Pioneer Discontinues Laserdisc Players

Announcing the death of a format can be tricky business. After all, a lot of them live on in our hearts, minds, racks, and libraries--and at least one "dead" format, the LP, never really died. But if the manufacture of hardware is a major criterion, then the laserdisc format has died. Pioneer has discontinued its last three laserdisc player models, according to a brief announcement in Akihabara News.

Originally known as DiscoVision and LaserVision, the 12-inch optical videodisc format was developed by MCA and Philips. The first consumer player wore the Magnavox logo, though Pioneer eventually became the format's champion, giving it the proprietary name LaserDisc, which became the generic format name laserdisc.

Laserdisc output an analog NTSC signal, and is therefore as obsolete as the doomed analog broadcast standard. It was never a high-def format. There were two subformats, the higher-quality CAV, which held 30 minutes per side, and the more capacious and prevalent CLV, which held an hour per side. Two-hour, two-sided discs in CLV became the norm. Most discs were released with audio in a pretty decent two-channel FM-carrier format, which carried matrixed Dolby Surround, and was eventually upgraded to PCM digital. This allowed LD/CD combi players to be marketed. In the format's waning years, Dolby Digital and DTS were added.

The laserdisc won a three-way format war with two other major disc formats, both of which, incredibly, were stylus-read like an LP. CED was invented and promoted by RCA, then an independent company, and the loss of the format war--along with tens of millions of dollars--was a major factor in turning RCA from an independent company to a TV brand that got passed around like a shopping bag. There was also a VHD format from JVC, which also went nowhere, but did so less expensively. Laserdisc won because consumers perceived greater performance and value in an optical-disc format.

There was a time when having a laserdisc player and library was synonymous with being a videophile. Considering the alternatives, it was the best choice. Its more than 400 lines of horizontal resolution were better than either VHS or Beta, at 250 each, and also beat the 300 lines of broadcast TV. There was a Super VHS format boasting more than 400 lines, but it recorded only the brightness signal at that resolution, and the color signal at lower resolution, so it looked smeary compared to laserdisc.

Laserdisc was doomed when DVD made its debut. The smaller disc was--well, smaller, and it offered better resolution (even though standard-def) and accommodated Dolby Digital and DTS from day one. Even now, the DVD shows signs of holding on in the face of competition from the genuinely superior Blu-ray, which supports HD, lossless surround, and other good stuff. But no one knows how long it will take for DVD to go the way of laserdisc.

Anyway, goodbye, laserdisc. I'll always associate you with evenings spent with passionate movie-loving friends. Thanks for the memories.