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Widget Of The Week

Philips CD 150 Compact Disc Player, 1985

The launch of Compact Disc in 1983 by Philips and Sony, changed everything and almost certainly marked the beginning of the so-called ‘Digital Revolution’. Up until that point virtually all household audio and video products, gadgets and appliances relied on venerable analogue technology.

 

Of course digital electronics had been around for some time but it had little impact on the consumer market, until the arrival of CD. It didn’t happen overnight, though, and CD got off to a rather slow start. First generation players were expensive, well above what the average Hi-Fi equipment buyer would be prepared to pay, and for the first year or so the small number of discs available lacked popular appeal, showing a strong bias towards worthy classical pieces..

 

Performance and the supposed indestructible nature of discs also came in for some stick and a lot of audiophiles and Hi-Fi stalwarts dismissed it as a passing fad. It did have one or two eye-catching features, though. Small size, convenience and the facility to play album tracks in any desired order was a revelation, and it avoided the main weaknesses of vinyl, namely vulnerability to dust and scratches. Even so, two years after launch, price was still a major obstacle with most players selling for between £500 and £1000. Then along came Philips with the CD 150, costing under £240, which was still quite pricey for an audio component, but it gave the new format a welcome kick-start. 

 

Those early CD players were large and heavy items with complex die-cast metal chassis and multiple circuit boards, densely packed with discrete components. The CD 150 did away with all that; almost all of the metalwork was replaced by plastic, which did wonders for the weight and the many individual electronic circuits, needed to control deck and laser servos, and the spindle motor, were bundled together into a small number of purpose-designed chips. The weight and component count fell dramatically, as did the price, and other manufacturers who had been quietly waiting on the sidelines, quickly jumped on the bandwagon, further driving down prices.

 

The CD 150 had one other thing going for it, it worked really well and a fair few contemporary reviews compared it quite favourably with players costing two and three times as much. Philips clearly hadn’t skimped on the important technical bits and pieces, but there’s no getting away from it, it is quite basic, and not much to look at. It had actually been designed as part of a system and an infrared remote control was sold as optional extra (it has a socket on the back for a wired remote control link to other Philips audio products). All of the standard functions were there though, with a programmable 20-track memory, 3-speed forward and reverse search (audio on the first two speeds), a simple track, time and index LED display and a nifty Pause mode with a countdown display, apparently for the convenience of DJs. The deck mechanism was advanced for the time. It’s possible there had been collaboration with the designers of portable decks that were soon to appear. It worked at any angle, even on is side, and was surprisingly stable with a good deal of immunity to knocks and vibration.

 

This particular machine was an early pre-production review sample supplied to me by one of Philips's PR agencies. This would have been a few weeks before the UK launch and as I recall Philips were handing them out at a rate of knots to fellow journalists working for the then numerous audio and consumer electronics magazines. This was quite a bold step for a new product so they must have been pretty confident that it would get favourable reviews. It came with a number of test CDs and in addition to classical standards there was a small assortment of what have now become classic rock and pop albums, from the likes of Dire Straits and Marillion. Several of those first edition titles have gone on to become collectibles in their own right and one or two of them may even be worth more than the player…

 

Philips never asked for it back and it remained in fairly regular use for a couple of years, providing a useful benchmark for the other CD system and entry-level players that I was reviewing at the time. I don’t recall exactly when it was retired but it would have been when the features and performance of other manufacturer’s players had become noticeably better than the CD 150, which says a lot for the resiliance of  the original design. I suspect that I couldn’t bear to part with it so it went into storage in my garage, under a large pile of other stuff that might come in handy one day... I stumbled across it recently in an abortive attempt to tidy up and was amazed to find that it still powered up and played discs, at least as well as it ever did. Back in the 80s Philips still had a well-deserved reputation for design and build quality and even managed to give top name Japanese manufacturers a run for their money.

 

What Happened To It?

Philips obviously didn’t waste much time on the cosmetics -- compared with previous models -- but at the time it was exactly what the market had been waiting for and it helped propel CD from an expensive novelty into the Hi-Fi mainstream. The trouble was, although Philips blazed the trail for affordable CD players it couldn’t keep up with the Japanese, who savagely undercut them, sometimes at the expense of sound quality. Sadly that often didn’t matter; even a low-end CD player could sound better than a poorly set up or maintained record deck and Hi-Fi system playing scratchy records, and CD had the convenience factor. However, in the end, for the mass market what really counted was price, but Philips was never a serious player in the bargain basement, budget sectort. Numerous sucessors to the CD 150 followed but in audio, at least, Philips never strayed far from its safe and familiar mid-market, euro-brand image. By the early 90s Philips had drifted even further into mediocrity, lacking the innovation and boldness that we saw throughout the 60s and 70s with genuinely ground-breaking products like its all-transistor colour TVs, Compact and Micro audio cassettes, Laserdisc, the first home VCR,  the Video 2000 recording format, and of course, CD.

 

Nowadays CD 150’s attract little attention; the real collectibles are first generation models, like the Sony CDP-101 and the classic Philips CD100. They sometimes sell for truly daft prices on ebay, though if you hang around long enough you might be able to find a fixer-upper for less than £100. Working CD 150s generally go for between £20 to £50, and that’s helped by the fact that there was very successful mod, involving replacing a chunk of the output circuitry that significantly boosts performance. It’s never going to have the status of the earliest models but it’s still a bit of a milestone, and worth a punt if you come across a cheap, presentable runner.      


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen                1985

Original Price         £240

Value Today           £25 (0216)

Features                 Track, time & Index display, pause countdown, 3-speed forward & reverse search (audio on first two), 20-track program memory, cable remote option

Power req.                    240 VAC

Dimensions:                  245 x 295 x 85mm

Weight:                         3.1kg

Made (assembled) in:    Belgium

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):  6


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