On October 1, 1982, Sony ignited a digital audio revolution with the release of the world’s first commercial compact disc player, the CDP-101 (above), in Japan. It signaled the dawn of a new audio medium that promised to deliver a crystal-clear music experience for a generation of consumers accustomed to the analog hiss and crackle of vinyl records.
Sony’s player, which retailed for about $674 at 1982 exchange rates (that’s roughly $1609 in 2012 dollars), launched alongside a group of 50 classical and pop CDs published by CBS Records. Names like Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Schubert shared the bill with more modern artists such as Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and Journey. Each disc cost $14 or $15.25 apiece (about $33 to $36 in 2012 dollars), with the classical discs on the high end.
Critics expected the then-expensive medium to be relegated to audiophiles and the wealthy, but the compact disc’s creators watched as the CD fulfilled its original purpose: To supplant the long-playing record as the home audio medium of choice—an achievement it attained a mere five years later.
[Check out our visual timeline at the end of the story.]
The future in a disc
Throughout its first decade on the market, the compact disc represented a tangible link to the future for many consumers. It combined two cutting-edge technologies, the laser and the digital computer, into a relatively inexpensive consumer product with capabilities unimagined just a decade prior.
Experts hailed the laser as one of the great inventions of high-tech industry upon its first demonstration in 1960. The idea of a superconcentrated, coherent light beam resonated strongly with the public, and the media often portrayed the technology as a potential “death ray” weapon.
Although the laser eventually found its niche as a tool in communication and information science, serious researchers called the laser an invention in search of an application. It was amazing, sure, but it had no apparent practical use.
Consider, then, the compact disc, which stores audio in microscopic pits that players read by reflected laser light. Although the optical video disc preceded it, the CD became the breakthrough mass-market application of the laser. By virtue of the audio format’s astounding success, the CD represented the ultimate vindication of the laser as both an invention and a commercial product.
Likewise with digital technology. In 1984, a year after the CD format debuted in the US, a mere 7.9 percent of American households owned personal computers, according to a study from UC Irvine. (By 2010, that figure had grown to 77 percent, per a U.S. Department of Commerce study.) Video game consoles had come before, but their penetration was limited compared with consumer audio devices like radios and turntables.
For many Americans, the compact disc was the first product of the computer revolution they ever owned. It represented the dawn of the digital age for the average consumer.
Genesis of a new medium
According to Hans Peek, one of the engineers who designed the compact disc, the optical format was born from a frustration with vinyl records. They were easy to scratch. They wore out the more you played them, making the sound they produced worse over time. And they were big and bulky, preventing their playing equipment from shrinking, alongside other audio technology that was undergoing a solid-state revolution throughout the 1960s.
In 1972, Philips demonstrated a new type of home medium, the optical video disc, to the press. This technology, which Philips called Video Long Play (VLP), emerged from years of research at Philips as a way to bring home video to the masses. VLP discs looked similar to large CDs, but they stored audio and video on a much larger disc and in an analog format (this technology later became known as LaserDisc).
When Philips engineers got the itch to create their vinyl replacement in 1974, they decided to base their efforts on the VLP. Accordingly, they would create a large diameter optical disc for music called the Audio Long Play (ALP).
Due to limitations of the medium, Philips engineers found that audio recorded in an analog format on the optical disc was prone to drop-outs and lacked the fidelity they desired. So they made the leap to a digital audio signal—primarily because they knew that with the proper mathematical error-correcting routines, they could mask any imperfections in the disc’s audio playback. According to Peek, the decision to use digital error-correcting methods was the compact disc’s true innovation.
Over the next few years, the ALP system shrunk down to an 11.5-cm disc that could store 60 minutes of stereo audio. Not long after, Philips decided to change the name of the project to Compact Disc, in reference to Philips’s successful Compact Cassette format.
On March 8, 1979, Philips hosted a press conference in the Netherlands where journalists got their first taste of digital music. The response they received was enthusiastic, but Philips could feel the Asian electronics giants breathing down their necks. A handful of Japanese electronics firms had demonstrated their own digital audio disc prototypes a few years prior, and Philips knew that it needed an Asian partner to make its format a success.
Philips pitched its CD product and a potential partnership to various Japanese companies, and to their delight, Sony said yes. It would join with Philips to refine the standard and commit to creating its own line of CD players.
Over the course of the next year, Philips and Sony hammered out the details of their plan. The CD size was changed to 12 cm on the insistence of Sony so a single disc could hold 74 minutes of audio—the amount of time needed to play Beethoven’s famous Symphony No. 9 in D minor. Amusingly, the companies based the diameter of the inner hole of a CD on the size of the Dutch dime.
In June 1980, Sony and Philips announced they had settled on their compact disc audio standard, inviting other audio electronics firms to license the technology and climb aboard the good ship Digital. Many agreed.
The entire audio electronics industry spent the next two years in a race to shrink down the technology of the CD player into a manageable size that would fit in a hi-fi cabinet. Sony just happened to release its model first; within six months over ten different CD player models became available.
Life as audio disc
Immediately after its release, reviewers praised the compact disc system for its amazing clarity, high dynamic range, and low signal-to-noise ratio. Meanwhile, die-hard audiophiles clung to their vinyl and proclaimed the death of quality music reproduction.
Those detractors—and they were surprisingly few—based their protestations mostly on gut emotional appeals that pitted analog verses digital, man verses machine. Analog was warm and friendly, and innately human, they argued, while digital’s ones and zeroes imparted the cold starkness of a robot.
To the consumer, the quality of the CD’s audio output spoke for itself, and it was only a matter of time and cost before the format gained mass acceptance—and then total dominance as the audio medium of choice. In 1988, CDs outsold vinyl in units shipped for the first time, and CDs surpassed cassette tapes by the same measure in 1992.
By that point, a CD player cost drastically less than it did in 1982, and CDs had gained the added convenience of being a mobile audio platform as well. In-dash CD players showed up in more and more automobiles as standard features by the early 1990s (Sony debuted the first in-car CD player in 1984), and portable CD players gained skip protection and battery life.
Musical artists loved the compact disc. From the beginning, they praised its ability to reproduce a digital studio master exactly, bit-for-bit, with no quality loss.
It wasn’t long before the electronics industry saw CD’s potential to be more than just a vehicle for music. Companies tinkered with still video graphics (CD+G), analog video/digital audio hybrids (CD Video), purely digital video (Video CD), interactive elements (CD-i), photo storage (Photo CD), and more.
Along the way, Sony and Philips seemed eager to meet each need with a new standard. But the biggest side application of all came from the CD’s capacity to store digital data—lots and lots of digital data.
Life as CD-ROM
When the audio compact disc first hit the market, the consumer press naturally viewed the invention from a practical angle: as a small, durable medium for noise-free audio. Computer engineers looked at the same technology and saw a 4.7-inch disc that could store a staggering 6.3 billion bits of information.
Almost immediately, a half dozen computer media companies fell over themselves in a race to repurpose the CD as a medium for computer software. And here’s why: In 1982, a standard double-sided IBM PC floppy disk held 360 kilobytes, or about 2.6 million bits of data. A quick trip to a calculator will show you that 2390 IBM floppies’ worth of digital data could theoretically fit on a single CD (assuming you used no extra bits for error correction).
Computer-linked CD drive prototypes created by half a dozen different computer media companies showed up as early as late 1983 and continued through 1984. Sony and Philips recognized a potential sub-format war brewing and decided to create an official standard, which they called CD-ROM (for Compact Disc Read-Only Memory).
The CD-ROM spec set aside extra bits for error correction, which ate up some space, but it still left a roomy 650 million bytes of storage on a single disc. (The audio CD system itself incorporates error correction, but computer data has much more stringent needs—if a single bit is misplaced, a program might not run at all.)
In 1985, the first commercial CD-ROM drives appeared in nonconsumer markets, but the question remained: What would people do with all that space? The natural application of CD-ROM technology involved the storage of anything that would normally take up multiple thick volumes if it were in print. Government, medical, and demographic databases constituted the first commercial CD-ROM discs out the door in 1985, and encyclopedias followed not long after.
Using the CD-ROM as a medium to distribute plain old computer programs didn’t catch on at first. After all, who could justify manufacturing a 550MB or 650MB CD that held a 200 kilobyte program? The answer was to distribute in bulk: the PC Special Interest Group of Sunnyvale, California (one of the first organizations to distribute software on CD), published a disc in 1986 that held 4000 public domain and shareware programs. Amusingly, it occupied a mere one-sixth of the CD-ROM’s total capacity.
Likewise, the CD-ROM’s promise as a potential carrier of digital imagery or video could not come to fruition until consumer-level computer graphical systems caught up with it—that is, until machines were fast enough and could display enough colors to fully harness the storage space of a full CD-ROM disc for entertainment.
Computers did catch up with CD-ROMs in the early 1990s, sparking the age of “multimedia.” The lushly illustrated adventure game Myst (1993) for the Mac became the medium’s first consumer killer app. Mainstream video game consoles began to use CD-ROMs for storage around that time as well (the first actually arrived in 1988 for Japan’s PC Engine console), enabling the CD-powered Sony PlayStation to quickly steal Nintendo’s crown as King of the Consoles.
By the late 1990s, computer programs ballooned in size and CD-ROM drive prices dropped, paving the way for the compact disc to become the most popular way to distribute software.
And who can forget the role of the CD-R, which began as an extremely expensive niche product in 1989 and, one decade later, turned into a quick and cheap way to move data from place to place—and to copy music.
Over time, the CD-ROM became supplanted by DVD-ROM and other optical technologies in capacity, and its popularity waned. But the invention that truly killed CD-ROM as the most popular software distribution method possessed no fixed size or shape. Ironically, it was the same invention that is now killing the audio CD: The Internet.
The end of the CD
Looking back, it is now obvious that the CD’s digital nature formed the basis of its undoing. In convincing record labels to digitize tens of thousands of albums and distribute them without DRM, the architects of the CD format set the stage for the file-sharing controversy of the early 2000s.
But the engineers who designed the CD had no way of knowing that it would be possible to one day hold a thousand CDs worth of music in your back pocket, or to rocket the data contained on them halfway across the world in a few minutes.
The birth of CD-ripping and music file-sharing shows that, all along, the disc itself wasn’t the point: It was the data contained on the disc that mattered. Information wants to be free, and by the late 1990s, digital audio had found a way out of its cage. More powerful computer technology liberated music from audio CDs and placed it in a more flexible medium: that is, in no particular medium at all.
Today, with ample storage space and transfer bandwidth, digital music can lurk in hard drives and flash memory, then flow from any one computer to the next thanks to LANs and the Internet. Increasingly, music lives on remote servers in distant lands, just waiting to be streamed to a user’s smartphone or ultratiny netbook.
Which brings up a good point that many others may miss: During its heyday, the compact disc gained its value not just as an information storage medium, but as a powerful data transfer method as well. For decades, the CD was the most efficient way for consumers to take large amounts of data recorded somewhere else and bring it home to their house quickly—much faster than downloading 650MB of music or software through whatever primitive network was available at the time.
But now superfast networks are here, and storage is plentiful, making the two best aspects of the CD obsolete. Thus, the value of the compact disc has decreased dramatically.
For the moment, the CD holds on as the most popular physical medium for music, and it will always be that way; it is the last of its kind. In 2011, digital music sales by volume surpassed sales of music on physical media for the first time. The music has been turned loose, and it doesn’t want to go back in its cell.
Thirty years later, the compact disc may be on its way out, however slowly, but with its rainbow sheen and microscopic digital magic, it still feels to many like an artifact of the future.