Audiophiles are a sensitive lot. Paycheck after paycheck is sacrificed to the quest for pure tones unblemished by rumble, hiss, and a host of other unpardonable sonic sins.
In 1983 some 35,000 of these discerning patrons put down $800 to $1,000 to aquire a compact-disc (CD) player - the technological marvel many aficionados consider the Holy Grail of recorded music.
This year, the Electronic Industries Association estimates 200,000 compact disc players were sold. In 1985 that number is expected to double. Why?
The price of CD players is tumbling. Now selling for $200 to $600, the CD is passing from audiophiledom into the realm of a working teen-ager's budget.
''The compact-disc players are getting close to the point where they break into the mass market category. We're getting a critical mass of CD (record) titles and the right pricing,'' says Eugene G. Glazer, an industry analyst and vice-president at Dean Witter Reynolds.
To a degree, the compact disc has already attained mass market distribution. This Christmas such major department-store chains as Sears, Macy's, Lechmere, and Bloomingdale's were stocking CD players. Lechmere reports sales are ''showing strength.'' And at Manufacturers Warehouse, a discount chain in the Boston area, ''They're selling extremely well. We're having a hard time keeping them in stock,'' says audio sales manager Jane Murphy. In early December, the store sold CD players for $199 on sale.
The heart of this sound ''revolution,'' is the audio digital disc. It is a 4. 7-inch aluminum record coated in plastic. Sounds are run through a computer and encoded digitally on the disc. CDs are played on just one side but are capable of holding more than 60 minutes. The disc is placed in the drawer of a player, which is about the same size as a tape deck, and is ''read'' with a laser beam instead of the traditonal turntable tone arm and needle.
The result: clear sound uncluttered by scratches, static pops, etc. In fact, the laser ''needle'' won't scratch or wear out the disc. And even if you should somehow mar the plastic, it's unlikely the laser will read the scar.
Clarity is not always a plus. Digital recordings are so crisp and lucid that recording flaws not heard on LPs or tapes - such as microphones switching on or the rustling of musicians' clothing - can be reproduced if the engineering is sloppy.
While there are variations in the quality of disc recordings, there is little audible difference in CD players. According to David Ranadachk, technical editor for Stereo Review, the higher priced models simply offer more convenience features and possibly more reliability. For instance, some models have remote controls; others can be programmed to play specific selections in a set order.
Until recently, sales of CD players have been hampered by a dearth of discs. The CD player has been rather like a new computer introduced to the market without enough supporting software. A year ago, one had to be a classical music fan to appreciate CDs. Today, there are about 2,000 CD titles available in this country. About half those titles are classical; the rest are jazz, pop, and show tunes. Still, traditional LPs offer an estimated 50,000 titles.
As with CD players, falling prices are part of the impetus for disc sales. In the last six to nine months, disc prices have fallen from $20 to $30 to the $7 -to-$14 range.
''All major record companies are producing compact discs,'' says Fred Wahlstrom, a Sony spokesman. But Mr. Renada at Stereo Review points out that Capitol/EMI (which makes, among other popular products, Beatles albums) hasn't yet joined the compact-disc bandwagon.
In September, the first CD pressing plant in the United States was opened in Terre Haute, Ind. The plant is a joint venture between CBS and Sony. Officials say the plant is operating at a 300,000 CDs a month capacity now.
With a plant in this country, and others planned, CD release delays may become shorter. It's rare that a CD is released concurrently with LPs or tapes. Delays of several months are common as companies wait until the release proves popular.
''The turnaround time is getting much shorter,'' says Mr. Wahlstrom. ''Probably sometime next year we'll be able to release CDs simultaneously with LPs and tapes.'' Dean Witter's Mr. Glazer is optimistic too: ''This is the next generation of major audio products.'' But he adds, ''The CD will eventually replace the existing phonograph record. It will be a long-term project.''
When the CD player went on sale almost two years ago, Sony and Magnavox (Phillips NV) were the lone duet in the market. They had jointly developed the technology. Now a choir, some 30 to 40 manufacturers strong, are singing the praises of CD players. And they are elbowing for a lead spot in the market by slashing prices.
At this point, Sony remains at the fore, say analysts. The Japanese electronics giant is the only firm to offer home, car, and portable CD players. There are half a dozen manufacturers also making CDs for the car but no else has a tote model, too.
The $299 (suggested retail price) portable model was introduced last month in the United States, and the company is having trouble meeting demand. ''We're selling everything we ship and we're in a back-order situation now,'' says a spokesman.
While the industry is crowing about this year's inroads, CDs and CD players still amount to less than 10 percent of the total record and audio component markets. Manufacturers are committing to heftier marketing outlays to make the public aware of the advantages of compact discs. ''Consumers are still in the learning curve,'' says Allen Slasher of the Electronics Industry Association. ''It will take time for them to be exposed to this incredibly faithful sound.''
Meanwhile, prices in 1985 may continue to fall. ''You're still going to see substantial price chops as manufacturers vie for sales, says Mr. Glazer. ''You might see (CD players for) $100 to $150.''