There’s an amazing online archive of vintage magazines that I have only just begun rummaging through. I was pleased to see this 1982 review of the Sony CDP-101, the first commercial CD player. The reviewer gets hold of a unit even before they go on sale commercially, saying:
I feel as though I am a witness to the birth of a new audio era.
This was the first time that the public had encountered disc loading drawers, instant track selection, digital readouts and digital fast forward and rewind, so he goes into great detail on how these work.
And at that time, the mechanics of the disc playing mechanism seemed inextricably linked with the nature of digital audio itself, so, after reading the more technical sections of the article, the reader’s mind would be awhirl with microscopic dots, collimators and laser focusing servos – possibly not really grasping the fundamentals of what is going on.
Audio measurements are shown, though, and of course these are at levels of performance hitherto unknown. (He is not able to make his own measurements this time, but a month later he has received the necessary test disc and is able to do so).
As I write these numbers, I find it difficult to remember that I am talking about a disc player!
Towards the end, the reviewer finally listens to some music. He is impressed:
I was fortunate enough to get my hands on seven different compact digital disc albums. Some of the selections on these albums were obviously dubbed from analog master tapes, but even these were so free of any kind of background noise that they could, for the first time, be thoroughly enjoyed as music. There’s a cut of the beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, with the Boston Symphony conducted by Ozawa, that delivers the gut -massaging opening bass note with a depth and clarity that I never thought possible for any music reproduction system. But never mind the specific notes or passages. Listening to the complete soundtrack recording of “Chariots of Fire,” the images and scenes of that marvelous film were re- created in my mind with an intensity that would just not have been possible if the music had been heard behind a veil of surface noise and compressed dynamic range.
He talks about
…the sheer magnificence of the sound delivered by Compact Discs
…after my experiences with this first digital audio disc player and the few sample discs that were loaned to me, I am convinced that, sooner or later, the analog LP will have to go the way of the 78 shellac record. I can’t tell you how long the transition will take, but it will happen!
A couple of months later he reviews a Technics player:
Voices and orchestral sounds were so utterly clean and lifelike that every once in a while we just had to pause, look up, and confirm that this heavenly music was, indeed, pouring forth from a pair of loudspeaker systems. As many times as I’ve heard this noise -free, wide dynamic -range sound, it’s still thrilling to hear new music reproduced this way…
…the cleanest, most inspiring sound you have ever heard in your home
So here we are at the very start of the CD era, and an experienced reviewer finding absolutely no problems with the measurements or sound.
In audiophile folklore, however, we are now led to believe that he was deluded. It is very common for audiophiles to sneer about the advertising slogan “Perfect Sound Forever”.
Stereophile in 1995:
When some unknown copywriter coined that immortal phrase to promote the worldwide launch of Compact Disc in late 1982, little did he or she foresee how quickly it would become a term of ridicule.
But in an earlier article from 1983 they had reviewed the Sony player saying that with one particular recording it gave:
…the most realistic reproduction of an orchestra I have heard in my home in 20-odd years of audio listening!
…on the basis of that Decca disc alone, I am now fairly confident about giving the Sony player a clean bill of health, and declaring it the best thing that has happened to music in the home since The Coming of Stereo.
For sure, there were/are many bad CDs and recordings, but it is now commonly held that early CD was fundamentally bad. I don’t believe it was. I would bet that virtually no one could tell the difference between an early CD player and modern ‘high res’.
Both magazines seemed aware that their own livings could be in jeopardy if ‘all CD players sound the same’, but I think that CD’s main problem was the impossibility of divorcing the perceived sound from the physical form of the players. 1980s audio equipment looked absolutely terrible – as a browse through the magazines of the time will attest.
Within a couple of years, CD players turned from being expensive, heavy and solid, to cheap, flimsy and with the cheesiest appearance of any audio equipment. They all measured pretty much the same, however, regardless of cost or appearance. Digital audio was revealed to be what it is: information technology that is affordable by everyone.
This, of course, killed it in the eyes and ears of many audiophiles.