The CD: 16 Bits and 20 Years

The introduction of the compact disc was the greatest single leap forward in the history of recorded audio after Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877 and the introduction of electrical recording in the late 1920s. By 1983 the long-playing (LP) record had entered what the late Peter Mitchell, my prime audio mentor, aptly referred to as its Baroque period. All the "improvements" that were then being touted - linear-tracking turntables, moving-coil phono cartridges, and dynamically compressed recordings designed to be expanded on playback by dbx or CX decoders - were merely ornamentation on the technologically ancient stylus-in-groove structure. Something had to kick the music industry out of its noisy, skip-prone vinyl groove.

Experiments with digital audio recording had been going on for years at, among other places, the BBC, Denon, Sony, and, in this country, Thomas Stockham's enormously influential Soundstream company. A marriage between digital audio recording and Philips's optically based, but basically analog, laserdisc system - with its damage-resistant, wear-free medium - seemed promising. Years of research, development, and wrangling over standards (I attended some of the committee meetings) culminated for me in the December 1982 issue of Stereo Review, our predecessor, which contained an advance look at Sony's first CD player, the CDP-101. I had the privilege of writing that article, the first in-depth review of a CD player in an American publication, which appeared several months before it or any other CD player actually went on sale in this country. That didn't happen until March 1983, which is why we're celebrating the CD's 20th anniversary this year and not in 2002.