With news this week that vinyl is the technology that most Brits would like to preserve, we look back at the hi-tech formats we'd like to revive... and another two we wouldn't
1. HD DVD
The first format war of the 21st century has already claimed its first victim - and we’re still mourning its loss. HD DVD was - is - still a vastly superior format to Blu-ray in many respects. From the get-go HD DVD offered the kind of interactive features that Blu-ray is lamely, and belatedly, just getting to now.
Every player ever made had built-in persistent memory and an Ethernet port that not only enabled you to get access to that content, but also made the technology future-proof through firmware upgrades... well at least until Warners’ desertion in January 2008 finally persuaded Toshiba to pull the plug.
Toshiba also did its best to encourage independent movie makers - not the big Hollywood giants - to jump on board, promising a variety of and diversity of content that Blu-ray just couldn’t match.
Early HD DVD discs were also famously superior when it came to picture and sound quality too, with many Blu-ray buyers complaining about poor video and audio encoding, not to mention prematurely corrupted discs.
But the biggest reason to lament HD DVD’s demise is the cost. Right from the start, the simpler, already-established technologies used in HD DVD made the players and discs cheaper to produce and to buy, especially when compared to the Blu-ray opposition.
Given that Blu-ray player prices have actually gone up since HD DVD’s demise, it’s a loss we’ve all ended up paying for.
And remember: just weeks before HD DVD went tits-up, Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer admitted that he'd wished Sony had patched up its differences with the HD DVD camp - a tacit admission that Blu-ray isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Before Blu-ray, before HD DVD, before even DVD, there was laserdisc, a movie format that first appeared in 1978 and was a cross between CD and vinyl. Laserdisc looked like a CD, it was just 12-inches in size instead of 5-inches, and you could fit most movies on to a double-sided disc.
Laserdisc’s benefits were manifold. For a start it was the only way cinephiles could enjoy decent sound and picture quality at home. The PAL version has 440 lines of resolution, compared to 240 lines for VHS.
Laserdisc was also the only format that could offer Dolby AC-3 surround sound, the precursor to the Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD codecs we have today.
Then there’s also laserdisc’s tactile appeal. Like vinyl albums before them, laserdisc movies asked to be cherished, to be held cosseted and caressed; you poring over the sleevenotes while you waited for your laserdisc player to spin into action.
Laserdiscs undoing, of course, was that no-one bloody wanted it. With perfection flaunting them in the face, most punters turned the other cheek and settled for crumbly old VHS instead. It didn’t help of course that laserdiscs were more expensive than VHS, or that Kuro plasma TV maker Pioneer was laserdisc’s only steadfast hardware supporter.
Then came DVD, of course, and it was all over. But imagine if you could team a laserdisc-sized disc with technology advances that we have now.
You could literally cram hundreds of gigabytes on to the thing, making it perfect for use with next-gen Ultra HD technology.
Before iPods, MP3 players and all that nonsense, Sony touted MiniDisc as a true alternative to Philips decrepit Compact Cassette.
Arriving in 1992, it comprised a titchy magneto-optical disc that could hold up to 74-80 minutes worth of music (around the same as a CD), which was then incased in a robust 3.5cm caddy. That made it perfect for portable use, where the alternative was cassette or portable CD players the size of lady’s handbag.
MiniDisc was also ideal for in-car use - you could chuck them around the inside of your motor with few ill effects, making them a good deal more practical than scratch-prone CDs.
MiniDisc had many other benefits too. You could write to it long before CDs became recordable, and you could also record to in a non-linear fashion. So if you suddenly decided you didn’t like track 7 of a mix compilation, you could delete that one track and simply replace it with something else. Trying doing that with even a CD-R - you can’t.
MiniDisc also enabled you to title individual tracks and albums in the days before the Gracenote CD database - info that popped up in a player's display every time you played an individual track or whole disc.
The format’s critics loved to point out, of course, that MiniDisc used a lossy compression codec called Atrac. That meant it offered inferior sound quality to CD, but was obviously better than tape.
The use of Atrac also threw up the spectre of DRM in the form of the Serial Copy Management System (SCMS). This enabled you to record from a CD to a MiniDisc, but you then couldn’t make a copy of that MiniDisc using digital audio connections. Atrac and DRM, of course, lingered in in Sony’s first digital audio Walkmans - you can read them that in 8 Reasons Why You Should Never Buy v1.0.
MiniDisc’s convenient editing features and ‘good enough’ sound quality made it a surprise hit with radio stations and audiophiles alike. Sadly though it wasn’t too last. By 2000 three things were conspiring to consign MiniDisc to the history bin, They were:
- Prices - MiniDisc players were always pretty expensive, especially for third-party licencees. This meant that rival adoptees like Sharp and Kenwood simply couldn’t compete with Sony on price, and were eventually forced out, leaving Sony as the sole hardware supporter.
- Competition from CD-R - Although MiniDisc proved to be popular in Japan and Europe, it was eventually undone by Philips decision to flood the US market with the new CD-R recorders at below-cost prices. MiniDisc never stood a chance.
- MP3 and the iPod - MiniDiscs days were arguably numbered in 1998 when the first MPman and Rio Diamond MP3 players arrived in the UK. By the time the first iPod arrived in 2001, MiniDisc simply looked anachronistic. Why would you want to carry around a bagful of titchy discs and a player, when you could keep all your music in the player? MiniDisc is now effectively dead.
4. Compact Cassette
By any ordinary measure, the Philips Compact Cassette simply wouldn’t make it in to this list - the technology is arguably too terrible to justify its inclusion (we’ll expand on this a minute).
The real reason we’re gutted to see it go is the almost total death of the mixtape - that painstaking paean lovers and friends used to share as way of making themselves look good to each other. We’re sorry, but making a CD compilation or sticking up an 'iMix' up on the iTunes Store is not the same...
Making hard choices about the tracks you’d choose from your vinyl collection and which order you’d place them in was exactly what made the cassette mixtape such a labour of love.
As for the technology - first developed in the early 1960s by Philips, the compact cassette really had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, first as a replacement for open reel-to-reel tape recorders, and then as the primary means for making mix tapes.
From the start, the compact cassette was really intended for audio dictation use, and was plagued by a limited frequency range, tape hiss on recordings and iffy playback due to wow and flutter.
Nakamichi famously overcame cassette’s shortcomings in the early 1970s, but only by going outside cassette’s accepted audio standards. The arrival of chrome (CrO2) and Metal tapes in the mid-1970s also pushed the limit of what the cassette could do.
Of course without the cassette tape we also wouldn’t have the 1979 invention by Sony of the Walkman portable audio player - the precursor to the iPod and other MP3 players we have today.
Today though the cassette is all but history - most hi-fi and car radio makers have some kind of cassette player in their line-up for legacy users, but in a world where CD and MP3 dominate it’s hard to see it staging any kind of comeback, mixtapes or not.
What do you mean you’ve never heard of it? That’s your problem right there. D-VHS you’ll be unsurprised to learn was launched by VHS creator JVC in 1998 as a high capacity source for the new wave of flat panel TVs.
Partly based on technology already used in S-VHS VCRs and cassettes, D-VHS used a more expensive tape formulation to store an MPEG-2 digital data stream that could then be played back on compatible players.
D-VHS’s biggest benefit was that it had a much greater storage capacity than DVD, enabling you to either record and playback content and much higher bits rates (14.1Mpbs standard) than DVD was able to achieve (10Mpbs max.), or to use it as a carrier for high definition content.
A standard 240-minute tape, for example, had a capacity of 25GB (the same as Blu-ray and HD DVD) and was able to record up to four hours of ‘standard definition’ content at better than DVD quality bit-rates, or up to two hours of actual 720-line high definition content. Later tapes had even more capacity, offering up to 480 minutes recording in ‘standard def’, four hours in high-def. They also had a total storage capacity of 50GB.
Despite the fact that D-VHS was also backed by Panasonic, Hitachi and Toshiba, it really was still-born at birth. High prices, the rise of Sky+ style PVRs and the fact that people were now used to disc-based formats all conspired to kill off D-VHS before it ever really gained a foothold.
As ever it was a few obsessive cinephiles who ever got into it at all, and then chiefly as a way to get HD content before HD DVD and Blu-ray finally arrived here in 2006.
The only D-VHS deck to sell here (the HM-DR10000EK) did have the advantage that it was able to record to regular S-VHS cassettes, but the lack of an RGB input via SCART limited its appeal even further.
Like the bad guy in a zombie flick, vinyl is the format that just refuses to die. Every few years, it looks like it’s finally bitten the dust, only then it magically revives itself and the battle starts again.
We were supposed to be rid of the grooved plastic platters in the mid-1980s when CD swaggered in. However music lovers have stuck to their guns, and clung preciously on to the format, praising the warmth of its analogue output, and its sheer superiority when it comes to outright sound quality.
CD's alleged inferiority hasn’t been helped, of course, by the dirty tricks recording engineers and producers have resorted to to compressing a song’s dynamic range so it sounds better on the radio.
Compression like this has always gone on, but it’s accelerated in the CD age to such an extent that it has made many recordings practically unlistenable, thanks to their bright and rapidly-wearing presentation.
True consumer tech companies like Sony have tried to deliver the best of both worlds with high-resolution audio formats like Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio (more on these below).
Vinyl has also been largely been absolved of another CD sin, that of artists willingness to fill every minute of CD’s 74-80 minute playing time with filler that should have been left in the songwriters’ scrapbook. It’s an accident of technology history that some of the best albums ever made have been just 30 to 40 minutes long (we'll gloss over the triple album excesses of the '70s - a precursor of the CD age).
Vinyl’s continuously undead state has been helped along the way, of course. First there was the DJ cult that flourished in clubs in the late 1980s and 1990s, where many a club classic made its debut on white label 12-inch singles. Those two decades also saw the rise of the indie singles club, where new releases were sent out to subscribers on scratchy 7-inchers.
The mainstream music biz then embraced vinyl again in the early noughties. This was out of necessity rather than invention - it found that by sending preview singles and albums to music papers and magazines on vinyl rather than CD, it took rather longer for ripped versions of those tracks to mysteriously appear on the internet.
The enduring quality of vinyl continues to make its presence felt today. Some of the world’s hottest bands still insist on releasing their new work on vinyl, and some enterprising labels are teaming the vinyl release with the MP3 version, so you don’t need to rip the songs yourself.
Vinyl also has a chic, retro appeal - the sheer physicality of putting taking a record out of its sleeve, putting it on your turntable and placing the needle down on the groove is a special moment.
It reinforces the bond between you and the music. It turns music into a special event - it asks that you listen, rather just treat music as a commodity. It stopt it being mere background noise to fill to the silence with.
And the joy of vinyl isn’t just confined to the old farts who nod sagely along to organ music at high-end hi-fi shows. Even the young are loving it, as a recent article in Wired proves.
And the two AV formats that deserved to die are...
Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio
The AV industry is all in a tizzy. Sony, Philips and friends have lined up on one side, Toshiba, Panasonic and co. are aligned on the other. Both are touting a new high definition format that promises to unseat the current and very loved incumbent.
Yup, in the 1990s the Sony / Philips Super Audio CD (SACD) format fought it out against Toshiba’s DVD-Audio for a tiny percentage of the high-end audio market that no-one in the mainstream really gave a stuff about. Superior sound quality? Pah. Have you heard about this thing called MP3?
In truth both formats had their merits, but multi-channel sound (it’s like quadrophonic, man) and the ability to display music and lyrics on your TV weren’t either of them.
Yes, the increased capacity of both formats (which used the DVD-Video format as their starting point) did result in better sound quality - but audiophiles knew they already had that with vinyl (whose rumours of death had been greatly exaggerated).
What was worse was that both Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio were festooned with DRM (marking the opening volleys of that particular battle) and had an audio catalogue conspicuous for its lack of almost anything resembling mainstream artists.
In Sony’s defence SACD at least tried to approach the mainstream with hybrid CD/SACD discs that played in ordinary CD players. But that also revealed SACD and DVD-Audio’s fatal flaw:
When push came to shove your average listener simply couldn’t tell the difference in sound quality between the new high resolution formats and regular CD, making the fierce battle between the two rival formats moot.
That’s a lesson Sony may yet learn to its cost with Blu-ray: superior sound and picture quality does not necessarily a successful format make.
Do you miss HD DVD, laserdisc and MiniDisc? Or so do you think they all deserved to die? Let us know, add your comments below!