The LaserDisc Dilemma - How to Preserve Your Collection

Laserdisc player and disc

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Before DVD, Blu-ray Disc, and Ultra HD Blu-ray, LaserDisc, which debuted in 1977 (the year the first Star Wars film was released), was the highest quality format for viewing pre-recorded video content among home theater enthusiasts and film buffs. Despite the lack of strong marketing, a shortlist of manufacturers, the large size of the discs (12-inches), and the high cost of both discs and players, LaserDisc paved the way for the way we experience home theater today.

The LaserDisc Legacy

LaserDisc wasn't the first disc-based video format. That "honor" goes to (Phonovision) which was introduced and used briefly in the UK in the late 1920s and early '30s. Also, CED and VHD in the '80s were the same time-period competitors of LaserDisc.

In the late '70s, through the '80s, and into the early '90s, LaserDisc provided the best quality image reproduction and garnered acceptance for industrial, institutional, and home theater use. It was also the first format to read discs optically, using a Laser, rather than a stylus.

The first film released on LaserDisc in the U.S. was Jaws in 1978. The last film released on Laserdisc in the U.S. was Bringing Out The Dead in 2000.

The first widescreen film released on a disc was in the competing CED format (Fellini's Amarcord). However, CED did not gain any traction, so LaserDisc brought both film buffs and mainstream consumers widescreen letterbox presentation of films on a continuing basis.

Another interesting tidbit is that the previously mentioned VHD video disc format offered 3D capability, but there were problems and VHD never made it to the U.S. market.

Although lacking 3D support, LaserDisc video quality was superior to previous and existing formats at the time. It was also the first video format to include extra features on some disc releases, such as subtitles, alternate soundtracks, commentaries, and supplementary material, features now common on DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

All LaserDisc players provided analog audio outputs, but some later players featured Dolby Digital 5.1 (which was referred to as AC-3), and, in a few cases, DTS, utilizing digital optical and digital coaxial connections, which are now used on every DVD player.

The Current LaserDisc Dilemma

Despite all its "pioneering" advances, LaserDisc did not have the strength to wage war against the more compact, economically viable, DVD format when it arrived. There were a few LaserDisc/DVD combo players introduced in an effort to appeal LaserDisc fans that wanted to add DVD to the mix. However, with the quick acceptance of DVD, the market for LaserDisc fell dramatically.

The supply of functioning LaserDisc players will someday "dry up". Since LaserDiscs have to be optically read, there is no mechanical device you can "rig up" to play them like you can play old LP records.

Options for Preserving Laserdiscs

There are really only four solutions to preserving old LaserDiscs:

  • Buy a used LaserDisc player and put in storage until you need it (not really knowing if it will work after several years in storage).
  • Buy new DVD, Blu-ray, or Ultra HD Blu-ray versions of movies in your LaserDisc collection.
  • Make inferior VHS copies of your LaserDisc collection.
  • Copy your LaserDisc collection onto DVD.

With good image quality, copying important films in a LaserDisc collection onto DVD is a viable way of preservation. Recordable DVD comes in two forms: PC/MAC recordable DVD drives and Standalone DVD recorders. Although both are becoming harder to find.

Using a DVD Recorder

To copy LaserDiscs onto DVD, it is best to use a standalone recorder. These units can copy video from just about any source in real-time, whereas the video burned on a PC-DVD burner must be first downloaded onto a computer hard drive in real-time using an analog to USB video capture device before the files can be copied onto the DVD.

However, using standalone DVD recorders isn't foolproof, there are several recordable DVD formats (most DVD recorders record in several formats), each which varying degrees of compatibility with standard DVD players (DVD-R is the most compatible). For details on recordable DVD formats, check out our complete DVD Recorder FAQs.

For suggestions on possible DVD recorders to use, check out our listings of what remaining DVD Recorder and DVD Recorder/VHS VCR Combos may be still available. If using a DVD Recorder/VHS VCR combo -- don't bother with making copies to VHS -- only use the DVD recorder side.

Useful DVD Recorder Tips

When copying LaserDiscs, use the DVD recorder's two-hour record mode. Since most movies are two hours or less this will give you the best quality (which should be as good as the original LaserDisc print) and you should be able to copy an entire movie on one disc.

However, If you want to preserve any alternate soundtracks or commentary, you will have to make more than one copy of the movie, the DVD recorder can't copy all the other embedded information of the LaserDisc unless it is actually output at the time of playback.

Connecting your LaserDisc player to a DVD recorder is just as easy as connecting a camcorder to a VCR.

  • Connect either the S-Video (preferred) or composite video outputs of the LaserDisc player to the corresponding video inputs of the respective DVD recorder.
  • For audio, connect the analog audio outputs of the LaserDisc player to the DVD recorder. Unfortunately, consumer DVD recorders do not support digital audio inputs. In other words, you cannot record the Dolby Digital 5.1 (AC-3) or DTS bitstream (available on some later LaserDiscs), only the analog Dolby Surround tracks.
  • After you connect everything up, check the DVD Recorder's setup procedures, cue up the LaserDisc player and start the recording process.
  • Press record on the DVD recorder, then press play on your LaserDisc player. If you have to flip the LaserDisc, put the DVD recorder in pause, and then start recording again just before you continue playback on the LaserDisc player.
  • If your LaserDisc player is an auto-reverse or dual-sided player (such as the Panasonic LX-1000), you can record both sides of the disc automatically, without stopping to turn over the disc. This also allows you to leave the copying process unattended if you need to do something else.

Words of Caution

Now, some of you may be thinking, "What are the legal ramifications of this?".

Here are three things to consider:

  • LaserDiscs do not have any type of Macrovision or anti-copy encoding, so there is nothing on the disc, the player, or the DVD recorder that will actually prevent you from making a copy. No special equipment, such as a video stabilizer, is needed.
  • With some LaserDisc collectors having invested thousands of dollars in discs, being able to preserve them for future viewing is appropriate for private and personal use.
  • Following the steps outlined in this article are intended for personal use only -- we are not advocating, in any way, illegal use of these copies. Do not rent, sell, exhibit in a public place, or give homemade copies of any copyrighted video material, including DVDs or LaserDiscs, to anyone. Remember: Every LaserDisc still carries the Anti-Copy FBI Warning.

The Bottom Line

Despite the demise of LaserDisc, some still have very large LaserDisc collections that will eventually be unplayable.

One way to preserve LaserDisc movies is to copy them to DVD. The decision is whether the time it takes to make DVD copies of LaserDiscs outweighs the cost of purchasing new DVD, Blu-ray, or Ultra HD Blu-ray disc versions (if available).

There are some classic movies (or versions of movies) that were released on LaserDisc that still haven't been pressed on DVD, Blu-ray Disc, or Ultra HD Blu-ray and some Special Edition discs may have different supplementary features that are not available in newer formats that may be worth preserving.