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.

curtsig2 - trans
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.

Home Theater: More Surround Sound

3d1Today’s blog post is another excerpt from my new Kindle book Home Theater for the Internet Age. It further explores home theater surround sound (also check out Home Theater: Surround Sound Basics), diving into discrete vs. matrixed audio and lossy vs. lossless compression—topics that continue to confuse both casual fans and enthusiasts alike.

Also check out Surround Sound Basics and Surround Sound Formats.

curtsig2 - trans
Curt Robbins


Standardized System

Surround sound isn’t merely a speaker arrangement for your living room, but rather a standardized system by which content producers can compose, or “encode,” their content so that consumers, with the proper equipment, can decode it to simulate a more realistic, immersive audio environment. The intent of surround sound is to create audio that radiates from all around the seating positions of the viewers, while giving content producers the ability to specify from which of those speakers a particular sound or audio stream is projected.

While basic surround sound involves three speakers in front and two in back, more sophisticated systems employ between eight and 12 speakers. The more speakers involved, the more immersive and “surrounding” the sound becomes (and, relatively speaking, the more expensive the speaker system and receiver).

Discrete vs. Matrixed Surround

This book strives to avoid the overly technical and speak in plain English. However, it’s helpful to understand the difference between discrete and matrixed surround sound formats. Discrete surround involves sound information that’s specific, or dedicated to, particular channels and speaker positions (and fully independent of other channels). Thus, if a movie features a 5.1 soundtrack, it means the producers recorded and mixed six separate sound channels, each intended for a particular speaker position in your living room.

dolby logo

Matrixed surround, on the other hand, involves your receiver producing sound information for six or more speakers that’s derived from a two-channel (stereo) signal. While not as good as discrete formats, matrixed surround can take standard stereo and make it pretty amazing—depending on the quality of your system. Assume you’re watching an old episode of Law & Order on cable TV and it’s encoded in stereo. If your AV receiver features a matrixed surround sound format, such as Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS Neo:6 (nearly all models for the past several years do), you can apply it to the stereo signal to direct sound to the other speakers in your home theater, not just the mains.

If a film or TV program features an audio mix that’s designed for surround sound, it will offer discrete channels. Dialog will be directed to the center channel, background noise like traffic, the din of a crowd, and sirens will come from the rear speakers, and the non-speech sounds and primary action will be directed to the main speakers. Because so much legacy content—be it music, TV episodes, or movies—features audio encoded in only stereo, you’ll find great benefit in applying matrixed surround filters to take advantage of those other speakers sitting in your living room. This is especially true for those who consume mostly TV content.

Lossy vs. Lossless Compression

When the audio portion of a video is created, it’s digitally compressed to make it smaller. Reducing the size of the data helps it stream smoothly from an internet video service (like Netflix) or fit on an optical disc (DVD or Blu-ray). However, there are different types of compression that impact the quality of the sound produced by any equipment, especially nicer systems.

Lossy Compression

Traditionally, data compression for audio has been lossy. This means that, during the compression of the audio, some information is lost—resulting in less data to play back. In a nutshell, less data equals lower sound fidelity. Different compression schemes produce distinct results in terms of sound quality. Overall, lossy compression is viewed as a bad thing. Music in MP3 (MPEG Audio Layer III) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) formats are good examples of lossy compression standards (and avoided by audiophiles). All music sold on standard compact discs (in CDDA format; see the Disc-Based Music chapter for more info) involves lossy compression (although of significantly higher fidelity than MP3 or AAC).

Lossless Compression

Lossless compression, on the other hand, is, well, lossless. It reproduces the original audio bit-for-bit, with no reduction in data or quality whatsoever (any decrease in fidelity reflects a deficiency in your equipment, not the audio itself). If you know an audio source is lossless, you don’t really need to learn anything else (except maybe the encoding standard employed to ensure that you can decode it on your particular Blu-ray player or AV receiver).

oppo bdp-103

The downside of lossless compression is that it results in significantly larger files than lossy schemes. This is why lossless audio is currently available only on high-capacity optical disc formats (like Blu-ray, which sports six times the storage of a DVD), but not in the form of internet streaming, where even the fastest broadband connections typically lack the bandwidth to support such high bit rates. Examples of lossless audio include Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (both covered below). There are also internet-based download services that sell lossless music files in popular formats like FLAC and AIFF (higher quality than even regular music CDs, let alone MP3s).

Compression Levels / Bit Rate

Content compressed in a lossy format can be encoded at a variety of quality levels (measured in “bit rate” or bits per second, and sometimes called “compression levels”). For example, a 128 Kbps (kilobit per second) MP3 of Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield won’t sound as good as a 320 Kbps MP3 version. The 320 Kbps file contains nearly three times the data of the 128 Kbps version, enhancing the sound quality.

This is one reason that Blu-ray discs are so popular. While the video quality of Blu-ray (1080 lines of resolution) is certainly better than that of DVD, the audio improvement is even greater. Currently, there is no better sound that you can pump through your home theater than the lossless audio track of a Blu-ray movie or lossless music files like FLAC. (When it comes to audio only, there are also high-end music formats such as SACD, DVD-Audio, and Blu-ray Audio, which are covered in the Disc-Based Music chapter.)

Based on Standards

To clarify how this compression/decompression cycle works, it’s important to understand that content producers must encode their audio to a particular standard (like a United Nations interpreter choosing a language in which to speak). As you’ll learn below, for movies, this is typically a format from Dolby or DTS. Encoding makes files smaller for transport or distribution, regardless of whether it’s lossy or lossless. Your receiver or Blu-ray player incorporates a bunch of decoders. When you play a DVD or Blu-ray disc, the receiver applies the proper decoder, basically reassembling the audio data. In this respect, your AV receiver is just a specialized computer. (Some people will tell you that the audio on a Blu-ray movie is uncompressed, which isn’t necessarily true. Typically it’s compressed, but sometimes it isn’t. Even compressed, Blu-ray involves a lossless scheme.)

No Guarantees

It’s important to note that, simply because an audio source involves a lossless compression format, this doesn’t guarantee high-end fidelity. Technically, lossless compression simply means that the file reproduced by your playback equipment exactly matches the original, before it was compressed. If the original music file was of low quality to begin with (many movies and much music are poorly mastered or recorded in less-than-optimal live venues or studio environments), the best lossless format won’t make it sound good.


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.