The CD turns 25

By Valens Quinn

By the time we’re able to have music beamed telepathically into our skulls, the humble compact disc (CD) might finally get the admiration it deserves. For the CD was the spark that ignited the digital audio revolution, one that now sees us downloading music from the internet, and cramming tracks upon tracks into iPods and even mobile phones.

And let’s not overlook the fact that when Philips and Sony launched the CD back in 1982, there was no competing format, like the VHS/Betamax debacle, no silly ‘+/-‘ malarkey with DVD, or the recently ridiculous Blu-ray versus HD DVD confusion. Yes, it was only CD back then. Pure and simple.

I first heard about these shiny little wonders on a TV news story, where the presenter smeared peanut butter on a CD, wiped it off, and then showed that it still worked. You couldn’t do that with a cassette! The same presenter went on to say that discs were scratch resistant too, but considering the 20 or so CDs I’ve raked to uselessness over the years, the reporter was clearly a tad off the mark. However, compared to the fragility of a vinyl record, which tended to skip from a few specks of dust, it was easy to see where his excitement was coming from.

The first CD for commercial release rolled off the line at a Philips factory near Hanover, Germany, on 17 August 1982. The first title released for CD was ABBA’s The Visitors, and Dire Straits’s album Brothers in Arms was the first to sell a million CD copies in 1985. The CD’s 16-bit PCM encoding and 44.1 kHz sampling rate offered exceptional audio quality and received high praise from pundits, although some audiophiles considered clean, digital sound a little too clinical.

While Philips brought expertise to manufacturing the physical disc (as it had been developing other optical discs), Sony’s leadership in digital electronics saw it beat Philips to market with the first player, the CDP-101 (pictured below), in October 1982. The player was first introduced in Japan and then Europe, and in the United States the following year. In 1984, Sony’s first incar and portable CD players hit the market.

The audio CD measured 120mm in diameter, and could hold 74 minutes of music. Compared to LP vinyl records, which could hold about 15 to 20 minutes per side, this was an exciting improvement. Only cassettes could complete for playing time, but you’d need to wind through them, while with records and CDs you could go immediately to the desired song.

While CDs started life as audio-only, in 1983 a new standard was introduced to carry data – around 640 megabytes to begin with. Not long afterwards, CD drives started appearing in computers, and the CD became a medium for photos, video and data. Recordable (CD-R) and re-writable (CD-RW) functionality was introduced, and as prices for media and the drives themselves started to plummet, CDs found new uses such as drink coasters and emergency make-up mirrors.

It’s astonishing to think that by 2007, over 200 billon CDs have been sold around the world. But has the sun set on the CD? While new figures have shown some growth in CD sales in Australia, it’s not difficult to see that with the evolution of the Internet as a music delivery mechanism, and Australia’s love affair with MP3 players, the CD’s days are certainly numbered.