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Farewell to the CD

CDInternet 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.

6 comments to Farewell to the CD

  • Mike

    There is no doubt SACD and DVD-Audio discs sound better than CDs. If you don’t know, either you haven’t made the comparison or you don’t have a good sound system. After hearing the difference, CDs sound really bad. BTW, DVDs don’t have crappy sound like CDs. They are a high resolution format, too.

  • Tim Anderson

    Mike,

    How did you conduct your comparison? The problem is that you need to have identical source material and mastering as far as is possible as well as perfectly matched volume levels and this is hard to achieve at home. Even comparing the CD layer with the SACD layer on dual discs is inadequate since there are known to be mastering differences on such discs – typically, additional compression added to the CD layer. Further, there have been double-blind studies which claim to prove that CD is audibly transparent – ie. that listeners cannot tell the difference between the original source and the CD. This kind of 3-way test would be a particularly interesting one to conduct. If you have convincing references for such a test, I would be very interested.

    DVD supports many different levels of sound quality, so you need to specify which DVD format you are referring to.

    Tim

  • Ian Morrison

    Hi Mike
    Perhaps you can explain something that puzzles me.

    Back in the LP era we used to pay huge attention to coaxing out the best possible sound via turntable>stylus>cartridge>cable>amp>cable>speaker etc.

    Similarly, CD player quality can greatly influence sound quality. But my computer just (presumably) dumps the misic data straight into the amp.

    So we’re losing all the intermediate enhancement, aren’t we, when we play straight from hard disk?

  • Keith

    The music that is missing in MP3, WMA etc, is even audible to deaf dads. Music is the ultimate life force and whether live, AM, FM, MP3, CD, LP, SACD, DVD-audio; we all rock to it… but I look forward to SACD, and DVD-audio or any sonic improvement when it arrives in our home. But downloads on the internet of MP3 or WMA is not hi-fi, but low-fi, and if general public can not hear the difference we have failed to inspire ourselves, our friends, our children to excel and want something better; higher quality. I want the music the kind they promised for just wanting better sound. Yes I want it all, I will listent to MP3s as I run, the quality is okay because I am breathing, running, noise is all around; or on a aircraft,,, but in my quite home I want to be there, in the band, I want to hear as close as it really was, not the cheap head set transfer function of reality; I want transparent, clear, closer to real. Never can get there but SACD and DVD-audio may just be closer, what can we do to make it better? I agree in part (with download idea), I have almost bought an MP3 for 99 cents, but it was not hi resoulution, why would I want something less than I can buy used on a CD which is better. Usually in the engineering busines things are better by an order of magnitude, 10 times better is what engineers strive for (yes, download is 10 times better for getting it, now when will it be 24 bit, 196k music, when, ask them when you can but a song full resolution for a buck, ASK them when will the sonics be 10 times better than a CD, WHEN). Why would you stive for something less?

  • tp

    interesting article.
    The question of where music distribution is headed is an important one for
    everyone in the business. Whether or not the average listener can notice the difference between the low-cal mp3, 16 bit 41k, 24 bit 96k, or 192k even, are the questions. Honestly, I do not think there is a mass market for high quality audio in this free trade era other than us 3 or so music nerds that want to buy an album to support a writer/musician.
    I honestly cannot tell the difference between 196k Pro Tools HD from 96k but what do I know.

  • Uncle Bob

    Would someone comment on the relative merits of the high end music servers: Sooloos, Request, Eschient?

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