Using Lasers to Play Old-Fashioned Records

Remember phonographs and record albums?

The introduction of smaller, scratch-resistant audio compact discs has made such analog music formats obscure if not obsolete. But with an estimated 30 billion platters of vinyl still in the hands of audiophiles, collectors and die-hard music fans today, old-fashioned records haven't exactly faded away.

And now a small Japanese company called ELP believes it can bring old school albums a new spin at life -- thanks in part, to CD technology itself.

Since 1989 -- just six years after the development of CD players -- ELP has been developing and fine-tuning its Laser Turntable. As the name implies, it's a record album player that replaces the traditional turntable stylus with a group of five high-tech lasers.

Lighting the Way for Old Records

How the technology works is deceptively simple and similar to the basic operation of common audio CD players.

Two pairs of lasers shine on the album's microscopic track, or the "groove" cut into the album's surface by a diamond-tipped stylus during the recording process. One pair of lasers measures the minute variations embedded in the groove's walls -- the part that would cause a tradition phonograph's needle to vibrate and re-create the sound recorded on the album. The other pair of lasers tracks the groove's "land," or the two "shoulders" that straddle the groove, marking the surface of the album. A separate laser shines onto the album's surface itself so the other lasers always maintain a precise distance above the album.

As the turntable spins the record, optical sensors detect the laser reflections from the grooves' walls. The measured variations create an electronic signal similar to that produced by a phonograph needle vibrating within the groove. Scratches on the surface of the album, which can produce annoying popping sounds and skips in the music, are generally ignored.

Audio distortions typically produced from even slightly "warped" records is also eliminated since the tracking laser ensures that the other lasers consistently remain at an optimal distance for pick-up by the optical sensors.

Cleaner, Warmer Sounds

At the Home Entertainment Show in New York City last week, Audio Turntable Ltd., the sole distributor of ELP's Laser Turntable in North America, showed off the capabilities of the high-tech phonograph by playing any record album from show attendees. One demonstrated album of singing couple Steve and Eydie Gorme sounded nearly noise-free even though the record was nearly 30 years old.

Keith Taruski, president of Audio Turntable in St. Albans, Vt., says that the Laser Turntable still produces some noise, mainly the lasers will pick up any "defects" -- microscopic dirt and dust, for example -- in the groove and include it in the electronic signals to be processed optically.

A typical vacuum cleaner for records -- which many audiophiles already use before playing their albums on traditional phonographs -- will reduce the occurrence of noise. But Taruski says sometimes those tiny bits of imperfection are what drives album lovers to prefer their "stacks of wax" to platters of plastic.

"We re-create a pure analog signal," says Taruski. "It's a technology that picks up even the unique variations -- the way one particular recording stylus laid a groove in one album compared to the way another machine recorded a similar album -- that give each record their distinct sound."

While audiophiles may appreciate such fine nuances, the laser-based record player has another big advantage over mechanical phonographs. Since there is no physical contact, ELP's player doesn't damage a record's groove.

"Our motto is, 'No Needle, No Wear,' " says Taruski. "That means you can play a rare, out-of-print album without worrying about devaluing its worth."

The Sticking Points

While the ELP Laser Turntable has remarkable digital technology, reviewers and audiophiles note that the light-based phonograph isn't perfect. In addition to its susceptibility to dust and dirt, for example, the lasers won't work on colored or translucent records.

But perhaps the most limiting factor is cost. ELP hasn't yet achieved mass production so each hand-crafted Laser Turntable boasts a price tag of over $10,000. That has limited sales to a few deep-pocketed music aficionados and professional organizations, such as music libraries with huge collections of rare albums.

Mass production could make the technology cheaper. But major manufacturers haven't yet licensed the technology, citing the lack of market interest and need for a product geared toward yesteryear's formats.

So for now, all those old disco albums buried in countless attics and basements worldwide are still safe from resurrection.