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What's up with laserdiscs?

What’s up with laserdiscs? — Why the medium that’s better than tapes is taking so long to take hold

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He hates VCRs — wouldn’t even allow one in his house, until his family insisted — but Bob Kaplan is probably the most passionate video nut in New York State. He has a collection of more than 1,000 movies, alphabetized on shelves in his living room, catalogued in cabinets in his bedroom, filed in closets, and neatly stored in his basement. He has Blaze. He has Woodstock. He has National Geographic documentaries. He even has a video of the 1981 Sears catalog, featuring Cheryl Tiegs modeling bathing suits. But Bob Kaplan doesn’t own any of this stuff on videocassette, because he’s a special kind of video nut: He’s crazy about video discs.

While most of us think of video as the tape you have to return on Sunday, there are some half-million Bob Kaplans among us who see something superior in the shape of shimmery 12-inch platters called laserdiscs. Impressed by the discs’ high picture quality, digital sound, and durability — as well as their mystique — laserdisc enthusiasts often amass home libraries of hundreds or thousands of discs.

Yet, despite the vital importance of laserdiscs to this perfervid audience, the technology remains virtually unknown to the vast majority of Americans. Only 15 percent of them can correctly identify what a laserdisc player is, according to a study by the New York market research company Research Network International. Introduced way back in 1978 — before CDs or cellular phones or home faxes — laserdisc players are still in only about one-half of 1 percent of all households with TV sets. During those same 12 years, the number of U.S. households boasting VCRs has jumped from less than 4 percent to 70 percent. In a sense, laser is thus a box office flop turned cult classic — the Rocky Horror of video tech.

Who, exactly, are the people who so fanatically keep laserdiscs alive, and why do they love their format so? Most disc buffs are evidently sticklers for technical quality. Laserdiscs deliver more picture detail (measured in ”lines of resolution”) than either VHS tapes or broadcast TV. Discs encoded with digital soundtracks have the same enormous dynamic range as CDs, and they never suffer from the sonic ”dropouts” and hissiness that can mar VHS Hi-Fi tapes. Laser players also let you access any portion of the program within seconds by using a remote control to punch in time (or ”chapter”) codes. Moreover, discs are optically read, so they don’t wear out; if you care for them, the 5,000th playback should look identical to the first.

Lots of disc fans also seem to be fairly sophisticated movie buffs interested in the fine points (if not the arcana) of film production. A hundred or so laserdiscs, such as Blade Runner, Help!, and sex, lies, and videotape, have been produced with on-screen ”supplementary materials” — interviews with directors and other creative personnel, shooting scripts, storyboards, and on-location production photographs. Increasingly, the laser versions are also ”letterboxed” — that is, they display the full frame of the theatrical release. Most wide-screen movies on cassette have the sides of the picture chopped off so that the movie fits in the TV screen.

Ownership is an essential element of the laserdisc culture, because the discs are generally available only for purchase, not rental. Yet they’re often less expensive than tapes. Big-hit videotapes like The Hunt for Red October or Ghost will run you about $100; on disc, they cost $30. Price aside, a great many disc fans are simply collecting sorts. ”There are disc customers who buy discs just to have them. They never even open them,” says Jay Frank, co-owner of a California disc specialty chain called the Laser’s Edge.

This degree of consumerism can pose problems: When Washington, D.C., disc fan Fred Towers shops, he now takes along a computer printout of all the titles in his collection for reference. ”I found out about a year ago that I’d go buy stuff that I already had,” he says matter-of-factly. That’s understandable: Towers has 2,700 titles in his collection. If he were to watch one a night, it would take him more than seven years to see them all. He’s still buying.

In their quest for the perfect video experience, many laser hobbyists don’t hesitate to pay for incremental improvements in quality. Kaplan has purchased seven laserdisc players in 10 years. Similarly, California buff Ken Gruberman has bought five different pressings of Star Wars. The first was a conventional (not letterboxed) version. Then came a similar edition but in laser’s standard-play format, which makes it easy to watch individual frames. Then a letterboxed version appeared from Japan, with Japanese subtitles; Gruberman bought it. Then he got another U.S. edition, cropped as before but with a digital soundtrack. Finally, Gruberman picked up the most recent letterboxed U.S. release with digital audio. He sold off the earlier versions, explaining, ”I’d be nuts if I had all five.”

High standards like those can be a burden, though. Gruberman sees the community of laser fans as watchdogs of quality and sometimes embattled foes of the manufacturers. After he bought MCA Home Video’s Jesus Christ Superstar on disc, Gruberman realized the soundtrack was mono, even though it was labeled stereo. ”I spent three weeks on the phone trying to get someone at MCA to listen to me,” he says. When he finally got through, MCA’s response was, ”Oh, we screwed up!” and the company soon re-pressed the disc in stereo. ”Sometimes,” Gruberman says, ”you just want to slap somebody silly.”

If laser format can inspire such fierce loyalty, why hasn’t it been more successful? In the early years, laserdisc players were a tough sell: They’ve never had VCRs’ highly valued ability to record, yet they cost as much — or hundreds of dollars more. Laserdiscs were also set back a few years when they got confused with another video format — the clunky ”capacitance electronic disc” or CED system, which wasn’t much of an improvement on videotape in picture and sound quality. Marketed more widely than laserdiscs, CEDs went belly-up in 1984. To this day, says laser fan Rob Hahn, ”the most common thing I hear when I try to tell people about laserdiscs is, ‘I thought they were dead.”’

In Japan, they’re far from dead. Introduced three years after they hit the U.S., laser players are in 6.5 percent of households, according to a Japanese industry trade group. By optimistic estimates, Americans bought 6 million discs in 1990, while the Japanese bought almost 12 million in the first half of the year. According to John O’Donnell, president of an audio-video industry consulting company in the U.S. and Japan, ”The Japanese are really just incredibly nit-picky about picture quality.”

Here and now in America, some people — mostly the people who make laserdisc machines — see ”optimistic signs of growth in the industry,” in the words of Mike Fidler, senior vice president of home marketing for the biggest maker of laserdisc players, Pioneer Electronics. While Pioneer had the disc field almost to itself over much of the past decade, the number of its rivals has exploded from seven to 17 in the past year. These new manufacturers are pinning their hopes on the consumer appeal of combination players, which can handle audio CDs as well as laserdiscs.

However the format shakes out in the long run, longtime laserdisc believers like Bob Kaplan could easily keep the format alive for years as a cottage industry for video connoisseurs. Slouched deep in his chair while he shows off his disc of the 1960 film The Time Machine, Kaplan is clearly captivated by a scene in which the time machine is unveiled to the audience. ”It’s science fiction, but there’s a touch of fantasy. I think I like that,” he says, as if he were describing the fictional film time machine and his real-life laserdisc equipment at the same time.


The mighty laser players

Beyond film buffery and technical perfectionism, there’s one thing you definitely need in order to become a laserdisc person: a laserdisc player. Here’s a sampler of the best of the current crop.

Budget Bin: Now that Radio Shack is selling combi-players, affordable machines are easier to find. Radio Shack’s Realistic brand MD-1000 combi- player is a no-frills model for laserdiscs or CDs. Its list price of $500 ties it with Pioneer’s CLD-980 as the least expensive model today.

Both Sides Now: If the notion of flipping over a disc in the middle of a movie strikes you as unthinkably inconvenient, you’ll want to look at the Panasonic LX-200 ($850). The machine plays both sides of a disc without your having to flip the disc over in its tray.

Still Crazy: Most movies on disc are encoded in what is called the “extended play” format, which can’t display still frames. However, advanced players like the Mitsubishi M-V8000 ($1,499) have digital picture memory, allowing freeze frames and slow motion with all discs.

Dream Machine: Designed to be the ultimate laser player, the Pioneer LD-S2 is loaded with electronic gadgetry for delivering top-caliber audio and video. But the LD-S2 is for high-tech purists: It plays only one side of a disc at a time and it does not play compact discs. Weighing in at a shelf-sagging 62 pounds, the LD-S2 seems built to withstand minor earthquakes, like the shock induced by its $3,500 price tag.