Digital Flashback: CDs Arrive In The West

First players arrived in Europe 17 years ago this month.

The age of digital music in Europe arguably began 17 years ago, when the first compact disc player arrived from Japan, five months after Sony introduced the unit in its home market.

Conceived at the height of the vinyl LP boom, by a team of researchers from Sony and Philips Electronics, the CD format was so experimental that the companies decided to debut it worldwide in stages. Japan was first to see the Sony CDP-101 player, in October 1982. The European unit shipped in March 1983, and the North American unit appeared in September 1983.

Boasting a 20Hz to 20KHz frequency response, an 88-decibel signal-to-noise ratio and 0.0023 percent total harmonic distortion, the Sony CDP-101 was a technophile's toy. Some Americans were so eager to get their hands on the players that they imported them. But because of voltage differences, the players generally could be used only for an hour at a time in the U.S., after which they needed to cool down.

H.L. Siddons Jr., founder of the Orlando, Fla., company FutureCast Research, paid $850 for a CDP-101 in 1983. In a 1998 article for his online newsletter, DVD Chronicles, Siddons wrote that his friends and relatives thought he was nuts to abandon 8-track tapes and quadraphonic records. But he was convinced digital sound and laser playback were the wave of the future.

"What was truly remarkable was the sound quality I witnessed," Siddons wrote. The first CD he played, he wrote, was a recording of American classical composer Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." "The drums pounding — even through my humble speakers — sounded so realistic."

At the outset, skeptical record companies held back most of their catalogs, unconvinced that the CD format stood a chance against LPs and cassettes. CBS, which was then in a joint venture with Sony, was one of the few to support the format, offering early 1983 releases of some of its past hits.

The first batch of CDs made included Billy Joel's The Nylon Curtain, whose hit single "Pressure" (RealAudio excerpt) was then riding high on the charts, as well as Michael Jackson's Off the Wall (RealAudio excerpt of title track), REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity and Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (RealAudio excerpt of title track).

On March 12, 1983, Billboard magazine reported on a record shop in Hartford, Conn., that had begun importing CDs from Europe and Japan. At the time, the shop had sold exactly one, for $24.95.