The LaserDisc Dilemma - How to Preserve Your Collection

All about LaserDiscs and how you can preserve them

Laserdisc player and disc

 Peter Starman / Getty Images

Before DVD, Blu-ray Disc, and Ultra HD Blu-ray, there was LaserDisc. Debuted in 1977, LaserDisc was the highest quality format for viewing pre-recorded film and video content on a home theater system. Despite the lack of strong marketing, a shortlist of manufacturers, and the substantial size and cost of the discs, LaserDisc paved the way for the modern home theater setup.

The LaserDisc Legacy

LaserDisc wasn't the first disc-based video format. Phonovision was introduced and used briefly in the UK in the late 1920s and early '30s. In the 1980s, CED and VHD competed with LaserDisc.

For the time, LaserDisc provided the best quality image reproduction and garnered acceptance for professional and home theater use. It was also the first format to read discs optically with 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 failed to gain traction, so LaserDisc brought both film buffs and mainstream consumers widescreen letterbox presentation of films. Interestingly, the VHD video disc format was offering 3D capability all the way back in the 1980s, but VHD never made it to the U.S. market.

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

All LaserDisc players provided analog audio outputs, but some later players featured Dolby Digital 5.1 (which was referred to as AC-3). In a few cases, LaserDisc utilized digital optical and digital coaxial connections to provide DTS support.

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. There were a few LaserDisc/DVD combo players introduced in an effort to appeal to LaserDisc fans. However, with the quick acceptance of DVD, the market for LaserDisc fell dramatically.

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. That makes the medium difficult to preserve.

Options for Preserving LaserDiscs

There are really only four solutions to preserving old LaserDiscs:

  • Buy a used LaserDisc player and put it in storage until you need it.
  • 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 to DVD.

With good image quality, copying important films in a LaserDisc collection onto DVD or Blu-ray is one way to preserve them. Recordable DVD comes in two forms: recordable DVD drives for a computer, and Standalone DVD recorders. Although both are becoming harder to find. There are no consumer Blu-ray recorders in the U.S.

What Type of DVD Recorder Is Best?

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. This requires use of an analog to USB video capture device before the files can be copied onto the DVD.

Using standalone DVD recorders isn't foolproof. There are several recordable DVD formats, each which varying degrees of compatibility with standard DVD players, but 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 guides to the best DVD Recorders and DVD Recorder/VHS VCR Combos.

How to Record a LaserDisc to DVD

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, and you should be able to copy an entire movie onto 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. DVD recorders cannot copy all the other embedded information of the LaserDisc unless it is 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.

  1. Connect either the S-Video (preferred) or composite video outputs of the LaserDisc player to the corresponding video inputs of the DVD recorder.

  2. For audio, connect the analog audio outputs of the LaserDisc player to the DVD recorder.

    Consumer DVD recorders do not support digital audio inputs. That means you cannot record the Dolby Digital 5.1 (AC-3) or DTS bitstream—only the analog Dolby Surround tracks.

  3. After connecting everything, check the DVD Recorder's setup procedures, cue up the LaserDisc player, and begin the recording process.

  4. Press record on the DVD recorder, then press play on your LaserDisc player. If you have to flip the LaserDisc, put the DVD recorder on pause, 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, you can record both sides of the disc automatically, without stopping to turn it over. This also allows you to leave the copying process unattended.

Legal Words of Caution

There are some legal points 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 to prevent you from making a copy.
  • 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.

The Bottom Line

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

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

There are some classic movies that were released on LaserDisc that still haven't been pressed to DVD, Blu-ray Disc, or Ultra HD Blu-ray, as well as some Special Edition discs with different supplementary features that are not available in newer formats.