A musical miracle it is called: the Compact Disc. The device is the sequel to the time-honored turntable and, if all goes according to plan, will be available in the Netherlands from the middle of March. At the moment the market is already warming up with demonstrations and mostly favorable test reports. Apart from the commercial fuss, which is inevitable with the introduction of something completely new, something very special is about to happen with the arrival of the Compact Disc. For the first time since Edison invented the recording of sound, a breakthrough in principle has come about. The verse "Mary had a little lamb," which was spoken by Edison in the wax reel and returned oh so weakly, eventually led to today's long-playing record. Although many intermediate steps were needed to get such quality into the record as it is today, the principle of "mechanical transmission" through the cutting chisel and the pickup needle remained untouched.
The Compact Disc breaks radically with that. The sound is scanned by light. Laser light to be precise and thus the sound carrier (the record) is aging-free, because there is no more wear and tear. Also, the sound is no longer stored in hills and valleys -as with Edison -or lateral sways in the grooves of the record. The music is fixed in a kind of computer language, expressed in an awful lot of pits per centimeter. This makes it possible to record fifty to a hundred times more information than on the current gramophone record. In those wells the playing time, in code, is also recorded. They also control the correct scanning of the laser beam on the record. However, it is not all sunshine and roses. Attached are some critical comments."The sound quality exceeds everything that has been accomplished so far" reports the advertising brochure. "For the time when things work," an audio retailer adds. In both cases, we are talking about the Compact Disc. A marvel of ingenuity or a source of annoyance?
Compact Disc is a new invention from Philips. The advertising agency provides the following information, "Imagine your favorite music on a round silver shiny disc, twelve inches in diameter. With a full hour of uninterrupted music.
Captured in a trail of microscopic pits, safely stored under a transparent protective layer. That track contains a digital code. You play the record on a Compact Disc player connected to your hi-fi system.
The digital track is now read by a thin beam of light and converted into sound via electronic circuits."
The result - still according to the advertising brochure: limitless dynamics and a perfect spatial stereo effect. Noises, splashes and hums familiar from normal records are totally absent. You will be amazed at how music can sound in your own living room, as a perfect replica of the original recording. This is a totally new sound experience. The utter perfection of Philips Compact Disc".
Despite all the manufacturer's praise, the new system is far from perfect, Roger Krielaars believes. He works at the Eindhoven company Audio Home, which does not want the Compact Disc player in the house for the time being.
"When you have to pay two to three thousand guilders for such a device, you can expect it to be at least as good as any analog (used) turntable. And that is not yet the case, according to Krielaars. Sixteen demonstrations Audio Home has given with the Compact Disc player. The re-sults were downright disappointing.
Only twice could the apparat pass the test of criticism. And even then it was all but "reasonable" according to Audio Home. For the time that things worked then. Because sometimes the music, for no apparent reason, just stopped. Moreover, the skin grease affects the protective layer of the record. This created ridges in that layer and that does not benefit the sound. Very annoying." For the time being we don't want to 'burn our fingers' on it," reasoned one in Eindhoven, "the teething problems have to be ironed out first.
In 1969, Philips took its first steps on the path that eventually led to a revolution in the already wonderful world of technology and sound. In that year they started the development of the picture disc, a system, which uses digital information. Impulses are pressed onto a disc, which contain image and sound information interchangeably. The result is therefore music with image.
The principle of the Compact Disc relies on a similar disc, on which now only information about sound is put. Technical masterminds at Philips have been working on the project for about five years. Since 1980, giant Sony has also been involved.
Amounts involved in developing and launching the Compact Disc are not given by Philips. That they run into the many millions goes without saying. A complete factory has been built in the West German city of Hanover, where Polygram - a subsidiary of Philips and Siemens - produces the Discs.
One of the advantages the system has, according to Philips, is the fact that the disc is virtually indestructible. Virtually impervious to damage thanks to its protective coating, although Audio Home's findings are somewhat different.
"Indeed, the plate can break. We have never made a secret of that either," responds F.J.J. Smulders of Philips press office. "The protective layer does not guarantee that the sound quality will always remain good. Look, the light beam reading the record, if the record is dirty, has to go through a grease layer. That means the light beam deflects slightly and that doesn't benefit the sound. But a fingerprint is easy to wipe off. With a handkerchief or something"., Smulders said.
Tests, carried out by staff of Philips, the Compact Disc has passed with flying colors. Smulders: "You can stand on it and if you wipe your footprint off afterwards, there is no problem at all. We even cycled on it: nothing wrong".
For all that fun, however, you have to dig deep into the purse again. The price of a Compact Disc is between forty and forty-five guilders. All in all, Robert Krielaars concludes: the system of the future. "Fantastic to look forward to. But we are looking at the cat out of the tree first. We don't want to sell dead sparrows".
At Philips they look differently at the price level of the Compact Disc and the player. Given the investments, all in all it is not a price that covers the costs, a fairly common occurrence in the industry. But, they say, "it is not unusual for a totally new product to command a hefty price."
A spokesman expects the price to remain stable over the years, despite inflation, as the capabilities of the apparatus are expanded. A relative price decrease, in other words.
Eindhoven is looking to the future with confidence. The device has such good specifications that the classical music lover in particular will be willing to pay 2000 guilders for it. Besides his collection of ordinary records, he can build up a new one, Smulders reasons. For the coming years, sales of the players are calculated in "tens of thousands of units." "It's always a question of what the market does, hë?". And in say ten years, The System will be completely established, according to Philips.
But the introduction of the "musical revolution" is not going entirely smoothly. The way Philips and Polygram acted also met with resistance from an audio dealer in Leeuwarden. At the Poort company they are displeased with the way of doing business of both companies."
All the risks are for us, we are bound by all kinds of provisions," says Ms. Swanny WilKes.
So the retailers are obliged to purchase three quarters of the roughly thirty new Discs, which are released monthly by Polygram. Ms. Wilkes n in we weter still wholem alan not be on the discs." Moreover, in her view, Philips sets a profit margin that is far too small: about twin-twenty percent less than usual in audio stores.
"The price of the devices and the plates is far too high. Who has such sums to spare?", Ms. Wilkes wonders. Moreover, she says, with the advent of the Compact Disc, the revolution in audio land is not at all as great as has been suggested.
"There are already beautiful digitally recorded records. There is nothing wrong with that. Compact Discs are also made from the tapes from which these records are made. And if you have a good system and you are careful with your expensive records, what should you do with a Compact Disc?", they say.
"And what stings me personally is that Chriet Titulaer is now going to advertise the Compact Disc for Philips adds Roger Krielaars to all the criticism. "That man is considered an aerospace expert - he only has HTS by the way, we checked. And now a new Philips device comes onto the market and, lo and behold, he's allowed to say something about it.
The man doesn't know anything about it. Well, of course he doesn't write anything himself, Philips does. He only puts his signature under the advertisement and he gets 3000 guilders for it.
Philips denies this. Smulders: "Mr. Titulaer is not going to advertise the Com.pact Disc for us. For us Titulaer is no more than a freelance journalist, with his own little company, I believe.