Why I’m not looking forward to CDs disappearing

I’m taking a break from the Haiku (three part) introduction today. Today I’m interested in something else. It’s nothing new, and something that was in the prior issue of Rolling Stone in an article by Steve Knopper, “Is the CD era finally over? I would link but the article is not on the rolling stone website for full viewing access. In brief, CD sales continue to fall, as a result of less people buying this format, less shops are stocking them, and obviously, there is increased sales in digital download formats. The CD is predicted to be pretty much dead within the next three years. Am I a tech boff, so it’s something I’m looking forward to? I am not and here is why.

When CDs first appeared in the early eighties they were clearly the next technological leap in music distribution. Supposably indestructible (well the early thick ones were tough), but offering quicker access, such as the ability to skip tracks, and jump end to end. There were positive and negative points depending on your perspective. Positives were the access,and the quality, no more crackle and static clicks. The size, they would take up less storage space. Negatives, were they were smaller so the packaging was more formal and less art work. This was compared to vinyl obviously, arguably this was also a problem with the cassette. On the audio front, some of the CD versions were often a bit bright or shrill, too much top end. There was debate on which, vinyl or cd, offered the better sound. It was argued that vinyl was warmer. As it panned out, this might have been the case in early cd pressings, but as record companies cottoned on to how to do better digital masters, and the quality of CD players for the home improved on a cost to technology basis, CDs became the better quality format.

Within a few years, probably around 5, which seems a long time these days, CDs were becoming the format of choice. Much vinyl was being sold off, many people not only buying new albums on cd, but replacing their old collection as well. Myself, I was getting into music around 1992, so before long I had a CD player. The CD was my format of choice, by this time the digital mastering was mostly good. Some issues of old albums like the Beatles albums were not very well done and were a little flat, but generally it was the better format. I would say compare with the current Beatles CD issues, but there is more going on in those editions than a new digital mastering, and they do sound very good.

These days I have music on a variety of formatsa few thousand CD albums, some vinyl (but not a lot), some boxed up cassettes, and about 35 days of music on my iPod (which is not all my collection by a long shot). I’m a bit of a muso, I like my music, music journalism (like Mojo Magazine), and stereo (I have CD, and amplifier separates). And after a long way round we begin to get to my point.

I love technology even if I’m not that much of a tech nerd. I love my Macbook Pro, I love using it for writing projects (WordPress, Scrivener), but also to use Aperture, iMovie, or to house my digital music collection. When it comes to music, playing music through the headphones is pretty good fun. Streaming music using Airplay to the Apple TV is cool. But given the choice I would rather listen to music through my CD player and it is for one simple reason. The quality is better. It is ok through my TV, but a little bit, well “set up for TV” like. I like it through my headphones, the headphones I use “Grado Labs SR60” are decent and give good playback. But the quality through the CD player is just better. If I play my iPod connected to some speakers, or through the amplifier, the CD player is just better. It is, the sound just has more depth, or more meat on the bone. It just sounds more detailed. It does, and although the iPod / digital sound is quite good, it is just not quite good enough.

Losing CDs will have some benefits, such as saving physical space, and not having all that plastic produced, I’m not against that. So whilst losing CD in the long run is not necessarily a bad thing, right now it is. The reason is digital formats, like MP3 or AAC, or similar, are good but not good enough. There is too much compression, it loses some of the finer details. It might not be noticeable to some people but compare it to a CD version on a half decent player and you can tell the difference. This could be helped by simply having better digital files. This is something that could be done, the files on a CD are digital files, they are just larger in file size (i.e. with more detail) than the formats mentioned above. I could do this now. However, the other side of the coin with doing this, is that file sizes are larger. People would therefore need more storage space on computers, or iPods. You would also want online stores like Amazon or iTunes to support it. You might be able to see where I’m going with this. Sooner or later, someone will see this as the next way of selling music, and the same music to us yet again. There will be improved file quality, Apple and co will therefore introduce “new” larger capacity technology to handle it. Everything will be ok. Well it will if this happens before CD dies. I have no wish to buy digital format only only to find out that some bright spark introduces a better quality version a few years later. Unless they are planning to replace the old one for free of course.

Truth be told I will also miss the physical thing, the CD and the booklet. It is not at the level, due to the size, of what you used to get with vinyl, but still it added something in a lot of cases. It is not the same viewing it as PDF files on the screen. Still that will be a slight annoyance, but my main issue is with the quality. This might be making me sound old, after all old muso types complained about vinyl being on the way out, but I’ve no gripes with the idea itself, the convenience sure is useful. I just hope the CD will be around long enough for digital formats (with appropriate storage technologies) to catch up in sound quality. As it stands now, that is why I’m not looking forward to the death of the CD.

Lexicon word of the day: timorous.

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3 comments on “Why I’m not looking forward to CDs disappearing

  1. L.S. Engler says:

    I’m with you on this one. I remember when we moved, my roommate made fun of my CD collection, but I’m still pretty damn fond of it and wish I had more money for CDs. But the truth of the matter is that downloading is so much cheaper these days that the last time I even bought a CD was when Cake released their latest album last year…Dismal prospects, unfortunately…

  2. It’s kind of sad isn’t it? I actually like to browse the shelves of my collection, I actually like seeing them there. I’m similar with books, I like them on the shelves where I can browse. – That said if the quality of the downloads improves I would be ok downloading more. I do download the occasional thing but if it is something I really want, I will buy the CD.

  3. DyingNote says:

    Totally with you on this, Elliot. Thanks for the link to this post. Apart from the quality, I do miss the liner notes on mp3s. It’s not that it cannot be done but publishers can’t be bothered to add those. What I do to back up my CDs is to convert to the lossless FLAC format so even if I lose a CD, I can still recover it. Unfortunately there’s no support yet for the format on iTunes but there are lots of players that do but which may not work with the iPod.

    I agree with you that high quality digital recordings available for downloads/storage will be next big thing in sound especially as bandwidth keeps improving. It’s already happening with places like HDtracks.com. But one of the problems with official music download sites is copyright which I assume is what restricts availability to a few countries. Even now I have no choice to even listen to streamed music (other than a few places like NPR) like on Spotify or Pandora, let alone buy. Hopefully that will change soon.

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