Those old 45s get the laser treatment

Admit it: if you're over a certain age - old enough to remember when you were as young as the characters in This Life - then somewhere you have a pile of vinyl records, quietly gathering dust, unplayed since you invested in a CD player.

Now, though, modern technology can bring you back the sounds of those records - using exactly the same system as CDs. Forget about lowering the needle onto the record. This turntable uses lasers.

With a price tag of 1.35 millionyen (pounds 7,180), the ELP Laser Turntable doesn't come cheap. Each one is hand-built, using military-class components.

But according to its makers, the ELP Corporation of Japan, it does bring amazing accuracy to sound reproduction. "Everyone who has heard its output in Japan has said that it is infinitely close [sic] to the original sound recorded on Master Tape," proclaims an advert. And some reckon that if it can find a bigger market, and bring down production costs, then it could bring relief to hi-fi enthusiasts who have been hoarding needles against the day when they are no longer sold.

The idea of playing records using a laser was the brainchild of Robert Stoddard, a postgraduate student at Stanford University in the early 1980s. For his thesis he showed that, in theory at least, a laser-based system could interpret the way that the grooves of a vinyl record vary in depth and width as the sounds they are recording change in volume and pitch. The groove of a record is a direct, analogue representation of the sound - whereas the microscopic "pits" on a CD's playing surface are a digitised version of that same sound.

To "play" a record by laser, the light is split into four beams. Two are aimed at the sides of the record's groove, which carry the sounds of the left and right channels. The other two beams track the top of the groove, keeping the laser aimed precisely. Warps, bumps and even cracks can be handled - but that takes top-quality servo mechanisms, one reason why the turntable is so expensive.

Price notwithstanding, there are two other small problems for those keen to play those old records without damaging them. First, the laser is set up for a black surface - so that white vinyl copy of the Beatles' White Album will have to wait. And are you sure that you really want to get closer to the original sound of the Bay City Rollers?

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