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.

10 thoughts on “MALPASS | The Case for the Compact Disc

  1. I could not have said it better myself. I have not joined the streaming revolution. I treasure all of my “finds” from record stores, cd exchange with friends and archived albums. None of this music is in ITunes. My ipod contains my music gems and my world is complete. The big plus is that I bought each music cd and contributed to the royalties of the geniuses that produced/composed/performed these classics.
    I still can’t understand how the digital companies are always moving works/films off their sites, if they have not been viewed, or when the website provides suggestions on what they think you should listen. Sometimes I listen to the same cd/album for a week because it’s that good-what a concept!

  2. I’m 63. Every now and then I whip out the vinyl to remind myself why vinyl blows. (All negatives. No positives.) The CD rules.
    A history teacher friend of mine explained to me how throughout history, music has led the charge in social change. I thought we were supposed to be weaning ourselves off of oil and setting an example. Instead we are embracing an archaic technology. We are refusing to let go of the past and advance civilization. All in the name of greed.

  3. “…but I’d rather my music be reproduced as exact as possible.”—Yes ! I have heard only a few vinyl recordings of a solo acoustic guitar performance that are as rich and exact and as brilliant and crisp of a representation of the sound of a solo acoustic guitar as one can hear, and has been heard, on a CD. I have vinyl recordings of solo acoustic guitar from the “golden era” of vinyl when everything was supposed to have been done the “right” way and with the “right” equipment, and to my ears perhaps only one or two of them can stand up to what can commonly be heard on a CD. (Jorma Kaukonan’s original recording of his “Embryonic Journey” on the Surrealistic Pillow album is one of them.)
    It is my belief that the CD has been the victim of recording engineers and their insane race to produce the loudest recording around. This is not the fault of the CD, but is rather the fault of the recording engineer and his/her acquiescence to mixing and mastering for volume over everything else.

  4. An often overlooked inherent shortcoming of vinyl is the fact that as the stylus tracks the grooves moving toward the center of the recording, the audio quality steadily drops. The effective speed (in inches per second) of the plastic against the stylus drops as the effective diameter of the recording decreases. (You can picture this by imagining yourself on a merry-go-round. As you move from the outer edge of the whirling platform towards the center, your rpm rate does not change, but your speed of travel drops.) The effect of this is that the program material must be packed into a smaller and smaller space, and fidelity suffers accordingly. No digital formats (or analog tape, for that matter) suffers from a comparable shortcoming.

    Records sometimes have manufacturing errors, where the center hole is not concentric with the recording, resulting in inconsistent pitch and tempo. Digital formats and analog tape do not suffer from these liabilities, either.

    CDs have better dynamic range than any vinyl recording, and the Left-Right channel balance is consistent on CDs. (With vinyl that balance varies as the stylus pivots while the record plays. Linear-arm tonearms address that problem, but they’re expensive.)

    The bottom line is that every format has trade-offs. Vinyl sounds warm, but it suffers from from fidelity loss, physical damage, manufacturing errors, and wear. Analog tape has hiss. Lossy digital is convenient, but it’s lossy. I find CDs to be the best compromise overall. But I might change my mind.

    • Vinyl is a stepping stone, just as oil has been to aid us in our development and survival as a species. But it’s time to let go of the apron (and purse) strings and grow up and advance society. The recording industry has to set the example and lead the charge.

  5. Most modern recordings being as digital, whether or not they end up on vinyl, CD, or a further compressed digital file.

    So those who praise the fidelity of “analog” in modern vinyl are fooling themselves.

    It’s not fidelity they like. It’s the vinyl.

    • Today, not much is truly analog. Most analog gets converted to digital anyway. It’s a fantastic way to edit audio. It’s up to the mastering engineer to bring out the so-called warmth.

  6. the day your cd arrives from the online site or the day you find it at the store always feels amazing.
    listening to the cd or FLAC for the first time feels even better.
    you’lll never get that experience if you stream or download.
    the chase and catch are a huge part of what makes being a music “fan” so worth it.

    great article. it couldn’t have been said any better.

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