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In the Beginning there was CD
The first demonstration of a prototype CD was made in 1979 by Philips. They joined forces with Sony to produce a commercial standard which became the CD. The size was set at 12cm, allegedly by Sony who decreed that the whole of Beethoven's 9th symphony must fit on one disk. Commercial CD players first appeared in 1983, and conformed to the Red Book standard developed by Sony and Philips.
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Then There Was DVD
In 1995, DVD came along. DVD stands for Digital Versatile Disk, and can store approximately six times as much data as a CD. It was used first to store video. DVD players were backwards compatible which meant that they could play CDs as well. However, these disks could be used for other things too. As well as DVD-Video, a DVD-audio disk was introduced, using the higher capacity to store more channels (up to 5.1) and at higher resolutions. These disks had another layer encoded into them, which used the compressed Dolby Digital or DTS systems to replay multi-channel sound at the same resolution as DVD-Video. This meant that all DVD players could use these disks, but only DVD-Audio players would replay at the highest quality.
Meanwhile, Philips and Sony produced a different high quality audio system known as SACD. SACD players could replay the high quality SACD disks and CDs, but not DVDs. To really confuse matters, most SACD disks, but not all, included a CD layer which could replay on all CD players.
By now consumers were becoming frustrated and confused (are you surprised?) and started to demand players that could play all of the formats. Two solutions emerged.
Universal audio disk players could replay all the disks in their native formats and DVD videos as well. Examples such as the Pioneer 656 and then the 565 universal players provided these facilities at remarkably low prices. These were followed by machines like the Denon 1940 which included upscaling of DVD-video signals for replay on flat screen televisions.
However, there was also a group of what I shall call almost universal players, that played all the disks including SACD in native format, but did not reproduce the high quality DVD audio signals, replaying instead the lower quality compressed layer.
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And then there was High Resolution Video
All was well in the world of universal disk players until the arrival of high resolution video disks. Once again there were two competing formats; Blu-ray and HD-DVD. The first and second generation high resolution video players could play either Blu-ray or HD-DVD and DVDs and CDs, but neither of the high resolution audio formats. LG invested in the development of a range of players that played both Blu-ray and HD-DVD. However, before others could follow suit, the HD-DVD format was abandoned in 2008.
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The most Universal Disk Players of all: One player to rule them all?
In 2009, following the demise of HD-DVD, the first players that combined universal audio playback (SACD/DVD Audio/CD) with universal video playback (Blu ray/DVD) arrived on the market. The first mass market product was the Oppo BDP-83, introduced in North America in 2009 at under $500, with a UK version BDP 831 promised for delivery in October 2009, followed by a Cambridge Audio player again premiering in the US with a slightly higher price tag. A much more expensive machine is promised from Marantz.
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The last Universal Disk Players?
This may be the last generation of universal disk players, as the next generation may rely on downloading video and audio to your home media server. On the other hand, I hear there is a variant of HD-DVD re-emerging from China, so the most universal disk players of all may yet not be Universal enough.