In Defense of the Compact Disc
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.
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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Tags: audio, cds, compact discs, mp3s, music, vinyl