Farewell, Faithful CD

1 April 2022

I've been a music junkie most of my life, and I especially like motion picture soundtracks. Recently I discovered one of the finest film scores I've heard in quite a long time, and as I usually do, I headed straight to Amazon to buy the CD. Why, you may ask, would I do that, when I can simply download it?

Fair question. Answer: While I'm not a hardcore audiophile, I do have an ear for quality, and downloading MP3 files is not the way to acquire quality music. Allow me to 'splain.

MP3 files are compressed for the sake of file size, and hence download times. But compression destroys music information, in much the same way as photo compression destroys image information. Compare the two kitties below: the one on the left is uncompressed, while the one on the right is compressed. You'll notice a loss of definition, as well as random artifacts everywhere, such as splotches of odd colors, speckling and noise.

Very similar things happen to music when it's compressed, and on a good sound system it can be heard as distortion. There may be faint chattering noises, passages where the music sounds "smeared" together, and other irregularities. I always purchase CDs because the music information on them is not compressed; indeed, short of relatively rare high-definition discs and files, it's about the best you can find in consumer-grade products.

Oh, the record fanatics—I call them "vinylphiles"—will argue vehemently against that statement. But this is to be expected; when you consume too much vinyl-flavored Kool-Aid, you can get myopic and defensive. Without turning this into a debate or a technical paper, I'll just make two observations. First, music must be specially remixed for vinyl mastering, so already you've compromised the sound. Granted, some of this can be undone by massaging the signal on the way out, but some of the changes are irreversible. And second, dragging a really sharp, hard rock across the surface of soft plastic is a less-than-ideal method of sound reproduction, not to mention rather primitive: it's not very far removed from Edison's original wax cylinders, c. 1892, from whence vinyl records descended. But in order to get that true "audiophile" sound out of an LP, you must spend considerable coin on the hardware, and also follow procedures akin to a religious ceremony when handling that precious plastic so as to preserve the pristine sound.

By contrast, CDs are far more durable and convenient. And I'll offer just one of a number of technical advantages: significantly better dynamic range. Anyway, I bring all of this up because, when I went to buy the CD of my new favorite soundtrack, to my dismay I discovered that it wasn't released on CD, and quite likely never will be. WTF?

CDs are, alas, going the way of the dinosaur. And the asteroid that's wiping them out is the MP3 file, thanks to the proliferation of iPods, smartphones and suchlike, as well as other pressures, particularly economic: the cost to manufacture, distribute, and ship hard media is not trivial, and is all passed down to the customer. Comparatively speaking, MP3 files cost next to nothing to produce and distribute (sadly, they're also just as cheap and easy to bootleg, but that's a topic for another day). I suppose I should have seen it coming, since some industry watchers have said they're surprised the CD held on for as long as it had.

It's an old story: formats have come and gone ever since we first started mass-producing media before the turn of the 20th Century, and the planet is (literally) littered with countless rejects and failures. Remember the Betamax-VHS war? (You might be too young, but hang in there.) Turns out people were more interested in quantity than quality; they'd rather have six hours of reruns they'll never watch on one tape than two hours of a better picture. Then there was that brief flirtation with videodiscs; some of us still feel the pain in our wallets from trying to find a higher-quality alternative to (ugh) VHS.

After DVDs arrived to save the day, we then suffered through the high-def DVD face-off: DVD-HD versus Blu-Ray. Still smarting from their Betamax loss, Sony won this battle by paying off key studios. Now we have the "K-wars": 4K, 8K and so on. (Speaking from experience, 4K isn't enough of an improvement to be worth the cost, and 8K appears to be a novelty for folks who are into conspicuous consumption.) Meanwhile, more and more people are watching movies on their iPhones and iPads. WTF?

Consumers may appear to be fickle when it comes to media consumption preferences, but this is understandable given how manufacturers perpetually crank out new formats for their new products—often products no one asked for in the first place. And so it becomes a tug of war between the whims of the manufacturer and the whims of the consumer.

As it was in the days of Betamax versus VHS, those of us who prefer quality over quantity are once again on the losing side. Are we destined to sit around lovingly cradling our cherished CD cases, just as vinylphiles do their LP jackets? It would appear so, and on that point I can identify with vinylphiles... Sorta... Maybe.

So, speaking on behalf of the quality-over-quantity music lovers, what are we to do? One option requires being equipped to "roll your own." There are sources of high-definition music files—wav, wma, flac, etc.—you can purchase and download (note that the cost may be comparable to that of hard media). Then you'll need CD authoring software so you can burn the files to a recordable disc. This PITA procedure may be beyond some folks' ability or patience, but this is the hard reality. Maybe you've got a geeky friend who can help you?

As it happens, I'm one of those geeky friends, and I found CD-quality files of the soundtrack in question at an online shop, so the story (for me) has a (sorta) happy ending. But just as vinyl shops are selective about what they press, the high-def shops don't always have every release. Oh, but get this: the soundtrack I wanted? It was released on vinyl... for a retail cost of between $40 and $80. WTF? That much scratch for something I can all to easily scratch? Fuhgeddaboudit.

I know, it's just a stupid first-world problem.

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