Long Live Laserdisc

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While not obvious (or perhaps painfully obvious) I have a healthy amount of hobbies and passions, in addition to classic gaming, that keep me busy. This includes karting, Pokémon Trading Card Game, movies, and photography. Today I’m going to focus on movies.

10 years ago I was a home theatre enthusiast and would keep up with all of the latest technologies to get the most out of the viewing experience. My first HDTV purchase was back in 2005. I bought a "Home Theatre in a Box" system a few months later.

The budget "theatre" circa 2006.

The budget "theatre" circa 2006.

I even bought an HD DVD player on launch day in 2006 and was watching high definition movies with full 5.1 surround sound well before the average consumer. Back in 2006, the only thing broadcast in high def was American Idol and Golf. While I generally didn't have the best equipment, I had high aspirations of an epic theatre room with all the best equipment.

While everything I own in 2014 has been upgraded and replaced, I no longer keep up with the technology and won't likely drop $500 on a disc player ever again. In fact, my interest in film consumption has since moved in the complete opposite direction.

During my weekly thrifting run I stumbled upon an awesome piece of vintage tech at the local Goodwill. I always cruise past the "electronics" section hoping to stumble into another NUON player, or perhaps a Philips CD-i, or some other gaming relic that would be easy for the public to overlook. What caught my eye was not a gaming system however, but was a rather massive looking hulk of black plastic and with gold accents. It was a Laserdisc player.

My only experience with Laserdisc was back in a Science class around the year 2000. I guess the platform was semi-popular for educational releases, presumably because it had chapter skipping, something that wouldn't be possible on VHS tapes. It was certainly fascinating to see, and I wouldn’t see another laser disc until this fateful day at Goodwill.

Pioneer CLD-M401

Anyway, for $15 I had to have it. I then cruised over to the media section and there were 5 LDs priced at $2 each. So for $25 plus tax I had expanded my film hobby back a few generations.

When I got home, I was sad to realize a disc was missing from one of the movies. I was even more sad that the disc tray wouldn't open, and instead made grinding noises. Opening up the machine revealed the missing disc, and the tray would thankfully open with a little bit of prodding. A couple rubber bands later and I had it up and running.

Laserdisc is kind of a funny format. It's actually quite old, debuting back in 1978. This predates the Compact Disc by 5 years. It never caught on as a mainstream format, losing out to VHS despite it being technically superior. VHS's ability to record programming won over the hearts of 80's movie buyers.

There are quite a few myths when it comes to Laserdisc. Firstly, the video is not stored digitally like on a DVD or Blu-ray disc. The processing power didn't exist in the 1970's to attempt a video codec, let alone have a consumer device then decode the data. Instead, the video is actually stored in a composite, analog format.

The video has nearly twice fidelity of VHS, but is still very much a low-definition signal. Composite video isn't that great either, and there is not separate luma/chroma information on the disc. It's strictly inferior to DVD, its spiritual successor.

Composite.

Composite.

My particular player does include an S-Video output port, but relies on internal circuitry to re-create a separate luma/chroma signal. Many mid-to-high range televisions of the 90's advertised "3D Comb Filters" which is essentially the same thing: circuitry to clean up the noisy composite signal.

While the video quality may not be that great, it has a certain 90's charm to it that appeals to me. The movies I've watched so far have plenty of flaws from the film transfer process. There are dirt speckles, tears, and other picture noise you’d find in a modern budget cinema. The picture often has slight jitters, and wiggles back and forth, like the film wasn't quite right before the transfer to the medium. The resolution is similar to an early DVD (before "anamorphic" DVDs become the norm). It's surprisingly acceptable, even with my televisions awful scaling capabilities. The imperfections have a grungy feel to them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the audio. On most releases there is a digital audio track offering two channel, uncompressed PCM audio. It's actually nearly the same quality you’d get from a modern CD. My player has a Toslink optical connector on the back; making it very easy to connect to a modern receiver.

There isn't much else to say about the audio, the sound quality is fantastic even when limited to just 2 channels. A few discs do offer a full 5.1 surround track (with higher bitrates than DVDs) but these are few and far between.

It’s like comparing a Neo Geo cartridge to a Genesis cartridge. The Laserdisc has a presence to it that cannot be replicated, and likely never will.

I'm not quite sure why all of this appeals to me like it has. There is something cool about holding the giant cardboard packaging. It's fun riffling through my growing collection, like a bin full of records. It's fun to pull out the massive disc that simply dwarfs modern blu-rays. It's like comparing a Neo Geo cartridge to a Genesis cartridge. The Laserdisc has a presence to it that cannot be replicated, and likely never will.

Another limitation of the format is that it can only hold around 60 minutes of video per side. So for any movie, you are going to have to get up and flip the disc mid-movie. Some movies have a second disc meaning another flipping break or two is required to complete the experience. This again, doesn't bother me. There is something organic about flipping the disc over. Similar to setting the needle on a record or inserting a cartridge into the NES and closing the door.

Austin and I have discussed physical media many times on the Podcast. I predict in 5 years we will rarely, if ever, purchase discs for the PS4 and Xbox One. We will simply buy the games through the online store.

The budget "theatre" circa 2014.

I already rent a lot of movies through Amazon's store and the experience is quite good, and the selection is limitless. How else are you going to watch the TNT made-for-TV movie The Pirates of Silicon Valley? This trend continues with classic video games such as Earthbound. The easiest way to play this game is through the Virtual Console on the Wii and Wii U.

Music is already trending toward an all cloud experience (with a niche Vinyl market of course), movies and television are not far behind. I've watched most modern television series through Netflix (Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, and Sons of Anarchy for example) rather than paying for a cable subscription or buying the seasons on disc. I don't need to own them, I just need to watch them.

It's only a matter of time before gaming is the same. While I accept the inevitability of this situation, and in most ways embrace it, I will not likely part ways with my physical media collection. I will miss the thrill of the hunt, finding that rare gem out in the wild.

Laserdisc is just another way for me to consume 80s and 90s nostalgia. Thankfully, it's also cheap. Most discs can be had for between $3 to $5. Even 4-disc collector's editions of titles can be had for $20 or so. Nearly every movie from the 80's and 90's was released on the format, so most movies you enjoyed from this era are available.

Clerks, Dir. Kevin Smith. Miramax, 1994.

I will probably buy a few of my favorite 90’s movies where the quality of the film isn’t important. I’ve already tracked down the Jersey Trilogy (Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy) along with one of my favorites, Rounders. I wouldn’t mind owning the original Star Wars, and Alien trilogies as well. They look nice on the shelf and serve a similar purpose to owning original Genesis and Super Nintendo cartridges.

So should you buy a Laserdisc player? If you read this website, listen to the podcast, or watch our videos and are also a fan of film, I would recommend keeping your eyes open. If you have a 20 dollar bill to spend and come across one at a thrift shop, grab one. It really is a neat little piece of nostalgia and fits nicely with all of my other 80's and 90's gadgets. It just might fulfil a need you didn't know you had.

So with that, what experiences have you had with Laserdisc? Are there any other non-gaming dead technologies you’ve hung onto? Be sure to let me know in the comment section below.