The Bright New Sound of Music

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The sound is as pure and compelling as a siren song, and consumers seem powerless to resist. They have been snapping up compact disk players, which reproduce music with near perfection, at a rate that is overwhelming both retailers and manufacturers. Annual sales of the newest high-tech wonder, which came on the U.S. market in 1983, should reach 1 million next year. That will make the CD player the fastest-selling machine in home-electronics history. The videocassette recorder took six years (from 1975 to 1981) to reach the same milestone. "We're selling every single CD we can get our hands on," says Donald Swallen, vice president of the eight-store Swallen's retail chain in Cincinnati. "We can't order them fast enough."

CD players are transforming the way people listen to music. With their sweet sound, easy operation and virtually indestructible disks, they represent a technological leap beyond records and tapes (see box). Manufacturers confidently predict that CD machines will become the standard music player, overtaking sales of turntables and cassette decks as early as next year. At stores in some wealthy neighborhoods, CD players are already outselling turntables 2 to 1.

The CD boom, like other electronic crazes before it, has been spurred by plummeting prices. Only two years ago, a machine cost more than $1,000 and a disk about $20. But today retailers sell them for as little as $180, while disks cost $12 to $14. Now that the CD no longer looks like a shameless frill, sales have zoomed. An estimated 600,000 players will be sold this year, compared with 240,000 in 1984 and just 35,000 in 1983. Says Alan Perper, marketing director for the Warner Brothers, Elektra and Atlantic record labels: "The drop in prices has made it a mass-market product faster than anyone expected." Industry analysts expect prices for simple players to dip as low as $150 by Christmas and $100 next year.

Consumers who buy CDs tend to become fervent disciples. Senator Barry Goldwater, a jazz fan who bought a Hitachi model last year, demonstrates the durability of CDs to neophytes by tossing the disks across his Washington apartment. He is thinking about buying a CD player for his car. Musician Nile Rodgers, who has produced albums for singers David Bowie and Madonna, listens to the CD player in his Porsche as he commutes between Connecticut and New York City. Gerald Koris, a Los Angeles lawyer, has bought more than two dozen classical-music disks since becoming hooked last year. Says he: "It's the first time I can hear the piano with full power. In chamber music, I can't tell the difference anymore between recorded and live."

CD systems are the stars of a home- electronics industry that is suffering through an otherwise trying year. Sales of home computers, the hot item two years ago, have fallen sharply. Conventional turntables have also been moving at a stagnant rate. Manufacturers of audio gear hope that the popularity of CD players will create a resurgence of demand for amplifiers and speakers. Says Tadahiko Nakaoki, a product planner for Japan's Pioneer brand: "Everybody in this business must be relieved deep down in their hearts."

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