November 11, 2015

MALPASS | The Case for the Compact Disc

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I do a lot of things that strike my friends as pretentious. The fact that I still buy CDs seems to be a sticking point for a lot of my friends, which never ceases to confuse me. I know we’re in the age of digital streams, but it wasn’t so long ago that everyone still bought CDs; they’re far from obsolete. I’m not a complete luddite; I do stream music, but I like to buy a physical copy of any album that sticks with me.

There are benefits to the compact disc. For one, the audio quality is better than most any other source on the Internet. Distributors sell music as MP3 or AAC file types, both of which play at a bit rate of 256 kbps (on average), meaning they sacrifice quality for ease of storage. Files capped at this bit rate are known as “lossy,” because to compress them to that size some of the audio is clipped off (the highest highs and lowest lows). With few exceptions, the vast majority of digital music available online is formatted in a lossy file type. However, when you rip music from a CD, you have the option of opting for a file format that is complete lossless such as FLAC or ALAC, maintaining the original level of audio quality (with bit rates ranging from 500 to over 1000 kbps).

Cards on the table, the difference between bit rate qualities is generally not super noticeable. I have a fairly good pair of headphones (Sennheiser HD 598s, I can’t recommend them enough), but I have to really focus to tell the difference between 256 kbps and lossless audio. There is a difference, but is my enjoyment of the music severely impacted by a slightly lower bit rate? No, not really. But, I have the hard drive space; so if I have the CD, why not get the absolute best out of it? Maybe down the road when my English degree starts pulling in all the lucrative job offers, I’ll have the money for a setup where the difference in audio quality is much more apparent. Music is important to me, and with storage space and quality headphones becoming cheaper and cheaper, I’m not going to let the size of an audio file limit my listening experience.

Which brings us to vinyl, the so-called “golden standard” of audio quality. In theory, records should be able to claim the title of best sound quality. Vinyl is analog, meaning the entire sound wave is captured; something the digital nature of the CD is incapable of, but the medium is so much less durable that any benefit is quickly lost. Distortion is much more common on records than CDs because vinyl is more easily damaged. While they share a lot of the benefits of CDs, any scratch, warp or speck of dust is going to affect the sound. I’ve heard people say this is part of the appeal — that it imparts a warmer sound to the music — which I respect, but I’d rather my music be reproduced as exact as possible.

Even economically speaking, CDs are the better option. Beyond paying for the actual album itself (I can usually get used CDs for around three dollars, whereas records cost a bit more), vinyl requires a turntable, and if you want to transfer the music into a digital format you’ll need to shell out for additional hardware. Almost everyone has a disc drive of some sort (even though the newer laptops are trying to faze them out). This might anger a lot of old audiophiles and trendy, Urban Outfitters-shopping hipsters alike, but I believe vinyl is inferior to the compact disc.

Beyond any qualms about audio quality, bit rate and cost, CDs have tangible benefits. Personally speaking, the tactile quality is as much a part of my enjoyment than anything. Putting on a CD to play is part of the experience of listening to music. While I don’t have a stereo here, I still enjoy ordering CDs, opening up the case, and flipping through the art book before I pop the thing in my computer to import as glorious, glorious lossless audio. And buying CDs is so much more fun than downloading music. I have a love/hate relationship with instant gratification. It’s convenient to be able to buy any album I want in the bat of an eye, but finding it tucked away in a corner of some hole-in-the-wall record store is much more satisfying. I can’t form any emotional attachment to a digital file, but a rarer album I came across when looking for something completely different, certainly so.

Chances are, if you already have a Spotify premium subscription or religiously buy from iTunes, I’m not going to convince you to join the compact disc side. But give it a try, you might just find it improves your overall listening experience.

Soren Malpass is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at skm94@cornell.edu. Sorenity Now appears alternate Thursdays this semester.