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.

Streaming Music: The Types

You don’t have to be into home theater or an audiophile to love music (when was the last time you met someone who wasn’t into some type of music?). Whether you’re streaming on your smartphone or home listening to a full complement of surround sound speakers, streaming music goes everywhere.music (3)

Cost? Free to $10 a month. So what are you waiting for? Get on the streaming music bandwagon and begin enjoying the world’s largest jukebox.

[If you don’t have time for a 1,100 word blog post and prefer a slideshow, check out Understanding Digital Music – Part 1.]

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Curt Robbins


There’s two primary types of streaming music: “Radio stations” and on-demand services. Radio stations include the uber-popular Pandora, as well as iTunes Radio and Songza. These companies offer a bare-bones service that plays continual music (perfect for background listening and office settings). On-demand services, such as Spotify, Beats Music, Tidal, and Rdio, are much more full-featured, offering the ability to play the song of your choice whenever you want. These services all currently charge $10 a month for access to a catalog of roughly 20 million+ songs.

Music Discovery / Radio Services

As the name implies, streaming radio involves creating a “radio station,” or channel, that automatically cranks out songs related to the name you choose (but doesn’t let you choose specific songs). It’s like an FM radio station, except it plays only the type of music you enjoy and doesn’t feature obnoxious DJs. For example, creating a Steely Dan radio station will pump out songs not only from the jazzy light rock duo, but also related artists like Boz Scaggs and Fleetwood Mac. Likewise, creating a Lorde station may stream pop songs from Imagine Dragons, Macklemore, and Lana Del Rey. Most services allow you to create radio stations based on a genre, song or album title, artist/band name, or era.

Pandora, Songza, iTunes Radio, and any service that provides a radio function, specialize in something called “music discovery.” If you like jazz and create a Miles Davis station, a streaming service will introduce you to other jazz artists, like Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins (artists with whom you may be unfamiliar).

On-Demand Services

“On-demand,” or “instant” music streaming is the ability to specify a particular song, album, or artist and immediately hear it. Combined with a large song catalog, these services are truly the world’s largest jukeboxes. Of course, as you’ve learned, there’s no guarantee that your favorite song is available from a particular service. But with a minimum of 20 million songs each, the major on-demand music streaming services have plenty to offer. Even if Rhapsody and Spotify don’t have your favorite Beatles or Metallica songs, what they do offer gives most users a feeling of solid value.

Don’t let the sheer volume of a catalog have too much sway over you. What matters is that it features most of the artists and songs that you want and are going to actually play (for example, some reviewers claim that Rdio is the best option if you’re into jazz and classical). When Beats Music debuted in January 2014, it criticized competing services for stuffing their catalogs with karaoke tracks and other obscure and unpopular songs simply to boost their numbers.

On-Demand Features

The major on-demand music services provide a standard set of functions to help you organize, revisit, and enjoy your favorite music genres, artists, albums, and songs. Playlists, music lockers, and offline listening all round out the power and convenience of any on-demand service.

Playlists

Playlists are simply lists of songs that you store on a music service. Playlists are nice for building a personally curated collection of songs that you can listen to at any time. You can continue to customize a playlist over time by adding, removing, or rearranging songs. Playlists are great for parties, cleaning around the house, or focusing on a single artist, genre, or time period. Most services allow you to shuffle a playlist to get a bit more variety, especially cool for large lists. Playlists are perfect for collecting current pop hits by a wide variety of artists or your favorite one-hit wonders from over the decades. With playlists, you no longer need to burn CDs or program your iPod to hear an exact song list.

Music Lockers

A relatively new feature of some on-demand streaming music services is a locker function that allows you to upload your own music. Unlike a peer-to-peer sharing scheme (like Napster from the old days), the files are available only to you (the “locker” analogy). Take my personal situation: I like Led Zeppelin, but, as you’ve learned, the group is available for on-demand streaming only on Spotify. I subscribe to Google Play Music and Pandora. What to do?

Despite the fact that I really like Spotify, I’m not going to switch from my current service just to get Led Zeppelin. I’d lose all my playlists, have to start from scratch at teaching a new service my preferences, and there’s no Chromecast support (something I use on a daily basis). Because I own most of Led Zeppelin’s catalog on CD and have already ripped them to 320 Kbps MP3s, I simply uploaded my entire collection to my music service’s locker. Now, when I log into Google Play Music, my personal Led Zeppelin collection is seamlessly woven into the other millions of titles from Google and available to me via all of its functions (radio, playlists, and on-demand).

This works so well that I also uploaded my AC/DC and Beatles collections, legally filling the gap of what’s not available due to artist refusals. Also, if you enjoy a few small local bands that sell homebrew CDs at their pub shows or music festivals, you can upload them to your locker, integrating their songs with your favorite service and giving them the presence of the big acts. For music lovers, the locker feature available from all major on-demand services is very practical—and something that’s commonly overlooked.

Offline Listening

All major on-demand music services offer a form of offline listening. This allows you to listen to your favorite songs and playlists when you lack an internet connection (handy for flights, subway rides, and your in-laws’ rural home). Most services allow you to download thousands of songs (that cannot be transferred to other devices or shared). For example, Google Play Music permits 20,000 songs to be “pinned” on your device. Thus, the only practical limit is the storage available on your smartphone or tablet. Of course, this is of marginal value to home theater owners.


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

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