In Defense of the Compact Disc

14Mar13

I love the compact disc. I’m not sure I know a single other person who does. I remember bringing home my first CDs as a child and believing I had the best thing money could buy. This feeling has never left me. When I wake up in the morning, I think about the music I want to listen to—and the CDs I want to own. They are the only thing I enjoy shopping for (my wife supposes it’s better than crack addiction). For me, there is no greater high than connecting with a new “album” or reconnecting in a deeper way with an old one, and all the recorded music that has enriched my life has been on the compact disc format. When I speak to fellow music lovers, I can sense their confusion.  Why would anyone still listen to CDs in 2013?  There may be some reasons they are not considering:

1. CDs and Vinyl

I’m a high school teacher now, but I’ve held on to my weekend job at a new and used record store for more than ten years. I’ve seen many employees come and go, all of whom believed in the superiority of vinyl over CDs. While I love and relate to vinyl fetishists, skepticism keeps me from joining their ranks. I do agree that vinyl can sound awesome on the right system, not significantly worse than quality CDs. But visibly-scratched used records, some of which have been played hundreds of times? It’s hard to know how to respond when someone insists that beneath the crackle and hiss they are hearing something beyond digital.

I’m no recording engineer, but I find it hard to believe that a 100+ year-old technology that involves a diamond scraping into a soft, prone-to-warping plastic disc could possibly capture the nuances of music more accurately than a machine that uses a laser beam to construct a sound wave at 44,100 readings per second. Yes, in a theoretical universe an analog signal is more detailed than a digital signal, but we don’t live in that world. Any desired music that might be allegedly lost “between the bits” of digitized music is irrelevant in comparison to the distortion and random noise inherent in playing a vinyl record. The scientific reality is that, all else being equal, a CD player is going to reproduce music more accurately than a record player. CDs have greater dynamic range and lower noise floors (less background noise). As the needle travels to the center of the vinyl disc, it becomes more difficult to produce higher frequencies (“inner diameter distortion”).  And unlike vinyl, which degrades with every play, CDs can outlive their owners.

There are, however, reasons that stand up to scrutiny why some prefer vinyl. First, vinyl looks and feels awesome. (Personally, I love looking through the vinyl bins and really appreciating the cover art of albums I’ve enjoyed for years.) This tactile experience affects how people perceive the sound produced. In a similar way, someone might feel they are hearing more clarity after spending hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars on speaker cable (as if the electrons care). Second, this greater degree of distortion/noise inherent in vinyl may actually be preferable in many circumstances. Distortion, whether artificially produced or occurring naturally, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and when people use the word “warmth” to describe the vinyl sound, I suspect this is what they are hearing.

2. CDs and Computer Files

While MP3s are fine for ear-buds, the CD produces an objectively better sound when experienced on any decent loudspeaker or headphone. Using algorithms to remove data that is (hopefully) unnecessary, 256 or 320-kbps MP3s might not be significantly inferior to 1,411-kbps CDs, but few argue against the basic premise that lossless CDs can offer a superior sonic experience over compressed MP3s. The best that computer audio can do is to match CDs in terms of quality. FLAC, AIFF, and other file formats do apparently get there, though they represent only a small fraction of the music downloaded.

What about the promise of digital music, a sound quality that surpasses CDs and is more comparable to Super Audio CDs or better?  There is little actual evidence that a higher bit rate and sampling frequency improves musical fidelity over what normal CDs are already capable of. The data on CDs is read as 16-bit numbers, which means CDs employ 65,536 different levels to describe sound waves between 20 and 20,000 hertz, from the lowest to the highest end of what adults can hear. SACDs can produce sound waves at many hertz past this on both ends, which is also many hertz past what occurs in most music, beyond what the human ear registers, and out of the range that most stereo systems can faithfully reproduce. (True believers will say the frequencies past what we hear mysteriously affect the lower frequencies.) The Red Book specifications that define CD technology are based on math in the form of Nyquist theorem, which states that a sampling rate of twice the upper end of the sound wave produced is required to replicate it with precision. A sampling rate of 44.1 kilohertz/second was devised by this theorem, which mathmatically ensures that CDs perfectly reproduce all the sound waves human beings are capable of hearing.

Past this foundation of math that the CD rests upon, common sense dictates that there’s got to be limit to what our auditory systems are capable of perceiving, and numerous blind tests have indicated that despite what some enthusiasts maintain, audio formats like SACD may not offer any real-world improvement in sound quality over CDs. Even when high bit rate audio files that reach the level of SACD or higher become available to consumers, I wouldn’t count on audible improvements over CD sound quality.

3. Better Sounding Than Ever

The best audio advice I’ve heard is that what makes a difference first and foremost is recording quality. (Second is loudspeaker quality, and third is room acoustics. Absolutely everything else is comparatively unimportant.)  While engineers unfortunately can’t go back in time and record Robert Johnson using modern technology, they can use this technology to re-master old recordings. I’ve upgraded from the original ’80s CD masters to the re-mastered editions of all the Dylan, Stones, Beatles, Miles Davis, Coltrane, and countless other rock and jazz releases. In almost all cases these re-mastered releases are a significant improvement. Many of the early CD masters sound thin and lifeless compared to the musicality of the newer editions. Ignore for a second the recent “loudness wars” where some engineers unfortunately trade dynamic range for maximum volume, a problem unrelated to the CD format per se. Ironically, just as sales are plummeting, CDs in general are sounding better than ever as digital mastering and recording techniques improve.

4. Price

Today, the average CD costs just over $10 and prices will almost certainly drop further. More and more are available closer to $5. Used CDs are becoming absurdly cheap.  And online many used CDs are selling for not much more than the price of shipping.  Plus, if you’re not into what you bought, you can sell or trade. If you’re anything like me, you never get enough, and price is going to be another reason to stick with CDs, especially the used ones.

Please note: If you’re a person who spends hundreds of dollars a time on beautiful 180/200/220 gram vinyl re-releases, you probably already know that everything I’ve written is contradicted by hundreds of Google sources, not to mention the editors of Stereophile magazine and Neil Young himself. Your purchases have at least temporarily saved most of the record stores still in business. For me, these places are the good kind of churches, and I thank you deeply.

5. A Physical Thing

For most, convenience is perhaps the major reason to move to the MP3, and I’m happy that this works for them. iPods are wonderful lifestyle devices that can be easily used while jogging or driving. Personally, I’ve got the better part of a room dedicated to my CDs, but I shudder when I think about putting my collection on a cloud. I want the physical experience of getting up and putting on music I can hold in my hand, an experience I’m not sure I could replicate with a hard drive and a mouse. When I play music on a computer I get a feeling that there’s something better I could be listening to. When I put on a CD, the album demands to be listened to all the way through—to be digested. A CD on my shelf compels me to come back to it, and so many times I’ve come back to something that I’d forgotten about that I found revelatory after a third or fourth listening. And even though I’m obviously a fan of the compact disc, what I love and will always love foremost is the album as a format and a coherent work of art that averages around 45 minutes and was intended by the artist to be consumed as a whole. What keeps me above all else from moving to all digital is fear that if all physical connection to the album format is arbitrary then I will lose some part of my connection to the music itself.

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15 Responses to “In Defense of the Compact Disc”

  1. 1 WATER MAGIC

    Oh man. Thanks for this article.

    I dig vinyl and CDs too, but i’ve always found the vinyl kids kind of “elitist” towards anything CD. Seriously, some even going as far to refusing buying an album if its only available in CD.

    CD & Vinyl 4L

  2. Well done. At the age of 47, most my age would not disagree that “collecting” is the way to go. I keep my record collection at around 200 records to ensure I don’t “get carried away”. I buy a CD, burn it, then sell it on ebay which is what I assume many others do which drives the price down. I am feeling an urge however to purchase a piece of equipment that will allow me to play online radio over my home stereo. Radio, aside from youtube, is really the only way to sample a new artist or to find out what you like before you buy it. While it may be inferior, it is quite cheap, and if you listen to music as much as I do, “new music” can be a welcomed change even though I have all those records and some 4K in songs on a thumb drive. IMHO, I believe there will always be a number of ways to listen to music. Sound has so many variables which has kept tube amps and solid state amps on solid ground and I believe that there will always be a “hardcopy” of music for sale which will cater to those that want to hear something “different” or “better”.

  3. 3 Zack

    Good article. I was and am a rabid record collector but over the last year have began buying CDs more often then vinyl. I started buying records 13 years ago in college because I could get albums for $3 on an out of date format that I though was cool. Last year I realized I was paying $50 a pop for reissues of 10 year old albums and I though “this has gotten out of hand”. I have been buying used CDs on ebay and typically can get them for $4-6 including shipping. I love music and enjoy having the physical medium, liner notes, artwork etc. But I do’t really worry myself with Vinyl vs. CD, I buy whatever is cheaper. But, I’m sure I’ll go back to vinyl when it becomes uncool again and I can get the $50 STP reissue for 6 bucks.

    • Thank you, Zack. I remember 10 years ago the managers at our store debating whether or not to order new vinyl. It did seem like it just kind of sat on the shelf. Now people go nuts paying hundreds of dollars for vinyl reissues, which is probably the only reason most record stores still exist. I absolutely admire their passion for these beautiful objects. But I do believe that quality digital mediums are objectively superior to vinyl in every sonic way that can be measured and that people are deluding themselves when they hear a deeper level of nuance in vinyl. Still, if you look at what really matters in high fidelity, the CD vs. vinyl debate becomes comparatively unimportant. One article I read said evaluating musical fidelity based on whether it’s vinyl or CD is like evaluating a car by the condition of its spark plugs. So yeah, anyone should feel great about buying whatever works for them.

  4. 5 popeye

    CD -> 22 khz
    Vinyl -> 50 khz
    We can hear harmonics of sounds that we can’t hear.

  5. 7 Zobeid Zuma

    I’m sorry, but I can’t just ignore the Loudness Wars, not even for a second. Most pop and rock CDs for the last 15+ years have been severely compromised, some out them outright ruined. It know it’s not the fault of the underlying CD format, but in practice I have a choice of buying a sonically crushed CD or buying the same recording on LP record with about twice the dynamic range. Obviously I’m going for the LP. (And even the LPs these days are over-compressed in comparison with recordings from the 1980s, sadly.)

    “I’ve upgraded from the original ’80s CD masters to the re-mastered editions…” Well, good for you! Can you send me the old ones? When I see remastered on the label, to me that’s like writing “ebola edition” on it. I’ve been scouring fleaBay for the older CDs that sound like they were meant to sound.

    • Interesting comment. I wonder if you’re inflating the influence of the loudness war thing, but I’m willing to concede I could be wrong. My perception of the loudness war is that it comes into play more for music I don’t listen to much. Most of the CDs that I’ve sold back for the remastered editions have been either jazz on labels like Blue Note and Columbia or so-called classic rock like Dylan, CCR, Beatles, etc. I’d like to think–and my listening supports this–that remastering is done right much of the time. Sometimes I’d classify the difference as night and day. For example, the ’80s release of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way sounds muddy compared to the more recent release, which sounds much more musical to me. I’ve never heard the original vinyl, but I’d like to compare.

      I was actually just thinking it’d be interesting to do some double blind comparisons between these different editions. I know it’d be important to match the volume levels as closely as possible. I am willing to concede that my perception that the remastered editions of these albums are typically superior may be based partly on expectation bias, but of course bias could be working the other direction for those who prefer the older editions. Or perhaps I just prefer the levels turned up a bit.

      My most significant experience with a CD that I felt was mixed way too high was the ’90s edition of Raw Power. Long before I’d ever heard of the loudness wars the CD struck me as sounding like nu metal, so kinda crappy. Now I read that that edition of Raw Power was one of the loudest CDs then released, and it seems likely that my negative comparison to the popular metal of the time was because that current music was mixed way too high as well. Anyway, so happy they finally released the original “Bowie mix” on CD, which sounds great to me.

      • 9 Zobeid Zuma

        I’ve been really quite frustrated with new releases from classic rock acts — new CDs from acts like Styx, ZZ Top, Blue Oyster Cult, Deep Purple, Asia. These guys are still around, and some of the releases have been quite good, but the compression on most of the CDs has been severe. ZZ Top’s “Mescalero” CD was the very worst. (As an unrelated gripe, most classic rock stations would never ever be caught playing anything recent from an old band. I have no idea why.) Heavy metal music has also been hit hard, I gather, though most of it’s not my thing anyhow.

        Another example… Back in 1985, Dire Straits “Brothers In Arms” was one of the first album releases that was really mastered with CD audio in mind, and it sounded incredibly good. It was one of the first rock CDs that could be called an audiophile production, and it stood as a benchmark for a long time. Since then there have been multiple remastered releases. The last one in 2005 had about half the dynamic range of the original, according to the TT DR Meter program.

        Now, I can understand remastering a CD that was done poorly the first time around. There have been a few notorious examples of CDs that needed fixing, and eventually a remaster fixed them. In the case of a recording like Brothers In Arms, though, it makes no sense at all. They’re taking a recording of widely acknowledged excellence and changing it for the sake of… what? Fashion? The only logic seems to be, “We can put REMASTERED on the label and sell it again to the same people who already bought it before!”

        As for the dr.loudness-war.info site, yes, I discovered that several weeks ago and it’s been highly educational for me, and the TT DR Meter has too. It’s helped me quantify a lot of things that I’d only roughly observed before.

      • I agree with almost everything you say. I do still think there are many excellent remasters out there that substantially improve upon the original CD releases, but no doubt there are some crappy ones too. Most of the remasters that I looked up on that website confirmed that they still had good to great dynamic range. However, there was a few things I looked up that I perceived to be excellent recordings but were rated as having poor dynamic range. For example, the Bad Plus recordings are mostly rated poorly. Still trying to work out what exactly these ratings mean.

    • Have you seen this site?

      http://dr.loudness-war.info

      Just started playing around with it, but it seems like a good way to get objective information about the dynamic range of various albums.

  6. 12 Clemente Raya

    okay I have and still collect LP’s and CD’s but am looking for a new CD player why is there so little selection why not include a comment about this. I guess producers are trying to phase out physical media. I have no interest in cloud based music files I have turntables to play LP’s but am so disappointed with most reasonable priced DVD/disc players these days and don’t want to pay thousands for a CD player. This comment might be off the mark but just wanted to note how music producers are phaseing even CD’s out.

  7. Clemente, I think you have a couple good options. The only truly bad options involve spending thousands of dollars.

    First, there is no reason to consider spending more than a couple hundred on a CD player. Sound quality is simply not an issue with CD players. Think of it this way, the harmonic distortion in even great speakers is something like 1% (and more in the lower bass). The harmonic distortion in a CDP might be .003%. See where this is going? Most of the claims manufacturers make to sell their high end products simply do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. (More info on this at https://numeralnine.wordpress.com/2013/10/09/a-brief-guide-to-audio-for-the-skeptical-consumer/ .)

    One option is a Blu-Ray player. Sony and Samsung make great ones that obviously do much more than play CDs. The advantage to this is that you can keep the signal in digital form longer since you are outputting it into your A/V receiver if you have one (the DAC there should be as good as anything). A downside, and the reason I don’t do this, is that I like to see the track listing on the screen without turning on my TV.

    I personally use a Denon CD player circa 2000. I bought it used for ~$80. I traded in my “audiophile” player that had inferior error correction (so it wouldn’t play my scratched CDs, whereas the Denon plays everything perfectly). Aesthetically, it looks like the CD players I grew up with, so I prefer it to a modern Blu-Ray player.

    Alternatively, there are several new players by Sony, Yamaha, Onkyo, and others available online for less than $200.

    Hope this helps!

  8. 14 Ray

    Used CD are so cheap now here in Ireland. I search thrift stores and get great ones for €1 each. Vinyl is in short supply in those stores whereas years ago they were full of vinyl. It appears vinyl is cool now and people are basically dumping their CD’s. I burn to FLAC for digital playback and keep the CD for Hifi playback.


  1. 1 Local Man Writes Eloquent Paean to the Compact Disc | canacast.networks.beta

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