When Sony first announced their upcoming CD several years ago, they were talking about a price of around $600. A couple of years later the anticipated price had escalated to $800 (for a basic CD player, without remote). The remote-controlled model which we received will sell for $1000 when it starts appearing in stores in March '83. This is a staggering cost for your John Q Public type record buyer, but a modest outlay for any audiophile accustomed to the idea of shelling out $1000 for a cartridge to put in a $1000 arm on a $1000 turntable and feed to a $1000 preamp. (The CD player's output is at high level, with flat response. A power amplifier can be driven directly, through a passive volume-control box that can be assembled for about $15.)
At this price though, JQP isn't exactly going to embrace the CD with open wallet. Its market (besides a few wealthy individuals who'll buy it for the status value or out of admiration for the high technology it represents), will be serious audiophiles, and its potential success in that quirky marketplace is going to depend on how good it sounds and how much software (program material) is available for it. In fact, the software situation may be the biggest deterrent to its immediate acceptance by a public already primed by the slick magazines to expect perfection from digital audio.
On paper, the software prospects look rosy. Sony will have 16 titles available on the CBS label when the CD system is released here in March. (At the time of this writing, they have about 130 titles on CD in Japan now, most from CBS and Epic, a CBS sub-label). Nippon Columbia has released about 10, but claims to have around 600 digitally mastered titles to draw on for future releases. American CBS plans to participate in the initial software release over here when the first of Sony's players go on sale, as does Polygram (Philips, Deutsche Grammophon, London) and a number of American audiophile-disc firms.
But...So-called "audiophile-quality" fare may not soon be plentiful. Although Telarc, M&K, and Sonic Arts are prepared to start releasing on CD now, they must rely on one Japanese or one European factory to turn out their discs for them. The European Philips plant is currently grinding out their own CDs in anticipation of the system's release there, timed to coincide with the US introduction. And the demand for CD discs has already far outstripped the supply in Japan, where the "pressing" facilities are having such a hard time filling orders for Japanese labels that they are unable to accept "any outside requests for custom pressing." Which is another way of saying that Telarc, M&K, and Nautilus, all of which are going CD, may have to wait their turn.
Sony plans to open a CD processing plant in the US, but when that will be in operation is anyone's guess. And the production "yield"—the percentage of manufactured discs that pass QC inspection—is apparently still not too impressive, even from factories that have had months to refine their techniques.
So, Sony's assurances notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that two, or even three factories are going to be able to meet the worldwide demand for the compact discs, particularly if the new system proves as popular elsewhere as it is in Japan, where Sony is now turning out 10,000 players per month and asking buyers to wait 4 weeks for delivery.
What it all boils down to is that the proliferation of titles on CD will not necessarily mean there will be a plentiful supply of discs with those titles, at least not for some time to come.
AudioSource, the first US importer of Japanese CDs, reports that a typical order has two-thirds of the titles filled, but often in smaller quantities than ordered. And this source may soon dry up; Sony reports that American CBS plans to halt AudioSource's importing because it violates licensing agreements with CBS Japan.
But the question now is, How does it sound? Is it really worth all the fuss and ruckus? I will now frustrate everybody by waffling. The truth is, I really don't know, because I've only listened to the two discs sent with the unit, and none of the selections were recorded to audiophile standards. All were multi-miked and sounded as if the middle range had been equalized out of them, many were poorly mixed, and all had that distinct haze around the instruments which suggests more distortion some where along the line than audiophile recording companies will tolerate.
Apart from all that, though, some aspects of the sound I heard are quite unlike what most of us are familiar with from analog sources. The most immediately noticeable characteristics of the CD sound are its awesome lack of background noise and its almost unbelievable freedom from strain during the loudest passages. After a while one starts to notice other things. For example, the low end seems to have no bottom limit. In fact I am willing to bet I was hearing stuff at the extreme bottom that the record producers hadn't heard, because some of it was soft but obviously extraneous infrasonic noise—occasional thuds that were totally unrelated to the music. Musical bass was tighter, cleaner and deeper than I have ever before heard from any recording.