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MUSE HI-Vision LD Launched in Japan enters a new era of high-definition laserdisc - the first upgrade to depart completely from the original 1978 NTSC LD specification 

In September 1991 five major Japanese manufacturers - Matsushita (Panasonic), Pioneer, Sanyo, Sony, Toshiba - announ­ced specifications for a new domestic LD format based on the 1125 line Hi-Vision system. This would employ the MUSE compression algorithms used in the domes­tic reception of Hi-Vision broadcasts, thereby enabling the use of the same MUSE hardware. MUSE reduces the bandwidth from 30MHz down to 8MHz. 

This summer (1994), three of those manufac­turers – Panasonic, Sony & Pioneer released hardware onto the Japanese market. While the new laserdiscs enjoy similar playing times and functions as existing discs, the new format is otherwise a significant event in laserdisc history and the first major upheaval in its 14-year history. 

While the Japanese Hi-Vision system is less and less likely to be used in other broadcast regions (mostly for political rather than technical reasons), it is increasingly being used as a video origination format worldwide. Principally with the efforts of Sony and the near-complete range of equipment sold under its High Definition Video System (HDVS) banner. Therefore, while the United States, for example, is trying to establish its own domestic high definition transmission, it's a fair bet that the programmes will still be originated on the Japanese 1125-line equipment. The 5:3 aspect ratio is the same and the frame rate within a whisper of NTSC. 

The Japanese have been developing Hi-Vision for 20 years and, while there are valid technical arguments to approach HDTV differently now, those who make such arguments don't yet have an alterna­tive, working system, and when they do it will be many years before it translates into purchasable products. Consequently, if Hi-Vision LD is up to quality, it has the opportunity to become something of a laserdisc standard in all 30 frame-per-second based broadcast areas, much as NTSC LD has become. There isn't room in this shrinking world for a Japanese LD standard and an American LD standard. 

The European position is somewhat more complicated by the broadcasters support for 25fps based HDTV. This would mean a 25fps based HD LD and put us right back in the same position, as we have been with PAL i.e. not enough discs. This is clearly not the way to go. Seeing as Philips, the prime mover in European high definition, is publicly doing everything possible to distance itself from LD any­way, it's difficult to imagine that a European HD LD will be anywhere near the top of its list of priorities. Consequent­ly, any move the Japanese make with HD LD could, by default, end up providing us with a truly worldwide HDTV LD standard. 

The Hardware 

The first machine to reach the market on May 20th 1994 was Panasonic's LX-HD10 which costs Y600.000. Of the three players the specifications of the Panasonic player are the least known but a reliable Japanese source maintains the player was actually a Sony-made machine. I unfortunately don't have a picture of the HD10. The LX-HD10 was followed in 1996 by the Panasonic LX-HD20 which is similar in appearance to the Sony HIL-C2EX.  

Sony initially released its own Y600,000 HIL-C1 player (photo above) in June 1994. This substantially made piece of equipment weighs 18.5Kg and measures 470 x 160 x 4SOmm (w x h x d) and is capable of replaying both Hi-Vision LDs and NTSC discs. The video specifications for the latter are a conventional 425-line horizon­tal resolution with a 50dB s/n rating. The horizontal resolution for Hi-Vision LD is 650-lines.   

Pioneer's first Hi-Def Laserdisc player was the HLD-V500 launched in 1992. This model was aimed at the commercial market though. Pioneer's first consumer Hi-Def player, the July 1994 released HLD-1000 (photo above) cost Y650,000 and offers the same Hi-Vision & NTSC compatibility and is able to play both disc sides without need to turn the disc manually. The champagne-coloured player is rather similar in appearance to Pioneer's double-side NTSC combi, the CLD-959. The HLD­1000 weighs in at 17Kg and measures 440 x 1 73 x 455mm. A frame memory circuit is incorporated in the player. For NTSC LD there is a Y/C output. NTSC video specs are 425-line resolution and a 51dB signal-to-noise figure with Hi-Vision LD rated at 650 lines. As with the Sony player, no signal-to-noise figure is given for Hi-Vision LD. Hitachi also released Hi-Def player, the Hitachi HLD-1000, a clone of the Pioneer HLD-100 and bearing the same model number. 

A significant difference of all these Hi-Vision LD players (which are, incidentally, just that, with no provision for CD replay, is this the end of the combi concept?), is that instead of the conventional 780 nanometre laser they make use of a shorter wavelength 670nm device, able to read the more closely packed spiral of pits on the new discs. With NTSC the nominal track pitch is 1.67 microns (though can be less) whereas with Hi Vision it comes clown to 1.1 microns. The actual size of the pits encoded on die discs is the same as before. However, in CAV and at the fastest CLV speed the new discs rotate 50% faster at 2,700 rpm (NTSC is 1800rpm.) Though the shorter wavelength laser is a necessity for Hi-Vision to cope with increased bandwidth, it will be interesting to see how this affects replay of NTSC discs. In theory, the performance should improve. 

While compatible with existing NTSC TVs when playing NTSC LDs none of these Hi Vision LD players will be of much use for Hi Vision LDs without a MUSE decoder and a Hi-Vision TV. The latest generation of Hi-Vision TVs tend to incorporate the decoder though projection units still rely on an outboard one. As a guide (1994 prices), Sony's KW 3210HD Hi-Vision TV is a 32” model (incorporating MUSE) and sells for Y900 000 Sony's KWP-5500HD 55" rear projection set lists at Y2,900,000 but this needs an outboard MST-2000 MUSE decoder an extra Y750,000. There are also MUSE-NTSC converters such as Sony's SAU-300MN Y110,000) which make it possible to view Hi-Vision material on a conventional NTSC TV, but obviously only at NTSC picture quality levels and, in all probability. with a considerable amount of picture degradation over a pure NTSC source.

At the cheapest level just the player and bottom end TV setting up for hi-Vision LD costs around Y1,500,000, not far short of £10,000, though these are list prices and a Japanese consumers normally pay less in practice. Either way, Hi-Vision LD at day one is not a cheap endeavour and then there s the discs. 

The Software 

Panasonic doesn't have much of a software profile but obviously both Pioneer and Sony do ad these two companies had discs available for sale to go with their hardware. Sony chose three movies from its Columbia Tristar catalogue: Laurence of Arabia, Bugsy and A League of Their Own (though this last disc is usually known under an alternative title in Japan). All are double-disc sets - which is not a problem with the 4-hour epic Lawrence of Arabia but the other two don't really make the best use of the LD format from the point of view of running time. Also while Hi-Vision employs a 5:3 aspect ratio, both Lawrence and League Of Their Own are 7:3 Panavision productions and so will show black bands above and below the image. Not the best way to show off the new technology. 

However, what will no doubt make the biggest impression are the prices. Lawrence costs Y9,800 (approx £180) with the other two being Y24,800). There would seemingly be no good technical reason for such a high price. Any new technologies involves added expense but in principle there should be no significant added cost to pressing Hi-Vision LDs compared with NTSC. High disc prices like these are unlikely to cause a rush to buy and one imagines the price will fall in time. It is always difficult to say precisely what a normal NTSC movie title would sell for in Japan but it wouldn't be far off the mark to say these particular titles are tour times more expensive in Hi Vision than NTSC. 

Pioneer also believes it Hi-Vision discs should com­mand a considerable price premium over NTSC. There were supposed to be 15 titles to accompany the player launches but those listed are the only ones we could track down. Only 30 titles are expected in total during the first year and most of these will be movies. The manufacturers have set up a mail-order service to ensure customers can obtain the discs, which might otherwise be not particularly well distributed through conventional outlets. The discs, as with all MUSE Hi-Vision players, can be differe­ntiated from NTSC by a new logo, which is a more rounded version of the standard laserdisc "L", broken up by scan lines. The words "Hi-Vision LD" appear beneath, instead of "Laserdisc". 

Sales Predictions 

With such high prices it looks as though Hi Vision LD will remain a minority interest in the early stages, though Matsushita has published sales predictions which suggest otherwise. No less than 50,000 player sales are expected in this first year rising to 200,000 units in 1995, 600 000 in 1997 and 1,600.000 by the year 2000. Pioneer's estimates are more conser­vative. With player sales of 200,000 by 1998. Pioneer is only planning to make 800 players a month to begin with.







Pioneer LD
Sony LD
Aiwa LD
Akai LD
Carver LD                 
Clarion LD
Columbia LD
Denon LD
Faroudja LD
Funai LD
Giga LD
Hitachi LD
Kenwood LD
Luxman LD
Magnavox LD
Marantz LD

McDonell Douglas

McIntosh LD
Mitsubishi LD
National LD
Onkyo LD
Panasonic LD
Philips LD
Pioneer LD
Proscan LD
Quasar LD
RDI Halcyon
Realistic LD
Runco LD
Samsung LD
Sansui LD
Sanyo LD
Sharp LD
Sony LD
Sylvania LD
Tandy LD
Teac LD
Technics LD
Telefunken LD
Theta LD
Toshiba LD
Yamaha LD
Zenith LD