Compact Disc Players

Launched in 1983, the compact disc player (or CD player) is the digital recording equivalent of the gramophone (or record player). It is a device for playing back sound recorded on a small optical disc. The term “compact disc” was used because the first commercially produced optical discs were 30 cm (12 in) videodiscs, whereas audio optical discs, which had less information to record, were only 12 cm (4.75 in) in diameter.

Optical disc technology uses a laser both to embed the recording and to decode it for playback. During recording, a laser beam removes tiny dots from the etch-resistant chemical coating of the glass master disc. The dots vary in length according to the digital sound input and form a spiral track up 5 km (3.3 miles) long as the disc rotates. The master disc is then placed in a bath of hydrofluoric acid, which etches pits in the glass where no coating remains. In the mass production process, the master disc is replicated as plastic discs with a thin aluminum coating. The disc provides up to 100 minutes of sound. Inside the CD player, the disc rotates on a turntable and is scanned by a laser beam that detects reflection from the nonpitted surface and its absence from the pitted track. The laser transmits pulses of light to a photodiode, which converts the light to electrical pulses for transmission to an amplifier and loudspeakers.

The compact disc was developed through a joint venture between the Dutch company Philips, the pioneer of videodisc technology, and the Japanese company Sony. When the joint venture was agreed upon in 1979, both companies had reason to pool their resources rather than go ahead independently. Both had recently lost out to Matsushita, the world’s leading electronics producer, when the VHS format outsold their separate videocassette formats. Moreover, Philips was then involved in a costly videodisc rivalry with JVC (Japanese Victor Company) and the U.S. company RCA. By 1980, the two companies had agreed on the standard for audio CD and began to develop their products independently. In 1982, Sony launched the CDP-101 CD player in Japan. It was designed to fit in with existing hi-fi stacking systems.

The CD player became the fastest-selling machine, as of then, in the history of consumer electronics, although it has recently been surpassed by the digital versatile disk (DVD) player. In the United States, the sales of CD players grew from 35,000 in 1983 to 700,000 in 1985, while CD sales grew from 800,000 to 15 million. The introduction of portable CD players increased the popularity of the CD format. Sony launched its first portable CD player with headphones, the D-5, in 1984. The Sony D-88 Pocket Discman, a slimmer model based on the successful Walkman personal cassette player, arrived in 1988. CD players were also incorporated in ghetto blasters, or boom boxes. Two new variants of the audio compact disc format were introduced in 1999: the DVD-Audio format, developed by the Japanese company Matsushita, and the Super Audio Disc format, developed by Sony and Philips. Both offer enhanced sound quality through increasing the rate of digital sampling.

The CD player was marketed as a major advance in the quality of sound reproduction on several grounds: greater dynamic range (essentially loudness), the inherent superiority of the digital copying that permits the master recording to be exactly reproduced, and the absence of wear and surface noise compared to the gramophone (phonograph) or tape recorder. Other factors favoring the CD player include the convenience of operation by remote control and programmed track selection. While studies have shown that the majority of people, including trained musicians, cannot reliably distinguish between analogue recordings (LPs) and digital recordings (CDs), by 1988 CDs were outselling LPs. Today, the CD player has supplanted the record player in the majority of homes.