I still have a working laser disc player. I’m surprised how many people have never heard of laser discs. In the 80s and early 90s it was state-of-the-art technology. There was a kind of a cult of laser disc enthusiasts who bought laser disc players and set up home theaters at a time when home theater was not the common place thing it is today.
The players were not too expensive, around $300-to $500 for an average player, maybe up to $1,000 higher end models. I bought a used Pioneer CLD S 201 for a couple hundred at a local hi-fi store (remember them?). It needed some work which the store did for free and it’s worked perfectly ever since.
The laser discs themselves were 12 inches in diameter, same as a vinyl LP, and like LPs they were analog not digital. Some came with digital sound, but the video was all what they call “interlaced,” rather than progressive. Also the video information was not “anamorphic,” which means that when you play it on the new digital widescreens it has lots of black space all around it. To fill the screen you have to use the Zoom feature on the TV.
One bad effect of zooming is magnification of the flaws in the picture. However, there are enough ways to offset the defects by adjusting noise reduction, contrast, brightness, and all the other adjustment options that are available on today’s television. As a result you can get a pretty decent picture out of a laser disc. Not as good as Blu-Ray, I grant you, but pretty damn good.
Laser discs were considered a high-end product, and were produced by Sony, Image, MGM, 20th Century Fox. Most titles went for around $35-$40. But the thing with LDs was that they catered to the movie conoisseur who didn’t mind paying a higher price for premium movie fare. I can remember shelling out around $90 for Vertigo. A special box set of the original Flash Gordon serial went for about the same amount.
Among the discs in my collection, and regrettably I don’t have that many, maybe around 30 or so, is the laser disc version of the original, unenhanced version of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s got very good sound quality. That was one of the things about LDs that made them cool. The soundtracks on some were and still are better than some Blu Rays today. You have to hear it to believe it.
There’s also something about the Laser Disc picture quality that actually seem more like film. Sure, up close you can see the roughness in the texture, but that’s the way film looks when its projected on a big screen too. When you’re sitting back in your chair at viewing distance, the picture actually feels more like a theater viewing experience.
I just watched my LD copy of “My Name is Nobody,” the Italian western with Henry Fonda that most people think Sergio Leone actually directed, instead of ToninoValerii, the director who was given credit. It was about a gunfighter trying to retire and a fan who wanted him to make one last play and find his place in history. It’s a good film and thoroughly enjoyable on Laser Disc. Like aging gunfighters, Laser Discs were made obsolete by history, but they’ve still got a few good plays left in them. At least until parts are no longer available.