Ladies and gentlemen: I have seen the future of home video. It's the size of an LP, shiny on both sides and if the marketing folks are to be believed, it combines the best of audio and video into one glorious package. It's called laserdisc since, like its audio CD brethren, a laserbeam reads the information directly off the disc and translates it into audio and video into your TV. And after playing with Pioneer's latest laserdisc player, the CLD-1030, I'm convinced that once the public gets their hands on this machine, VHS will be deader than ol' Jacob Marley.
The CLD-1030 boasts a whopping 425 lines of resolution for video playback, far beyond VHS' humble 240 or so lines. In addition, the analog audio outputs can also interpret digital audio tracks in addition to laserdisc's analog channels. In theory, this should allow laserdisc programmers to provide additional audio content in addition to the film soundtrack. Who knows – maybe one day we can get Steven Spielberg talking about filming E.T. while watching it! In addition, some of the newer TVs are now allowing for separate audio and video inputs directly from a sources like VHS Hi-FI VCRs... and laserdisc players. While the video industry is replete with innovations that went nowhere (hello Betamax!), the CLD-1030 covers all the bases by providing an RF output as well.
Recently I saw a Siskel and Ebert program where they devoted a segment talking about a company that makes laserdiscs called The Criterion Collection and that they have a unique process of capturing widescreen images onto standard video. It's called "letterboxing," and they showed examples from Criterion's laserdisc releases of 1982's sci-fi release Blade Runner and 1967's The Graduate. I must say the demos were impressive, with the bleak futuristic LA landscape at the beginning of BR captured much more effectively than the usual process known as "pan-and-scan." So, I decided to pick up a copy (note: laserdiscs are expensive! Blade Runner laserdisc costs $100) and give the 1030 a thorough workout courtesy Harrison Ford and director Ridley Scott.
With a rented VHS copy of Blade Runner in hand, I did A/B tests between the videotape and laserdisc excerpts of the opening scene. Folks – the difference between laserdisc's higher resolution and VHS is like comparing filet mignon to plain wrap franks. When they say 425 lines of resolution, they're not kidding! While the letterboxing takes some getting used, the better picture quality helps make up not using the entire screen. And the sound? Equally awesome. Truth be told, the hi-fi tracks on the VHS version is no slouch, but whereas the VHS may sound louder, the laserdisc audio sounds richer and fuller. It sounds more, well, "grown up."
In addition, depending on how a laserdisc is coded, you can not only jump to your favorite part of a movie without scanning through miles of tape, but also – under certain conditions – freeze the frame! Blade Runner is coded as such, called CAV, and having the ability to stop certain parts of that film just to ogle the amazing production design almost makes up for the rather steep price of the disc.
The CLD-1030 is nothing short of a revolution in how we watch movies at home. VHS may have gotten people used to the idea of seeing movies somewhere other than the local Bijou, but laserdisc leaves it totally in the dust! Mark my words: less than five years from now, no one will remember what VHS stood for, let alone was.
The Analog Bits