Honey, I blew up the DVD!
I picked up this Pioneer CLD-D701 laserdisc player and 7 laserdiscs for $50 CAD at a garage sale last weekend. The player and discs are all in pristine condition. The lovely amber VFD is still very bright and evenly lit. Even better, the player lets me turn off the display, which I'll probably end up doing most of the time to extend its life. All of the mechanical features, including the automatic disc flipping system, work great. This player has 4 video outputs (2 composite, 2 S-Video), two analog audio outputs, and even a digital (optical) audio output. I've owned a couple of LD players in the past, but they've all been fairly basic in comparison. None of my previous LDPs had digital audio bitstreaming, nor could they automatically flip the disc at the end of a side.
The handling and playback of laserdiscs is quite something. Similar to records, really, the way the discs slip in and out of their inner paper sleeves. The discs themselves are roughly the same size as a record. An LD cover is large enough to be framed and used as mini movie poster. And the player sounds like it's about to lift off and fly around the room as it spins the 12" discs up to speed. This unit pulls 41 watts from the wall, 40 of which I'm guessing are used to spin these ginormous discs.
The audio quality is great! Of the 7 discs I received with the player, 6 had stereo PCM audio, and three of those
also had 5.1 Dolby Digital. The oldest disc, from 1984, was completely analog. I piped the PCM tracks to my modest 2.1 setup via optical and thought that it sounded just as good as DVD. Plenty of dynamic range. Low-end is there, but definitely not as pronounced as it is on DVD and BD releases of the same film. Perhaps the really low bass is on the Dolby Digital track, which unfortunately I can't access. Laserdisc is weird in that Dolby Digital is actually stored on the analog audio track and cannot be passed through the optical connection. And if you try to play Dolby Digital out of the player's analog output, you just get noise out of the right channel. To retrieve the Dolby Digital data that's embedded in the right channel, you need a gadget called an AC-3 demodulator, which of course I don't have. Whatever. The digital PCM track sounds fine. Nice and balanced. Easily CD quality, as advertised.
Video quality is easily much better than what my fairly high end JVC VHS deck is capable of, but it's definitely behind DVD. No surprise there, as these giant optical discs store analog video. I still find that absolutely fascinating. You know, I wonder if it's possible to use a computer's optical drive to write 5 minutes worth of "analog" video to a CD-R and play it in a CDV-compatible player like this one. Obviously, the computer is a digital machine, but remember how you could use LightScribe drives to laser-etch pictures on discs? Would it be possible to take that idea a step further and pulse the laser in such a way that it records something that, to an LD player, looks like an analog video signal?
Back to LD video quality. Even though all 7 of the LDs are widescreen editions, it took me a good 10-15 minutes to find the correct combination of video scaler options in both the AV receiver and TV to finally give me a full-size image with the correct aspect ratio. Also, the final output quality seems to depend entirely on your TV's analog video handling capabilities. Laserdiscs looked wonderful on my entirely analog CRT televisions back in the day. And even though DVD and Laserdisc have a roughly similar video resolution, flat panel TVs seem to have a much harder time processing the video signal that comes out of an LD player.
However, I found that my plasma TV did a much better job of upscaling and deinterlacing the Laserdisc signal than our LCD bedroom TV. There were absolutely no deinterlacing artefacts on the plasma, even in panning shots. And this was just using the player's composite output (no s-video on the TV)!Though getting a modern TV to show Laserdisc images at the correct size and aspect ratio can quickly turn into a bit of a guessing game, it can be done. Here's a 2.35:1 LD being displayed in all of its CinemaScope glory. In fact, it looks nearly as good on this 1080p plasma as it did on my Sony Wega CRT back in the day.
On the LCD TV, the laserdisc image was severely lacking in sharpness and contrast, with the letterbox bars actually appearing grey!
The image was dull and washed out. Even worse, I couldn't get the picture to fill the entire screen; at least, not without stretching the image completely out of proportion. It's on TVs like this where the advantages of DVD quickly become apparent. Even the output from a 1999 Sony DVD player, connected to the LCD via component, looked approximately 2 billion times better.
So yeah, that was my look back at Laserdisc. I had fun. It was $50 well spent.