Vintage Whine

50 Ways to Read a Record Part 9

In Copper #73 we discussed an interesting but purely theoretical  method of scanning phonograph records with a laser. We’re about to look at a real-world product—more or less— which plays records using a laser, with no physical contact to the groove, at all.

Almost as interesting as the device itself is the long and winding road the project has followed over the last 35 or 40 years. According to this surprisingly-thorough history from Wikipedia,  about the time that the physicists at UVA were building their ultimate turntable and speculating about laser scanning of records (as mentioned last time), William K. Heine presented a paper to the AES entitled, “A Laser Scanning Phonograph Record Player”.  Heine had been working on what he called the “Laserphone” since 1972, and was granted a patent for the device in 1976. As far as I can tell, Heine’s device never reached the market.

Stanford grad student Robert Reis wrote his Master’s thesis, “An Optical Turntable,” about a similar device. Wikipedia states that the thesis was submitted in 1983, which fits, given later developments—but Stanford’s own library system states the date as 1987. Oh, well. Given that Reis and fellow Stanford EE Robert Stoddard founded Finial Technology in 1983, one would bet on the earlier date for the thesis. Finial’s sole purpose was to produce a laser turntable as a commercial product.

The company’s  name referred to the design or architectural element which Britannica calls “the decorative upper termination of a pinnacle”, in this case apparently meant to signify the highest achievement of record playback. The name was a problem, though, as it was often misread as “Final”, which made for any number of unfortunate jokes. But the problem of the name was nothing, compared to the problems encountered in actually producing the turntable as a commercial product.

Reis and Stoddard secured two patents (seen here and here), and managed to drum up $7 million in initial venture funding, a fair amount in pre-dot.com days, and equal to about $18 million today. Again, reports differ, but it appears that the company had some sort of presence at CES between 1984 and 1986, perhaps even each and every year. Keep in mind that timeframe: CDs were launched in 1982, and the marketplace was seeing rapidly-declining interest in analog playback—especially expensive, fussy analog playback.

Why “fussy”? Because dust, dirt, and scratches were played back as noise by the laser players. Records had to be meticulously, immaculately clean.

According to this 1989 news story, “…By 1985, the laser turntable was proven more than just “possible.” In 1986, Finial showed the first functioning prototype, and announced that it planned to have a laser turntable in the stores — possibly as early as 1987, at a price of $2,500.

“In 1987, an improved prototype of the LT-1 was shown to a very receptive group of press people at the Consumer Electronics Show. In 1988, an even more refined working prototype was exhibited at the show, but the price of the finished product was going to be higher than expected — $3,800.

“A few days before the 1989 Consumer Electronics Show, I received ‘the letter.’ It was dated Dec. 29, 1988, and read in part, ‘I regret to advise you that Finial Technology has decided not to market the Laser Turntable. This decision was made after we completed the initial production run and concluded that the unit is too expensive to produce.’ ”

So that appeared to be that. Except that it wasn’t.

Following Finial’s demise (and the loss of a reported $20 million in investment capital—$50M in today’s dollars), the company’s patents were sold to a group in Japan which called itself “ELP”—no, not Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but “Edison Laser Player”. The apparently well-funded group continued to develop the laser player for almost a decade. When it finally came to market in 1997, the ELP sold for over $20,000.  The head of the group, the dapper Mr. Sanju Chiba, can be seen with the laser turntable in this video; the company’s website explains rather charmingly why the group persisted in development: “The major reason why we have been successfully overcoming every difficulties since 1989 is because of the Delightful Opinions from LT Owners.”

The current ELP LT-master.

Well, that beats $20M in investment capital, every time.

How has the audiophile world responded to the ELP? For the most part, it hasn’t. I know a wealthy audiophile in the New Jersey Palisades whose multi-million dollar sound system includes an ELP, and he loves it. Beyond that, the silence has been pretty deafening.

Jonathan Valin wrote rather dismissively about the ELP in The Absolute Sound, “…the ELP sounds exactly the same on any disc. More importantly, it makes every disc sound the same. If I were to describe its presentation in a few words, they would be ‘pleasant but dull.’ ”  Michael Fremer ‘s report in Stereophile was somewhat more enthusiastic, while remaining cautious: “The overall fidelity of 78s played back with the correct EQ curve was astounding—especially an older acoustic recording of Jascha Heifetz….All of the LPs demo’d sounded open, unusually transparent, and nonmechanical, but it would be foolhardy to make any sonic judgments given the unfamiliar playback system.”

Enjoy the Music
‘s estimable Dr. Bill Gaw was even more enthusiastic. He wrote in 2004, “If I didn’t have my present setup and had $11,000 to spend, I would buy this unit in an instant. During over the time I had it, I listened to significantly more vinyl than normal, as it is so much easier to use than a normal playback system.”

Today, while all manner of analog playback gear flourishes—and it is important to note that the ELP is a completely analog signal-chain, with no digital processing of the laser output—the ELP remains an outlier. When laser playback of phonograph records was proposed in the ’70s and ’80s, the process was decried as “impossible” or “too complex”. Today, with availability of  all manner of expensive, exotic, tweaky record playback devices, allied with lengthy procedures and rituals—could it be that record-playing with the ELP is just too simple?

Audiophiles have been known to enjoy a hair-shirt mentality….

On a completely different wavelength (literally!) is a completely digital system. The  IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.) system of digitally scanning recordings, mapping them, and translating them into sound, created by particle physicist Carl Haber. The earliest known sound recordings–soot-on-paper phonautographs from the 1860’s— were translated by IRENE and heard for the very first time. The system can also be used for non-invasive scanning and playback of fragile discs, and a 3D variant is being devised to play back cylinders, amongst numerous other projects and applications.

This is truly fascinating stuff, worthy of a long look in the future.

Next time: the Vintage Whiner takes a break from phono playback.