DAYS OF FU­TURE PAST

Since the first is­sue of What Hi-fi? was pub­lished in 1976, we have cov­ered nu­mer­ous tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances in the world of home en­ter­tain­ment. Many stood the test of time, but a com­bi­na­tion of flawed con­cepts, poor tim­ing or costly for­mat wars have seen

What Hi-Fi (UK) - - Feature -

8-TRACK CAR­TRIDGE (1965 – 1982) The first mag­netic tape recorders be­came avail­able as long ago as 1940, but they were bulky, com­pli­cated

and ex­pen­sive. At­tempts to fi­nesse the open-reel for­mat into car­tridges (to re­duce com­plex­ity and vul­ner­a­bil­ity) be­gan al­most as soon as the reel-to-reel stan­dard was per­fected, and by 1965 a gid­dily high-pow­ered con­sor­tium of RCA, Ford, Am­pex and Lear (among oth­ers) had per­fected 8-track tape. It was the sim­plest and most durable mag­netic tape con­fig­u­ra­tion to date, and with the long­est play­back time to boot.

The mo­tor in­dus­try loved 8-track – lux­ury car man­u­fac­tur­ers such as Bent­ley and Rolls-royce fit­ted them as stan­dard for years – and for a while it looked like it might have the fi­delity to be­come a home stan­dard as well as a con­ve­nience for the car. But Philips had been re­fin­ing its com­pact cas­sette for­mat since its introduction in 1962 and, by the early 70s, im­prove­ments in sound qual­ity and dura­bil­ity saw the more portable alternative over­haul 8-track.

BE­TA­MAX (1975 – 2002) If there’s one les­son from the demise of Be­ta­max, it’s ‘never sec­ond-guess con­sumers’. How­ever, the even more

im­por­tant les­son, ‘don’t in­dulge in pro­tracted and pub­lic for­mat wars’ is one the con­sumer elec­tron­ics in­dus­try seems in­ca­pable of learn­ing. Sony’s Be­ta­max video­tape record­ing stan­dard – which briefly held a 100 per cent mar­ket share, un­til JVC’S VHS for­mat launched the fol­low­ing year – was widely recog­nised as the best-per­form­ing home record­ing for­mat. But con­sumers didn’t want ‘bet­ter’, they wanted ‘cheaper’.

As the more af­ford­able VHS for­mat – which also had a sig­nif­i­cant ad­van­tage over Be­ta­max in record­ing times – gained ground in North Amer­ica, economies of scale meant VHS equip­ment was more af­ford­able in Europe than Be­ta­max.

Sony read the runes as early as 1988, when it be­gan pro­duc­ing its own VHS hard­ware, but – in what was a demon­stra­tion of ei­ther ad­mirable cus­tomer ser­vice or weapons-grade stub­born­ness – con­tin­ued pro­duc­tion of Be­ta­max ma­chines un­til 2002 and Be­ta­max cas­settes un­til 2015.

LASERDISC (1978 – 1996) Laserdisc may not have lasted the dis­tance, but it can be cred­ited with paving the way for the global suc­cess

of Com­pact Disc, DVD and Blu-ray – its con­cepts and tech­nolo­gies in­formed all later op­ti­cal disc for­mats.

De­vel­oped in the early 70s by Philips and MCA (the lat­ter of which mar­keted it in North Amer­ica as Dis­co­v­i­sion), the for­mat first hit the shelves in 1978 – just a cou­ple of years af­ter VHS. By 1980, it had been sold to Pi­o­neer, who badged it as both Laserdisc and Laservi­sion.

There was no dis­put­ing the su­pe­rior qual­ity of Laserdisc’s au­dio and video over VHS – it fea­tured 440 hor­i­zon­tal lines com­pared to the 240 of VHS. But, cru­cially, it was a read-only for­mat with no fa­cil­ity for record­ing.

Al­most as cru­cially, the discs them­selves were 12 inches in di­am­e­ter, the same size as vinyl LPS. They looked anachro­nis­tic next to a tidy lit­tle VHS or Be­ta­max cas­sette, and by the turn of the cen­tury it was all over.

VIDEO 2000 (1979 – 1988) Video 2000 (also known as V2000, Video Com­pact Cas­sette or VCC) was the re­sult of a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween

Philips and Grundig. Aimed at chal­leng­ing the fledg­ling VHS and Be­ta­max home video record­ing stan­dards, the lack of a de­fin­i­tive name was not the only rea­son the tech­nol­ogy floun­dered. V2000 was in­no­va­tive com­pared to its ri­vals, no­tably in the record­ing times of its two-sided cas­settes. But it ar­rived af­ter both VHS and Be­ta­max, to a mar­ket al­ready wary of com­pet­ing for­mats, and was never mar­keted in North Amer­ica at all. There was no cam­corder, and cru­cially, no sug­ges­tion the porn in­dus­try was in­ter­ested in V2000. And thus it was dis­con­tin­ued, years af­ter the pub­lic had for­got­ten all about it.

DAT (1987 – 2005) Tech­no­log­i­cally, Sony’s first stab at over­haul­ing the ubiq­ui­tous com­pact cas­sette as the de­fault record­ing

medium was a bril­liant suc­cess. By all other im­por­tant met­rics, though, dig­i­tal au­dio tape died on its arse.

Roughly half the size of a com­pact cas­sette, DAT used 4mm mag­netic tape to record, dig­i­tally and loss­lessly, at a bet­ter-than-cd res­o­lu­tion of 16-bit/48khz. That caused parox­ysms through­out the mu­sic in­dus­try, and the Record­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica threat­ened le­gal ac­tion. The va­garies of the global money mar­kets meant that DAT was more ex­pen­sive than Sony had in­tended (close to $1000 for a player/recorder, dou­ble what had been en­vis­aged) and con­sumers were, at best, wary and un­con­vinced. Thanks to its high-qual­ity per­for­mance, DAT found favour as a pro­fes­sional medium in record­ing and TV stu­dios. But as a con­sumer tech­nol­ogy, it’s a foot­note and some­thing of a missed op­por­tu­nity.

CDI (1991 – 1998) Com­pact Disc In­ter­ac­tive was an at­tempt by the ever-in­trepid Philips to pro­duce a disc-based sys­tem with

greater flex­i­bil­ity and func­tion­al­ity than ei­ther au­dio CD play­ers or games con­soles. At launch, it cost around $700, con­sid­er­ably cheaper than con­tem­po­rary PCS – but then it did come with­out key­board, mon­i­tor and hard- or floppy drives.

Al­though far more ambitious than a sim­ple games con­sole – it could play au­dio-, photo- and video-cds as well as games, and was avail­able with a slew of ed­u­ca­tional and ref­er­ence titles at a time when in­ter­net ac­cess was far from com­mon – CDI strug­gled to shake off its pub­lic per­cep­tion as a games con­sole.

Pretty quickly the pub­lic also per­ceived it to be a fail­ure. De­spite sup­port from brands as var­ied as Bang & Olufsen, Grundig and LG, grum­bles about the qual­ity of graph­ics, con­trols and, most damn­ingly, sta­bil­ity fin­ished CDI in short or­der.

DCC (1992 – 1996) How do you re­place a tech­nol­ogy that’s been a ru­n­away suc­cess and achieved lev­els of ubiq­uity you

wouldn’t have dared hope for? Well, if you’re Philips and the tech­nol­ogy in ques­tion is com­pact cas­sette, the an­swer is: with more of the same, only dig­i­tal.

A joint ven­ture be­tween Philips and Mat­sushita, dig­i­tal com­pact cas­sette was, vis­ually at least, sim­i­lar to the ana­logue cas­sette it sought to su­per­sede. Ana­logue cas­settes could be played on DCC recorders, and this backward com­pat­i­bil­ity meant a way into dig­i­tal record­ing with­out sac­ri­fic­ing ex­ist­ing cas­sette col­lec­tions. With DCC vy­ing with Mini­disc (and, to a lesser ex­tent, DAT) for mar­ket share, cus­tomers were cau­tious. When the dust set­tled, DCC proved to have lit­tle stay­ing power and Philips qui­etly buried the for­mat in 1996.

MINI­DISC (1992– 2013) Hav­ing seen its plans for DAT to be an af­ford­able hi-tech re­place­ment for com­pact cas­sette scup­pered by

in­ter­na­tional money mar­kets and in­dus­try out­rage, Sony re­grouped and served up Mini­disc in 1992. In the pre-mp3 era, the MD was fu­tur­is­ti­cally small (just 68 x 72 x 5mm) and its 80-minute stor­age ca­pac­ity ex­actly the same as the big­ger, less portable CD-R. For a while it seemed to be the nat­u­ral suc­ces­sor to Sony’s ubiq­ui­tous Walk­man se­ries of portable cas­sette play­ers.

There was scant en­thu­si­asm from record com­pa­nies, though, who were sus­pi­cious of Mini­disc’s pur­port­edly high-qual­ity record­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties (al­though there was not the up­roar that sur­rounded DAT). Pre-recorded al­bums were scarce, there were a slew of copy­right pro­tec­tion ini­tia­tives, and by 1998 the first MP3 play­ers had reached the mar­ket. Not even of­fer­ing a trade-off be­tween sound qual­ity and longer record­ing times (320 min­utes at sea-bed com­pres­sion lev­els) could save Mini­disc.

Sony can be pretty bloody-minded where its for­mats are con­cerned though, and ship­ment of MD de­vices didn’t end un­til 2013. In re­al­ity, it had been all over by the turn of the cen­tury.

“There was no dis­put­ing the su­pe­rior qual­ity of Laserdisc’s au­dio and video over VHS. But, cru­cially, it was a read-only for­mat with no fa­cil­ity for record­ing”

“With DCC vy­ing with Mini­disc and DAT for­mar­ket share, cus­tomers were nat­u­rally cau­tious. Philips qui­etly buried the for­mat in 1996”

SACD (1999 – 2007) Flushed with pride at the suc­cess of their jointly de­vel­oped Com­pact Disc for­mat, Sony and Philips put their

heads to­gether again to in­tro­duce high-res­o­lu­tion au­dio to the masses.

Su­per Au­dio CD was phys­i­cally iden­ti­cal to CD, but soft­ware sup­port was slow to ma­te­ri­alise (in­ex­pli­ca­ble when you consider Sony owned – and still con­tin­ues to own – the huge CBS Records cat­a­logue). And, while hy­brid SACDS could have their PCM layer read by con­ven­tional CD play­ers, the top-of-theshop dual-layer SACDS (with 8.5GB of stor­age, space for up to six dis­crete au­dio chan­nels and DSD au­dio en­cod­ing) re­quired a ded­i­cated player.

A num­ber of high-end Blu-ray play­ers con­tinue to of­fer SACD play­back, but once the Plays­ta­tion 3 had its SACD com­pat­i­bil­ity deleted in 2007, the writ­ing was al­most as big as the wall on which it was writ­ten.

“Con­sumers were, at best, am­biva­lent to­wards Dvd-au­dio – maybe be­cause they were un­will­ing to buy huge swathes of their mu­sic col­lec­tions again”

DVD-AU­DIO (2000 – 2007) Like SACD, Dvd-au­dio sought to bring high-res­o­lu­tion au­dio to mar­ket in a for­mat that was hap­pily

fa­mil­iar and com­fort­able. And like SACD, to an ex­tent it de­liv­ered the goods.

Us­ing DVD’S colos­sal (rel­a­tive to CD) stor­age ca­pac­ity meant that mu­sic could be stored in any con­fig­u­ra­tion from 1.0 mono to 5.1 sur­round sound. Mono or stereo in­for­ma­tion could be stored at 24-bit/192khz, and even 5.1 stuff could en­joy 24-bit/96khz res­o­lu­tion.

But de­spite back­ing from the likes of EMI, Uni­ver­sal and Warner Bros (or per­haps, in part, be­cause of the re­stricted and rar­efied DVD-A catalogues those record com­pa­nies re­leased), con­sumers were am­biva­lent to­wards Dvd-au­dio.

Maybe the pub­lic were tired of the for­mat set-to with SACD, or per­haps they were un­der­whelmed by the soft­ware avail­able. Or maybe it was sim­ply that they were un­will­ing to buy huge swathes of their mu­sic col­lec­tions again.

What­ever the rea­son – and there was no ar­gu­ing with the sonic ben­e­fits of the for­mat – no brand has pro­duced a ded­i­cated DVD-A player since 2007.

HD DVD (2006 – 2008) The con­sumer elec­tron­ics in­dus­try ap­pears to rel­ish a for­mat war – and HD DVD is the most re­cent ex­am­ple

of its ap­petite for mak­ing the con­sumer the last stage of Re­search & De­vel­op­ment.

Af­ter the ru­n­away suc­cess of DVD, High Def­i­ni­tion Dig­i­tal Ver­sa­tile Disc was an ob­vi­ous next step. De­vel­oped jointly by Toshiba and NEC, it used ex­ist­ing DVD in­fra­struc­ture and could store more than three times as much in­for­ma­tion as DVD (15GB com­pared to 4.7GB). Its au­dio sup­port – 24-bit/192khz au­dio (for two chan­nels) or 24-bit/96khz (for up to eight) – was im­pres­sive too. But it was de­vel­oped at the same time as Sony and its part­ners were work­ing on the Blu-ray for­mat – and Blu-ray could hold up to 50GB of in­for­ma­tion per disc.

Con­sumers were treated to an­other uned­i­fy­ing pub­lic scrap, but Sony’s de­ci­sion to equip 2007’s Plays­ta­tion 3 with a Blu-ray drive, and the ero­sion of sup­port from ma­jor film stu­dios, meant this brawl was mer­ci­fully brief.

The les­son to be learned from Be­ta­max’s fail­ure: ‘never sec­ondguess con­sumers’

8-track tapes were pop­u­lar with car man­u­fac­tur­ers, but they couldn’t crack the home mar­ket

Laserdisc was bet­ter qual­ity than VHS, but looked anachro­nis­tic next to its ri­val

In 1992, Sony’s Mini­disc looked destined to be the nat­u­ral suc­ces­sor to the Walk­man

The writ­ing was on the wall for SACD when the for­mat was dropped from the Plays­ta­tion 3

Like Be­ta­max in the 1980s, HD DVD lost out to Blu-ray in an­other bit­ter for­mat war

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.