Retro Tech Spotlight: ELP LT-1XA

As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at the ELP LT-1XA

A few months back, we featured Koss’ classic Porta Pro headphones and asked if something could truly be “retro tech” if it was still purchased and used on the reg. Well, this month we take a look at the ELP LT-1XA, the world’s first laser turntable, from the only company that makes laser turntables, a technology that has barely evolved or been adopted in a quarter century, and ask, “Is it retro?”

High-end tech? Or retro?

The laser turntable has a long and checkered history, dating all the way back to the early ’80s, when a pair of electrical engineering grads from Stanford set about making one. By 1984, their startup, Finial Technology, was able to show off a non-functioning mock-up at that year’s CES. OK, so it’s not working yet, but you can tell us how it works, right? Nope. Patents pending.

Two years later, at the 1986 CES, they were finally able to show off a working prototype, dubbed the Finial LT-1. And sure enough, the laser worked as a standard needle would in reading the grooves, but without causing wear to the vinyl. Big plus. But it also read any dirt or dust that was trapped in the grooves, because a laser can’t push that crap aside. And so any time the laser so much as hit a speck, you’d get a noise something akin to, as one critic put it, “munching potato chips.” Big minus.

Once you pop, you can’t stop.

So essentially, this meant you had to thoroughly wet-clean any album you wanted to play before you put it in the turntable and somehow manage to keep it sterile as you transferred it from wherever you cleaned it to the turntable. If this wasn’t enough of a drawback, Finial was projecting a street price of $2,500 (about $6,000 in 2020 money), just at the time when CD sales were starting to surpass album sales.

The LT-1 never went into production. Finial sold the patents to Japanese turntable manufacturer BSR in 1989. BSR would become CTI Japan, and create ELP Japan as a branch specifically for the development of the laser turntable. By the time it finally came to market in 1997, the ELP LT-1XA – now 13 years removed from that first non-working prototype – had a street price of $20,500 (or more than $33,000 in 2020 money).

That’s a big chunk of change right there.

And what did that buy you? Well, ELP did improve the ability to track higher frequencies (a major complaint of the Finial prototype), and the laser was able to locate track bands, so you could perform track selection like on a CD player. You could now vary the depth at which the laser touched the groove, which was useful in instances of playing heavily scratched records. But they never really worked out the whole munch-munch-munch thing.

The cost of the LT-1XA would eventually come down, and ELP would introduce other models – some more streamlined in cost and features, others more robust. But as of 2020, they’re still the only game in town, selling a product that hasn’t really fundamentally changed in 35 years to what is essentially a niche audience.

That sounds about as retro as it gets.