consumer confidence. The pricing of CD hardware and software was controversial. For example, the first-generation Sony CDP-101 retailed for over £800 in 1983; it took two years for prices of second-gen machines to drop down to the £300 mark). Likewise, the selection of discs was small in high street music retailers, there was little sense that the average consumer wanted to spend a significant outlay on the new technology. Although an early critic of the format, Ivor Tiefenbrun doesn’t think they were prohibitively expensive. “One of most remarkable things about the early CD machines is that they were priced very competitively; indeed small manufacturers were subsidised by Philips and Sony to spread the format and so maximise their licensing revenues”, he believes.

In the wider consumer world, CD’s high price meant it was originally seen as a premium product for people with luxury lifestyles – it was for a time the ultimate nineteen eighties ‘yuppie’ fashion accessory. But it got a slightly harder time in the specialist hi-fi press, where it wasn’t taken universally as a good thing. Linn’s Ivor Tiefenbrun was an (unsurprisingly) vocal critic of the new format, arguing to anyone who’d listen that Philips’ ambitious marketing claims of it giving “pure, perfect sound forever” were untrue, misguided and misleading.

Whilst the general public generally liked it, some hi-fi journalists criticised it for a rather bright and relentless sound, along with a lack of subtlety and depth compared to high end vinyl players of the time. It was certainly true that in systems set-up for the smooth, slightly dull sounding turntables of the day, a relatively flat CD player could sound bright. Also, few people were used to the starkness of CD sound, and the questionable mastering of some very early discs, didn’t help either.

There were surprisingly large differences between individual machines. The hardware market was divided into two camps – Philips (and Philips derived) machines running dual 14-bit, 4 times oversampling DACs and the Japanese 16-bit non-oversampling machines. The general preference amongst hi-fi writers was for the former. Marantz’s Ken Ishiwata later opined that this was down to the superior digital filtering of the European machines, which were far more linear from the midband upwards. Certainly Sony use of just one DAC gives strange phasey artefacts across the upper frequencies, whereas the Philips CD100 sounds balanced, smooth and warm – albeit a little diffuse.

In the mass market, this didn’t seem to matter so much. The hi-fi world was still obsessed by specifications, and to most casual buyers 16-bits sounded better than 14, with the vagaries of oversampling and filtering lost on Joe Public. Those early Philips (and Philips based machines) suffered from the stigma of their 14-bit DACs so much that Philips swiftly started developing 16-bit versions.

Other problems for early CD included mastering and recording techniques; digital distorted more at low levels, and was most accurate at higher ones. CD showed up the miking techniques of the day, which had been designed around the slight compression that analogue systems give. With digital they sounded harsh, upfront and shouty, whereas with analogue the end result was better balanced. Ken Ishiwata points out that, “the mastering equipment in that period was poor, but the recordings were bad too – many people didn’t know how to make good digital recordings”. Ivor Tiefenbrun adds that, “there were so many flaws in the process that in a way it was a shame to judge CD by the early releases…  it took about ten or fifteen years before the recording engineers and others engaged in the process learned how to make the best of this format despite its limitations and critical lack of headroom and precision”.

After CD’s slow, faltering start, it really began to move in large numbers by the mid-eighties. Whilst many audiophiles remained circumspect, the buying public began to commit to the new format as soon as the prices came down. By 1986, decent machines from the likes of Philips, Sony, Denon and Marantz could be had for £250; the second generation machines had a more plasticky build but updated and improved chipsets that boasted 16bit, 4 times oversampling. This gave a clearer, cleaner sound without the opaque fuzziness of early 14×4 machines or the phasey artefacts of the 16×2 designs. CD was becoming better and cheaper – no wonder sales were jumping.

To a public still used to mediocre nineteen seventies record players, a CD player of the day would have been a revelation in 1986. The convenience, durability and crisp sound really impressed mass market buyers; it’s depressing to observe that – if many 2012 music listeners regard MP3 as adequate – uncompressed CD in 1986 would have been more than good enough!

The specs war raged for a few years in the late eighties, 16-bit 4 times oversampling was replaced by Sony players offering 18-bit, 8 times oversampling (which was actually just running Philips 16×4 chips doubled up), and then Cambridge Audio came out with 16×16 (this time using four of aforementioned TDA1541s). But then Bitstream arrived in 1989. Just to confuse everyone who’d learned that more bits were better, we now had one-bit operation! Of course, this was done at very high speeds, with Philips’ new Pulse Density Modulation (PDM) ‘Bitstream’ system transforming 16bit samples into a high speed one bit datastream, oversampled 256 times, which was then converted into analogue by a digital single-bit converter. The system cleverly sidestepped some of the problems of multibit, giving a smoother sound, but its main benefit was low cost – sales of CD portables and car players were destined to soar.

This same year, CD sales overtook those of vinyl for the first time, but this wasn’t the silver disc’s finest hour, as LP sales had long since fallen behind cassette. Philips little dictation medium had been repurposed into the country’s favourite music carrier, and was massive – no less than 83 million prerecorded tapes sold that year. It wasn’t until 1992 that CD finally pipped Compact Cassette off the top spot.

Whilst Bitstream had bought some smoothness and civility to budget silver disc spinners, many audiophiles regarded it as too little, too late. There was an increasing belief that Compact Disc’s Red Book specification simply wasn’t good enough to offer a sound to better high end vinyl. Around a decade after the format’s birth, rumours began to surface that various people were working on a replacement, offering a higher digital resolution over standard Red Book…

The first such format surfaced in 1995, with the advent of High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD). Developed by Pacific Microsonics (and now owned by Microsoft), it wasn’t a new standard as such, rather a clever tweaking of the existing one. HDCD discs could be played back on standard CD players, but when they were used in HDCD players, extra subsiding could give a claimed 20-bit resolution by using custom dithering, audio filters, and some reversible amplitude and gain encoding. The system worked surprisingly effectively, giving a smoother, more dynamic sound. Over 5,000 titles were released, but HDCD finally fell victim to another technology, which arrived five years later…

Super Audio Compact Disc was the official, spiritual successor to CD. It arrived in 2001, and was a brave, comprehensive and imaginative attempt to address CD’s weaknesses. Jointly developed by Compact Disc’s own parents – Philips and Sony – the format used the (then) new Dual Disc technology to provide a music disc that was playable in CD format on CD players, but when inserted in SACD players it would read the deeper SACD layer on the disc, via a second 650nM laser pickup. This high density layer contained up to 7.95GB of data, compared to CD’s 700MB.

Cleverly, the new format used Direct Stream Digital coding, which is a one-bit system like Bitstream, but running at a giddy 2.8224MHz. This made for a 20Hz-50kHz frequency response and 120dB dynamic range, and – unlike CD’s PCM coding system – didn’t require heavy filtering which many think spoils CD’s sound. The format combined the easy convenience of CD with much of the sonic potential of the (then) rival DVD-Audio format. This was an immediate rival, launched at almost the same time, but wasn’t compatible with stock CD players and relied on the PCM coding system to give up to 24-bit/192kHz resolution. It was fiddlier to use than HDCD, using a menu-driven navigation system that required a TV monitor to be hooked up, and soon fell from favour with audiophiles – despite its better on-paper performance.

Sadly, neither of these high quality options managed to usurp the Compact Disc. Instead, it was MP3 that dealt digital music discs the death blow. The format had been around since the late nineties, and the rise in broadband Internet of the mid-noughties, allied to various file-sharing sites, meant that vast amounts of free, low quality digital music was available to the mass market. Apple legitimised this with its iTunes music store, with pay downloads of low quality AAC files. Meanwhile, CD soldiered on with sales in freefall…

Sadly perhaps, Compact Disc has taken a beating as the world moves to computer audio- based solutions. Vinyl is widely viewed as complimentary to a hard-disk or cloud-based music collection, whereas CD is simply a poor substitute for one, or so many see it. If you’re going to have a physical format, you might as well get the superior sounding one with 12″ cover art and a lovely tactile feel, the reasoning goes…

Despite the techno wizardry of having a massive music collection on your hard drive, peppered with hi-res tracks and controllable by a fancy iPad app, many still feel Compact Disc has something to offer. It remains what it has always been, convenient; there’s no pfaffing around with computer networks, no need to back up your data. High end CD can now sound quite superb too, far better than a cheaper media player running higher resolution digital. CD players have had thirty years of development, whereas network streamers have not. It’s now possible to squeeze an awful lot of music from the pint pot that is Compact Disc, if audiophile best practice is followed in player and DAC design. This tends not to happen so much in media players, and the result is they often sound a poor second to CD when playing Red Book music.

Over thirty years on, CD’s star may not be shining so bright, but it’s still massively popular. Globally, hundreds of billions of Compact Discs have been sold, and many more will surely be bought before the format ends up relegated to a few eccentric diehards. “CD will be in the household for a great many more years to come”, says Ken Ishiwata.

Whatever its fate, its life should be celebrated for what it is – the high watermark of the physical music carrier, the music disc’s finest hour. In terms of sales, mass appeal, longevity and convenience it was the last and surely best. Once the shape of things to come, this little silver beermat is now reaching the final curtain – I wish it well in the next thirty years, gone but not forgotten…


One comment

  1. Very interesting historical view, to which I might add another forgotten format (dating from the same time as SACD: the 20bits DTS CD: like with DVDs, it was a multichannel 20 bits system, without compression on the rear channels (contrary to SACD). The catalogue has never been vast (mostly classical, MOR jazz and classic rock and pop albums) but IMHO, they sounded the best, by far (like DVD-Audio but without the need of a special player and connections. Any CD player with a digital output (even my Technics dating from 1985!) could accommodate them. Having the luck of comparing vinyl/CD/SACD/CD-DTS cut from the same catalogue (the integral of the Moody Blues first seven prog rock albums), the CD DTS is the winner with floorishing honors… and by far.

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