Internet downloads, music download sites like Napster and iTunes, MP3 devices like iRivers and iPods, music servers and home theatre PCs mean the end of the silver disk. Tim Anderson bids farewell.
I recently set out to build a home theatre PC, partly for research and partly because the features that it offers are compelling. I’m writing separately about the HTPC technology, but one thing that the work made obvious is that the CD has become almost pointless. Storing music on a computer or music server makes much more sense. For now, that server is typically located in the home; soon it may well a shared server somewhere out on the Internet. It matters little. The server-based music system gives you easier access to your music; saves space; lets you listen anywhere on the network or, by downloading to a device, anywhere at all; adds supplementary content such as notes, ratings, biographies and reviews; can’t be stolen if you have off-site backups in place; and generally offers a better experience than the old system based on purchasing physical media. The CD is not totally pointless yet, because it remains the easiest way to get music onto your server, especially if you want to avoid the horrors of copy-protection systems. This will change, as service providers find ways to tempt us into the download option, by price, by convenience, and by exclusive content. In a few years, you will be no more likely to purchase a CD than an LP.
This is progress and mostly good news. There is a downside. One is the aforementioned copy protection, where competing standards will make us curse, complain, and turn to piracy. Another is sound quality. The best lossy compression formats, such as AAC and WMA, deliver excellent results which are more than good enough for most people. For a few hi-fi enthusiasts, they are a step backwards. In time, my guess is that premium quality audio will be available for purchase online, but for the moment lossy compression is what we will get, and there are compromises involved. The message to hi-fi enthusiasts is to get CDs (or SACDs, or DVD Audio disks) while you can.
So the CD will disappear, and that evokes sadness as well as the excitement of new technology. The CD, and before it the LP, has been my constant companion since schooldays. I will never forget the magic of those early years, the extravagant graphics, the pulsating, exuberant sounds, the posters, stickers and postcards that came as inserts. Then there were luxuries like the boxed sets of classical music, complete with generous booklets. I’ve always thought that both LP and CD deliver excellent value for money in an absolute sense, despite being overpriced by the music industry in an economic sense. After all, these disks offer in effect a personal performance from the best available artists, in your own living-room, study or car. It may not be quite the same as a live performance, but advances in hi-fi mean that the sound nearly as good, and in some cases better.
I love recorded music and have assembled a huge collection. When I think back, it’s actually LPs that come to mind as favourites, especially the ones with interesting packages. Let me mention a few. The Who’s Tommy, with its gorgeous triple fold-out sleeve, and Quadrophenia with its book of stunning black-and-white photographs. Aladdin Sane, with the full-length picture of David Bowie looking painted and alien; Roxy Music sleeves with images of forbidden female charm, on cardboard so glossy that it cracked as you opened it up. Neil Young’s On The Beach with its weird inside-out sleeve, and Jethro Tull’s Stand Up with a cardboard pop-up band inside, or Kraftwerk’s glow-in-the-dark Neon Lights. I could go on all day and all night too:
These of course were LPs, but the CD is really the same thing, just smaller and less crackly. It’s true that the smaller format killed much of the design magic, but in return we got durability, portability, and welcome relief from crackles and pops. We didn’t believe the Philips slogan, “Perfect sound forever”, but the quality was pretty darn good, especially as audio systems became better optimized for the new format. The CD was the perfect present and the ideal treat, both for new releases and for rediscovering the past. So farewell to the CD; you will be missed.
A postscript on high-end formats
I am much entertained by the music industry’s simultaneous efforts to persuade us first, that compressed music sounds just as good as CD, and second, that the new formats SACD and DVD Audio sound better than CD. Curiously (or not), the industry presents little hard evidence of either claim, preferring the inexactitudes of marketing language. For what its worth, I regard the superiority of SACD and DVD Audio over CD as unproven. The question in essence is whether or not CD is already acoustically transparent: that is, there is no audible difference between the original master, and the same master encoded to CD and played back. If it is acoustically transparent, then logically neither SACD nor DVDA can sound better. Higher resolutions than CD are still beneficial for mastering.
It is particularly surprising that some claim SACD to be audibly superior to DVD Audio at its best resolution. I’m very sceptical of this. SACD looks suspiciously like Sony (and Philips) trying to sell a proprietary solution to benefit their own product range and license income. I’ve not seen any convincing technical arguments why SACD is better, and the signal on many SACD issues has been encoded as PCM (Pulse Code Modulation, the technique that SACD is meant to avoid) at some time in its journey from microphone to pressed disk. Yet the anecdotal evidence from people who have both SACD and DVDA is that they often prefer SACD. The best explanation I can think of is that SACD imparts its own euphonic characteristic to the sound. In other words, it has a sonic signature that people actually like. That would make it worse in a technical sense, since the goal is to be transparent to the source, not to make it sound better. I am just guessing though.
In practice, what matters is not the technology, but availability of software and hardware. SACD is currently ahead, in that more titles are being released on SACD than on DVDA, but both are minority interests. The general public is happy with the sound of any of the modern formats, including CD.
Multichannel is also interesting. Both SACD and DVDA enable multichannel audio in the home. The problem here is setting the stuff up. Surround systems generally require 5 or more satellite speakers plus a subwoofer. Fitting these into the average living room in sensible positions is not easy. Not all household members like to see their living space taken over by electronics and loudspeakers. Of course you can get beautifully designed systems that blend into the background, but what I talking about is obstacles to mass-market adoption. The future belongs not to SACD, nor DVDA, nor the CD, but to music files, networks, and the Internet.
Copyright Tim Anderson 7th March 2004. All rights reserved.