Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest submission from HHR’s good friend Anonymous in Houston
In 1983, the home entertainment options most American households had were quite limited compared to modern times. Most homes had televisions in 1983, but most people could not do much more than receive local broadcast TV channels on their TVs at that time as cable/satellite TV was still trying to establish itself. There were video games and other home computers in 1983, but the video game industry was facing many issues at the time and the future of video games were unclear in 1983. While one could shop the Sears catalog on video disc as early as 1981, VCRs and video disc players were still very expensive and, thus, not completely common in 1983 even if Michael Pollock of the Colonial House Apartments had no trouble dunking a VCR in a pool.
Thus, aside from basic television, home stereo systems were a common form of home entertainment in 1983. Sure, Sony’s Walkman and other portable cassette players were allowing the public to take their favorite albums with them on the go, but Americans were still buying lots of home stereo receivers, cassette decks, and turntables in the early 1980s. Thus, most retailers were also selling home audio equipment in this era. Popular stores of the time, like Sears, JCPenney, Montgomery Ward, Foley’s, Joske’s, Kmart, Target, Best Products, Fingers, Lowe’s, and even drug and grocery stores were selling stereo equipment! There were also a number of audio and electronic specialty stores in Houston which sold stereo equipment. Many of these were famous for their commercials such as CMC Stereo, the Stereo Warehouse, Federated, Highland, and many others.
By 1983, the audio retail sector was seeing a bit of a slow down. Many people spent a lot of money on audio equipment in the 1970s and early 1980s and, thus, already had a capable sound system. Audio retailers were looking for a technical revolution to bring customers back into their stores and they sure got exactly what they were looking for in 1983! Two large corporations, Sony of Japan and Philips of the Netherlands, started jointly working together in the 1970s to develop a digital audio storage medium using optical discs to try to replace the vinyl record LP discs which had been the industry standard for musical recordings for decades.
Records and tapes had many drawbacks which Sony and Philips hoped to solve with their new digital optical disc, the Compact Disc. Unlike tapes and records, CDs would not incur wear after each playback if the CDs were handled properly. CDs had flat frequency response which meant that all frequencies in the audible spectrum could be played back faithfully. CDs had much less wow & flutter than analog tapes and records. CDs, especially if the music was recorded digitally, did not suffer from tape hiss and they did not have the pops and clicks that were common with dusty records. Also, CDs did not have to be flipped, like a tape or record, to hear the whole program and individual tracks could be selected nearly instantly.
With all of these possible advantages, retailers, record labels, and electronics manufacturers were optimistic that consumers would fall in love with the Compact Disc when CD players arrived in stores across the United States during the summer of 1983. Success was not guaranteed though. As this news report from a Dillard’s department store in Dallas points out, LaserDisc video players had not taken off and, at least initially, CD players were very expensive. There were also few albums available on CD in 1983.
However, as we know, the Compact Disc proved to be a major success. Within mere months of the release of CD players, prices dropped significantly on CD players and the availability of CDs sold at places such as Sound Warehouse increased significantly. This video filmed inside a Pacific Stereo store in Dallas in the summer 1984 discusses how prices on CD players had already fallen significantly from a year prior. This video from the spring of 1985, also filmed at a Pacific Stereo store in Dallas, shows that prices of CD players had already reached mainstream levels in 1985. As this other video from 1985 shows, CDs left household living rooms and became portable via portable players such as the Sony Discman and car CD players. In fact, car CD players were common until just recently. Eventually, the advent of data CD-ROMs for computers and video games, along with user-recordable CDs, made the CD format even more popular. The release of DVD video optical discs for movies in the late 1990s followed a similar trajectory as CDs did for music recordings in the 1980s where the DVD format became ubiquitous for video content after only a handful of years. Of course, CDs can be played in most DVD players.
To get a sense of how retailers were marketing CD players, here is how Sears was marketing their CD player, sold under their own ‘Proformance’ brand, in their 1983 Christmas catalog. At $590, the price had already fallen quite a bit from the summer of 1983. Usually conservative Sears had no problem proudly proclaiming that “Digital audio is awesome” in their marketing! Tandy’s Radio Shack was a bit late in adding Compact Disc players to their stores as it did not show up until their 1985 catalog came out with a model under Tandy’s ‘Realistic’ brand, but here we see Tandy refer to the “amazing” and “ultimate” quality of Compact Disc!
While the days of seeing walls of CD players at places such as Sears and Montgomery Ward’s Electric Avenue are over in modern times and are replaced by racks of used CD and DVD players at places such as Goodwill, there are still some places around town to buy CDs even if most music listeners have switched to streaming Internet audio and most collectors have returned to focusing their attention, for the most part, on records. Half Price Books is the most obvious place to go to find mostly used CDs, but there are some remaining shops for new CDs such as the Classical Music of Spring shop in Old Town Spring which sells new classical music CDs. Classical Music of Spring, which used to be located within the Weslayan Plaza by the Randall’s Flagship and then later 3514 S Shepherd Dr. when they were known as Joel’s Classical Shop, is one of the last classical music CD shops left in the country according to this recent Texas Monthly article about the shop.
As a classical music lover myself, we were fairly early adopters of the CD format. We waited a few years for the prices to drop before we purchased our first CD player from Service Merchandise, a 1980s Teac unit which I still have and which still works. That said, I do have some older CDs, including some released around the time CD players were first sold in the US, in my collection of CDs. For me, personally, it was quite amazing to see those early days of the CD format and all the excitement the CD format brought to a wide variety of retailers. It was always exciting to go to an electronics store or electronics department of a department store/catalog showroom and play around with the latest CD players and cassette decks in the 1980s. I still enjoy buying new CDs today as I enjoy putting a disc on and enjoying high-quality sound reproduction.
Do you have any special memories of shopping for CDs and CD players in the 1980s? If so, or if you have any other comments, please feel free to leave a comment in the comments section below. We love to hear from our readers!