In Defense of Compact Discs

We’re in the middle of a retro resurgence in the world of high-fidelity music. Vinyl LP sales—even at $20-25 a pop—are surging. According to RadioTimes, vinyl sales in the UK in 2014 have been higher than at any point in the last 18 years. In the U.S, the statistics are even more dramatic.

Said RadioTimes of vinyl in the UK, “Sales have been driven primarily by the Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, and Pink Floyd—with Oasis, Status Quo, and David Bowie also contributing to the impressive figures.”

We must remember that this is regarding the UK market, not the U.S. However, substitute Foo Fighters for any of the artists listed above—with the exception of Jack White—and you get the picture in the States. Vinyl LP sales are higher than they’ve been in decades. They’re greater, in fact, than they’ve been for the majority of the reign of compact discs over vinyl LPs and cassette tapes.DSC_1805 - retouched

According to Wikipedia, “‘Vinyl revival’ is a term being used by the media and listeners of music to describe the renewed interest and increased sales of vinyl records, or gramophone records, that has been taking place in the Western world since the year 2006. The analogue format made of polyvinyl chloride had been the main vehicle for the commercial distribution of pop music from the 1950s until the 1980s and 1990s, when they were replaced by the compact disc.”

I think I expressed my sentiments on this topic as objectively as possible in the Retro Resurgence section of my full-length book Home Theater for the Internet Age. “Today, more retro hipsters are embracing what many consider to be the ultimate in home theater fidelity, vinyl, than at any time in the 30 years since digital compact discs took over. In 2013, Amazon announced that its vinyl music sales were up 745% since 2008.”

More from the book: “Analog vinyl LPs, while several times more expensive than their CD counterparts (similar in price to high-resolution digital music formats like SACD and Blu-ray Audio), offer the finest fidelity money can buy (as well as some old-school analog vulnerabilities that don’t plague modern digital formats).”

Those old-school vulnerabilities are a’ plenty. Vinyl is a frail format, one that’s prone to many problems. Vinyl scratches with little effort and is a willing victim when it comes to static cling. If the needle on your turntable gets hosed, you could damage any record you play.

The entire vinyl food chain, from record groove to needle to cartridge to tonearm to spinning platter, is fraught with fragility and prone to easy damage. Can you say wow and flutter? You’ve probably never heard of or suffered either, because these fidelity-busting turntable problems don’t plague compact discs.

However, unlike most other formats, vinyl delivers what many audiophiles believe is among the best possible fidelity (although much of this is marketing and hype). And clearly, by objective standards of frequency ranges and all those impressive numbers in the world of kHz, it’s among the best (along with high-resolution digital formats, like 32/384 PCM and any 24/192 recording).

I love vinyl. I’m really satisfied to see it survive where other music formats—like 8-track, reel-to-reel, Sony’s MiniDisc, and others—died. But in this celebration of our friend vinyl, let’s pause and consider why music on compact disc rapidly overtook the LP format during the 1980s.

First, CDs are mobile. No, not as mobile as an iPod Shuffle or even a smartphone, but it’s easy to bring along enough music for a very long road trip. While most cars for the past decade or so have featured CD players, LP is a format that doesn’t allow vehicular playback. It’s why people initially purchased home cassette player/recorders; they wanted to make tapes of their albums so they could go mobile and hear them in their car or running with their Walkman.

Second—and probably most important—CDs lack the snaps, crackle, and pops of vinyl LPs. CDs also offer markedly better and perceptible fidelity than cassette tapes. I believe it was the lack of mobility paired with the extremely fragile nature of vinyl, combined with the sonic imperfections of a physical needle being dragged along a groove in high-end plastic, that basically killed the vinyl LP as a mass-market music medium.

I also like that CDs, unlike vinyl, don’t deteriorate just a little with each play. They can also be duplicated–“bitperfectly,” as stated by my acquaintance Frederic Van–with zero loss of quality. A thousand times over. Forever and ever. No, I don’t condone piracy. But if I’ve legally purchased music, in any format or on any media, I want to be able to copy it, for any device and any use, as many times as I desire–with no degradation in fidelity. Not possible with vinyl.

In addition, compact discs provide much better sound quality than the average song downloaded from Amazon or iTunes and played via Bluetooth from your smartphone to your car’s stereo. Bluetooth is inherently low-fidelity. It was designed for the communications of computer printers and pointing devices, not good sound.

In addition, CDs can tolerate much higher temps than vinyl. While the nearly microscopic grooves in vinyl can begin to distort or melt at as low as 200 degrees F (93 C), compact discs can tolerate up to 600 degrees F (315 C). I also don’t need to own special cleaning accessories for my compact discs. I can rid my discs of any nasty stuff with nothing more than warm water and a cotton cloth (avoid products like paper towels and tissue, which can scratch). However, if properly cared for, compact discs rarely require attention or cleaning.

A quick reality check: On Amazon.com, Jack White’s Lazaretto album is $8 as a collection of lossy MP3s (the lowest sonic fidelity), $9.50 on compact disc (middle of the pack in terms of sound quality), and $23 on vinyl (the greatest fidelity possible). Apparently, one gets what one pays for in terms of fidelity.

Compact disc sales in the United States peaked way back in 2000. Since then, the market for music has been consumed by lower fidelity formats from iTunes and Amazon and, more recently, streaming music services like Pandora, iTunes Radio, and Spotify. However, in gaining the convenience of very portable digital downloads or streaming services, we lost fidelity (CDs also deliver much better sound than streaming music).

Yes, there’s nothing as retro sexy or hipster high-end as a good turntable playing a clean record into ample amplification. But as old as it is, the compact disc format does it all while completely avoiding the snaps, crackles, and pops of legacy LPs. This includes the ability to rip original-quality lossless WAV files from CDs (or run-of-the-mill MP3s; your choice).

You can then take these ripped files and play them over your home network using something called DLNA. Store the files on any computer in your home and, using average internet routers and affordable Blu-ray players connected via wi-fi or Ethernet cabling, listen to them on your home theater (or any other device connected to your network, including your mobile gadgets).

Compact discs, I would argue, offer the best compromise between mobility, durability, fidelity, and price. Dollar for dollar, there’s no music format in existence that’s more practical and affordable.

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Curt Robbins

[How do you purchase and consume your music? Share your preferences in the comments below. Thanks to Mark Henninger at AVS Forum for his feedback.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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