Long before Blu-ray, before even DVD, the Laserdisc was king of the home theater world. Yet despite surviving for over twenty years, the venerable videodisc format never caught on with the mainstream, and most kids today have probably never even heard of it. Did you ever own a Laserdisc player?
At its peak in the mid-1990s, Laserdisc reached an adoption rate of a little less than 2% of American households. That’s a quite small fraction of even the niche status of Blu-ray today. Admittedly, there are good reasons why the public never embraced the format. The huge 12″ discs were clunky and cumbersome. At most, an LD could only hold one hour of video per side, which meant that every movie had to stop for at least one side break. Depending on the model of player you owned, this could mean a 7-15 second pause while the machine’s laser mechanism moved over to the other side, or could mean that you had to get out of your chair and physically flip over the disc. Movies longer than two hours (even if only one minute over two hours) had to be split to multiple discs. Releases in the slightly higher-quality CAV format only held 30 minutes of video per side. The Criterion Collection’s CAV box set edition of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ had seven side changes! For average consumers, this seemed like a terrible inconvenience.
On top of that, price was a significant limitation. An entry-level LD player cost about $300. High-end models could run upwards of $1,500, and there was a significant difference in video quality from one model to another. The average Laserdisc release cost $34.99 to $39.99 for just the movie itself with little to no bonus features, while supplement-packed Special Editions (like those from Criterion) frequently ran over $100.
This was clearly not a product that appealed to the average Joe. Nevertheless, film buffs and video enthusiasts embraced Laserdisc for its (at the time) impressive picture and sound quality. No, judged by today’s standards, a Laserdisc will not hold up well on a big-screen HDTV, but compared to the dominant VHS format of the day (when viewed on televisions 36″ or less), Laserdisc was a revelation, with almost double the resolution of tape and crystal clear digital audio. The format also pioneered many features that we take for granted today on DVD and Blu-ray, including chapter stops, alternate soundtracks, multi-channel surround sound, audio commentaries and supplemental content.
I was first introduced to Laserdisc while in college. I had a work study job in my school’s media lab, where I had access to a couple of LD players that no teachers ever bothered to sign out, plus plenty of free time to sit around watching movies. Every weekday, I’d rent a couple of discs from a local shop called Laser Craze and watch two movies during my lazy evening shift.
After college, the future Mrs. Z bought me my first Laserdisc player (an entry-level Pioneer CLD-S201) for my birthday. Over the years, I upgraded through several models, culminating with the very expensive, monstrously huge HLD-X9, which I had to import from Japan. I also owned several hundred Laserdiscs.
Eventually, DVD took over. I was resistant at first, but (after a bumpy introduction) had to admit that the digital format exceeded Laserdisc’s quality in a much more convenient package. Then came Blu-ray, which leaves both DVD and Laserdisc in the dust. Honestly, it’s painful to try to watch a Laserdisc on my projector today.
I still have my HLD-X9, but I sold off (or gave away) a big chunk of my disc collection. Even after paring down, I still have about 200 discs that I keep around for sentimental reasons. I haven’t fired up the player in a very long time, and I may not anytime soon, but I like having it and the discs around.