Laser turntable

Laser turntable

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A laser turntable is a phonograph
The phonograph record player, or gramophone is a device introduced in 1877 that has had continued common use for reproducing sound recordings, although when first developed, the phonograph was used to both record and reproduce sounds...

 that uses laser beams (similar to a Compact Disc player
Compact disc player
A Compact Disc player , or CD player, is an electronic device that plays audio Compact Discs. CD players are often a part of home stereo systems, car audio systems, and personal computers. They are also manufactured as portable devices...

) as the pickup to play LP
LP record
The LP, or long-playing microgroove record, is a format for phonograph records, an analog sound storage medium. Introduced by Columbia Records in 1948, it was soon adopted as a new standard by the entire record industry...

 gramophone record
Gramophone record
A gramophone record, commonly known as a phonograph record , vinyl record , or colloquially, a record, is an analog sound storage medium consisting of a flat disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove...

s instead of a stylus
A stylus is a writing utensil, or a small tool for some other form of marking or shaping, for example in pottery. The word is also used for a computer accessory . It usually refers to a narrow elongated staff, similar to a modern ballpoint pen. Many styli are heavily curved to be held more easily...

 (as in a conventional turntables).


William K. Heine presented a paper entitled A Laser Scanning Phonograph Record Player to the 57th Audio Engineering Society
Audio Engineering Society
Established in 1948, the Audio Engineering Society draws its membership from amongst engineers, scientists, other individuals with an interest or involvement in the professional audio industry. The membership largely comprises engineers developing devices or products for audio, and persons working...

 (AES) convention in May 1977. The paper details a method developed by Heine that employs a single 2.2 mW Helium-neon laser
Helium-neon laser
A helium–neon laser or HeNe laser, is a type of gas laser whose gain medium consists of a mixture of helium and neon inside of a small bore capillary tube, usually excited by a DC electrical discharge.- History of HeNe laser development:...

 for both tracking a record groove and reproducing the stereo audio of a phonograph in real time. In development since 1972, the working prototype was named the "LASERPHONE" and the methods it used for playback was awarded U.S. Patent 3,992,593 on November 16, 1976. Heine concluded in his paper that he hoped his work would increase interest in using lasers for phonographic playback.


Four years later Robert S. Reis, a graduate student in engineering at Stanford University
Stanford University
The Leland Stanford Junior University, commonly referred to as Stanford University or Stanford, is a private research university on an campus located near Palo Alto, California. It is situated in the northwestern Santa Clara Valley on the San Francisco Peninsula, approximately northwest of San...

, wrote his master's thesis on "An Optical Turntable" . In 1983 he and fellow Stanford electrical engineer Robert E. Stoddard founded Finial Technology to develop and market a laser turntable, raising $7 million in venture capital
Venture capital
Venture capital is financial capital provided to early-stage, high-potential, high risk, growth startup companies. The venture capital fund makes money by owning equity in the companies it invests in, which usually have a novel technology or business model in high technology industries, such as...

. In 1984 servo-control expert Robert N. Stark joined the effort.

A non-functioning mock-up of the proposed Finial turntable was shown at the 1984 Consumer Electronics Show
Consumer Electronics Show
The International Consumer Electronics Show is a major technology-related trade show held each January in the Las Vegas Convention Center, Las Vegas, Nevada, United States. Not open to the public, the Consumer Electronics Association-sponsored show typically hosts previews of products and new...

 (CES), generating much interest and a fair amount of mystery, since the patents had not yet been granted and the details had to be kept secret. The first working model, the Finial LT-1 (Laser Turntable-1), was completed in time for the 1986 CES. The prototype had an interesting flaw: it was so accurate that it played every particle of dirt and dust on the record, rather than pushing them aside as a conventional stylus would. The non-contact laser pickup did have the advantages of eliminating tracking noise, turntable rumble, feedback from speakers and record wear. The projected $2500 street price (later raised to $3786 in 1988) limited the potential market to professionals (libraries, radio stations and archivists) and a few well-heeled audiophiles.

Unfortunately for Finial, this period of development coincided with both a major economic recession
Early 1980s recession
The early 1980s recession describes the severe global economic recession affecting much of the developed world in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The United States and Japan exited recession relatively early, but high unemployment would continue to affect other OECD nations through at least 1985...

 and the perfection and introduction of the Digital Compact Disc, which began flooding the market at prices comparable to LPs (with CD players in the $300 range). Vinyl record sales plummeted, and many turntable manufacturers failed as a result.

The Finial turntable never went into production. After a few hand-built (and finicky) prototypes were completed and shown, tooling delays, component unavailability (in the days before cheap lasers), marketing blunders, and high development costs kept pushing back the release date. With over US$20 million in venture capital invested, Finial was faced with a Morton's fork
Morton's Fork
A Morton's Fork is a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives , or two lines of reasoning that lead to the same unpleasant conclusion...

: to forge ahead with a selling price that was too high for most consumers, or to gamble on going into mass production at a much lower price and hoping the market would lower costs.


In late 1989 Finial's investors finally cut their losses and liquidated the firm, selling the patents to Japanese turntable maker BSR, which became CTI Japan which in turn created ELP Japan
ELPJ is a Japanese audio equipment company started by Sanju Chiba. They manufacture laser turntables.- External links :* * *...

 for continued development of the "super-audiophile" turntable. After eight more years of development the laser turntable was finally put on sale in 1997 as the ELP LT-1XA Laser Turntable, with a list price of US$20,500 (in 2003 the price was halved to US$10,500).

IRENE system

A completely separate technology has been developed by physicist Carl Haber. Installed in the Library of Congress
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Located in three buildings in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world by shelf space and...

 late in 2006, the IRENE System uses a two-dimensional camera rotating around the record, which takes detailed photographs of the grooves. Software then uses the digital images to reconstruct the sound. IRENE often produces a large amount of hiss with the recording, but it is very capable of removing pops and clicks produced by scratches on the record surface. IRENE will only read lateral information (monophonic), but a three-dimensional scanner project is underway that will handle stereophonic and quadraphonic records, in addition to historical hill-and-dale recordings. Detailed descriptive posters can be downloaded from the IRENE Web site. These are not being developed for sale.

External links