Q. What is the purpose of this FAQ?

A. First of all, FAQ stands for Frequently Asked Questions.  These are answers to questions many people, myself included, had when they first got their Laserdisc players.  Secondly, this FAQ is geared toward American Laserdisc consumers.  Also, this FAQ is not intended to be an all inclusive FAQ.  I don't have the time to do that and several people have already beat me to the punch (see my links page).  This FAQ is intended to be a short overview of Laserdiscs; enough to answer any immediate questions you might have about Laserdiscs.  If you want more arcane or in-depth answers please check my links page for more detailed FAQ's after reading my FAQ.

Q. What are Laserdiscs?

A.  A standard Laserdisc is a 12 inch (in diameter) double-sided optically read disc that stores high quality analog video.  There are two kinds of twelve inch Laserdiscs, standard play (CAV) and extended play (CLV).  CAV discs can only store 30 min of video on each side.  However, any player can perform smooth multispeed searches and crystal clear still frames on these discs (unlike VHS which show still fields when paused.  Fields have half the detail of frames.  That is why pauses on VHS look worse than when the video is running).  CLV discs can hold 60 minutes per side.  However, still frames and smooth searches require more expensive players with digital memory.

There are many variants of the standard 12 inch Laserdisc but most are rare and will not be discussed in depth in this FAQ.  Variants of the standard Laserdisc include an 8-inch version known as a Laserdisc Single.  These are extremely rare in the U.S.  There is also a 5-inch CD/LD hybrid known as CD video (CDV) that holds 5 min of video and 20 min of audio.  These are also rare in America.  In addition, there have been anamorphic (Laserdiscs recorded with 16x9 aspect ratio as opposed to the standard 4:3 aspect ratio) and high definition versions of the 12 inch laserdisc.  Only a handful of the anamorphic laserdiscs were made as a promotional item for widescreen TV's when they were first introduced in America.  The high definition laserdiscs are based on a Japanese high definition system known as MUSE (a.k.a HiVision) and, as a result, are only found in Japan.

Laserdiscs were introduced to consumers around 1978 by Phillips and MCA.  MCA soon after sold its stake to Pioneer, the best known supporter of Laserdiscs.  The Laserdisc was the first optical disc available to consumers and helped form the basis of the CD, the most popular optical disc to date.  Note that the CD was co-invented by Phillips and Phillips was one of the co-inventors of the Laserdisc.  Therefore, contrary to popular belief, Laserdiscs are not large CD's with video, CD's are small Laserdiscs without video.  Laserdiscs predate most home video formats, including VHS, DVD and RCA's CED (a defunct magnetic disc-based system).  Furthermore, Laserdiscs lead the way in creating the home theater revolution and a better appreciation of both movies and video by popularizing widescreen video presentations and including extras such as director's commentary and making of features.  Through its long life, Laserdiscs has been known by other names including DiscoVison (obviously in the '70s) and Laservison.

Q.  My Computer and/or DVD player can play video CD's.  Is that the same as CD video?

A. It is unfortunate that these two formats have similar names because they are quite different.  Video CD's (also invented by Phillips) are 5 inch discs that store about an hour's worth of digital video compressed with MPEG-1.  The video quality is roughly equivalent to VHS.  Video CD's are popular with bootleggers in Asia.

Q. What kind of audio is available on Laserdiscs?

A. Laserdiscs originally had only two analog hi-fi tracks, roughly equivalent in sound quality to hi-fi stereo in VHS.  In the 1980's, after the rise of the CD, Laserdiscs gained two 44.1 kHz 16 bit digital tracks for a total of four tracks available on Laserdiscs.  The analog tracks were retained for compatibility.   As a result, on most Laserdiscs, the digital tracks and analog tracks have the same material on them.  However, as the need for compatibility lessened, other program material such as director's commentary and isolated music tracks began to be put on the analog tracks.

In  1995, Dolby Digital (previously named AC-3) was introduced to Laserdisc.  Laserdiscs with Dolby Digital replaced the right analog track with a Dolby Digital track.  However, new Laserdisc players were needed to properly pass along this signal.  Furthermore, because the Dolby Digital signal is stored on an analog track, it is modulated into an analog signal and has to be demodulated into a digital signal prior to decoding in your receiver.  Therefore to play soundtracks in Dolby Digital, you need (1) a Dolby Digital compatible Laserdisc player (some older players can be modified to become compatible) and (2) a receiver (or outboard demodulator) that has a special AC-3 RF input that can demodulate the Dolby Digital signal.  Outboard demodulators are available from several manufactures including Pioneer, Kenwood and Yamaha.   They should be available at any store that carries those brands.  However, like most things Laserdisc these days, you probably have to special order them.  If you listen to a Dolby Digital track on a Laserdisc player incompatible with Dolby Digital, it makes the same screeching sounds a modem would make.  To hear a sound clip of a modulated Dolby Digital track (what you would hear played back on an player incompatible with Dolby Digital), click one of the following links: mp3 version or compressed wav version. If you have trouble playing back these sound clips, click here for help.  Note: The standard digital tracks on a Dolby Digital Laserdiscs are untouched and you can listen to regular Dolby Surround if you don't have a Dolby Digital Decoder.  Only the right analog track is altered.

In 1996, DTS was introduced to Laserdisc.  DTS replaces both digital tracks.  Any Laserdisc player with a digital audio output (either coaxial or optical) can output a DTS signal.  No special DTS output is needed, unlike Dolby Digital.  Because DTS is not modulated into an analog signal like Dolby Digital, a demodulator is not needed.  The two analog tracks are untouched and operate normally. Note: Because no special output is needed beyond a standard digital audio output, no player has a badge on it identifying it as DTS compatible (like select DVD players have).

The following table sums up the above:

Tracks available on a Laserdisc:

Digital Left (can be replaced by DTS track)  Digital Right (can be replaced by DTS track)
Analog Left  Analog Right (can be replaced by Dolby Digital a.k.a. AC-3 track)

Q. What is Dolby Surround, Dolby Digital, and DTS?

A.  All of these are methods of creating a more convincing soundfield that seems to "surround" the viewer (at least on Laserdisc, see explanation on Dolby Digital).  They require more than 2 speakers.

The most widespread surround sound system is Dolby Surround.  Dolby surround is an analog system that decodes 2 channels into 4 channels, Left, Right, Center and Surround.  The center channel is used to anchor dialog to the screen and the surround channels are used to create ambiance.   The surround channel is bandwidth limited-it sounds like A.M. radio.  Dolby Surround is backward compatible with stereo.  Note: Dolby Pro-Logic is not a surround format. It is the name of the improved Dolby Surround decoder.

Dolby Digital, formerly known as AC-3, is rather confusing.  It is a digital system that uses lossy compression (this means some sonic information is thrown away to reduce its file size) to compress audio information down to a 384 kilobits per second stream of data.  Unlike Dolby Surround, the number of channels decoded can vary widely.  The number of channels can vary from 1 (mono) to 5.1. However, in Laserdiscs, Dolby Digital is almost always 5.0 or 5.1 channels of sound (Right, Left, Center, Surround Right, Surround Left, Low Frequency Effects).  This is often not the case when it comes to DVD.  When Dolby Digital is 5.1 channels, it is superior to Dolby Surround since its surround channels are both stereo and full bandwidth.  Furthermore, the Low Frequency Effects (LFE) channel is dedicated to driving a subwoofer.   It is the .1 in 5.1 since it contains only bass information.  Dolby Digital is not backwards compatible with stereo.

DTS (Digital Theater Sound), like Dolby Digital, is also a digital system that uses lossy compression to compress information down.  However, the data rate is 1.4 megabits per second.  Since DTS is not as heavily compressed as Dolby Digital, DTS claims their system loses less data and sound superior.  DTS on Laserdiscs is also almost always 5.0 or 5.1.  DTS is also not backwards compatible with stereo.

Q.  How high quality is Laserdisc video?

A.  Laserdiscs can display around 430 (horizontal resolution) lines of video.  Its signal-to-noise ratio exceeds 50 decibels.  This is about as high quality as consumer analog video gets. More lines of resolution means more picture detail.  The greater the signal to noise ratio, the less video noise.

Q. How does that compare to other home video formats?

A.  Note: The vertical resolution for all formats below is 480 lines.
Format  Horizontal Resolution Signal to noise ratio
VHS 230-240 mid to high 40's
S-VHS 400-420 mid to high 40's
Laserdisc 430 low to mid 50's
DVD  540 high 60's/ low 70's

Q. Laserdisc is always compared to DVD.  What are Laserdiscs' advantages over DVD?

A. Laserdiscs' biggest advantage is that it has been around for more than 20 years.  No one knows exactly how many titles have been released on Laserdisc throughout the years. However, even with the decline of Laserdiscs, there are still thousands in print right now.   Countless others have gone out of print but are still available to buy used.  Unlike VHS, Laserdiscs do not wear out so they are safer to buy used.  See my links page for sources of used Laserdiscs.  It will take DVD years to get close to the amount of Laserdiscs available.  Currently, popular film series like the Indiana Jones trilogy and the Star Wars trilogy are not available on DVD.

Also, Laserdisc is very popular in Asia, particularly Japan.  Asia uses NTSC, the same television system used in America.  Therefore, it is possible to buy foreign films directly for Asia.  Anime fans undoubtedly appreciate this.  Also, syndication is not strong in Asia, so American TV shows are often sold on Laserdisc.  Luckily, most shows are subtitled, which means the soundtrack is in English.  Popular shows like Star Trek: Voyager, X-files ,etc. are available in nice boxed sets.

Furthermore, Laserdiscs are not hindered by region restrictions and copy protection.  For example, DVDs bought in Asia can only be played on Asian players unless you spend money to buy a gray market or illegally modified player to play those discs (American discs can only be played on American Players, European discs on European players, etc.).  Also, DVDs are encoded with a stronger version of Macrovision, the copy protection found on VHS.  This can cause picture distortions such as flashing, pulsing and lines if you loop your DVD player through a VCR or older TV.

DVD, as a result of its small size, is highly compressed using a lossy digital compression called MPEG-2.  This compression sometimes creates visible picture artifacts which can be disconcerting for many viewers. Also, while DVD is capable of up to 540 lines, it rarely reaches those numbers (most DVDs max out at 480 lines).  Also, the resolution can vary from scene to scene where as a Laserdisc's resolution is usually fixed throughout the whole movie.

Q. What are Laserdiscs' disadvantages?

A. Laserdiscs are expensive.  Most Laserdiscs have a manufacturer's suggested retail prices between 30-40 dollars.  There are a few Laserdiscs (mostly older catalog titles) cheaper than DVD, but not many.  Most Laserdiscs cost 5-10 dollars more than the equivalent DVD.  Both DVD and LD are non-recordable and more expensive than VHS.  Also, since Laserdiscs can only hold up to 60 minutes per side, most discs have to be flipped or changed eventually.  Laserdiscs are definitely harder to find in stores than DVD or VHS.

Also, Laserdiscs have a higher defect rate than CD's and VHS.  Laserdiscs' defect rate is 1-2%.  However, in the scheme of things, that still isn't very high.

Q. What do you mean by defects?

A.  Some common Laserdisc problems include excessive dropout and laser rot.  Dropout is when the video signal is missing for a split second.  This manifests itself as a small white line or dot on the screen.  Dropout is present on all video formats.  However, Laserdiscs are hard to manufacture.  Any malformed pit or pinhole in the aluminum layer can cause dropout.  Therefore, most discs are likely to have at least one incident of dropout.  Luckily, dropouts in Laserdiscs can simply be caused by a dirty disc.  Make sure your discs are clean before complaining about dropout.

Laser Rot is a more serious problem.  Laser Rot is when the aluminum layer of the Laserdisc begins to oxidize.  This changes the reflectivity of the disc.  Laser Rot manifests itself as many colored lines on the screen.  Contrary to the name, Laser Rot is not caused by the laser.  Laserdiscs are doubled sided.  Each side is manufactured separately and is glued together.  Laser Rot is caused by improper sealing of the two sides of the Laserdisc.  Keeping your disc in a humid environment can speed the process of Laser Rot.  Also, some manufacturers' discs are more likely to rot than others.  Note: Like dropout, Laser Rot is not unique to Laserdiscs.  Laser Rot can affect other discs that use aluminum such as CD's and DVD's.

Q. What does Laser Rot look like?

A. You cannot determine if a Laserdisc has Laser Rot by looking at the disc surface with the naked eye. Instead, play the Laserdisc in your player. The picture should be filled with multi-colored snow. The following screenshot illustrates how a Laserdisc with mild Laser Rot looks like:

Click here to expand image

Notice the purple and yellow dots on Sandra Bullock's face. As time goes by, the number of these dots will increase if the Laserdisc has Laser Rot.

Q. What do I do if I have a defective disc?

A.  First, you should try to return the Laserdisc to the retailer you bought it from.  Retailers' return policies usually allow returns anywhere from 30 days to several years from the date of purchase.  Unfortunately, many Laserdisc retailers are going out of business or dropping Laserdiscs.  However, all is not lost.  Some distributors will honor the retailer's warranty.  Also, some Laserdisc manufacturers have warranties that the distributor will honor as well.  Whatever the reason, distributors will sometimes replace discs after the stores refuse to, so it doesn't hurt to ask.  Luckily, there are only two major distributors of Laserdiscs, Image Entertainment and Pioneer Entertainment/Pioneer Video Manufacturing (Pioneer distributes the discs they manufacture). 

If you have a Laserdisc from 20th Century Fox, Buena Vista, Disney, MGM, Warner Brothers, New Line Pictures, PolyGram, Orion, Criterion Collection or any DTS disc, contact Image Entertainment Customer Service at 1-800-473-3475. 

If you have a Pioneer, Universal or Paramount Laserdisc, you need to return the disc to Pionner. In the past, you used to be able to return it to Pioneer's factory in Carson, California. However, Pioneer has since sold the factory. Now, your best bet in returning a Laserdisc would be to contact Pioneer Entertainment at:
Pioneer Entertainment
P.O. Box 22782
Long Beach, CA 90810

Finally, Columbia TriStar (Sony) no longer distributes or manufactures Laserdiscs in America and as of November 1, 1999 they no longer accept returns on their defective Laserdiscs products.  You can still give Columbia TriStar Home Video a call at 310-244-4000 to complain but you will not get a replacement Laserdisc.   Note: This is the number for the switchboard.  Ask for Customer Service.

Remember to contact the distributor first before shipping anything. Do not send your disc to the distributor unless you have contacted them and they have a issued you a RMA.

***Keep your receipt so you can prove when you bought your discs***

Copyright © 1999,2000 by David Carroll

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