Ode to the Compact Disc – CDs

I’ve talked a lot about Minidisc on this blog over the years. My minidiscs are fun little packages of sound I still enjoy today. I have three working players and my original that is still broken. Although I believe I have discovered the problem with it. Now it’s just a matter of sourcing the right part and building the courage to break it open and fix it. I’m not sure that will ever happen. But if it never does, that’s ok, I got many good years out of that portable player/recorder. It’s pretty beaten up, having taken many rides with me when I used to drive a truck cross-country. It was thrown around the cab a handful of times back then. Sliding off the seat and falling onto the floor, and yet it kept on ticking for about fifteen years.

I’ve also talked about vinyl a few times. About how I bought a used Sony turntable from a record shop and used it for several months until it stopped working. Then a year or so later I discovered it magically started working again. It wasn’t magic, I fiddled with the belt on it. Not sure what I did exactly, but it’s been working ever since.

In my post titled Blu-ray is the new vinyl I talked about how I was over vinyl. I reaffirmed this stance about a year later in my post titled Minidisc instead of vinyl. Apparently, even though I was over vinyl, it wasn’t over me. I ended up receiving a few new vinyl records as Christmas gifts a year or so later and I believe it was last year, maybe the year before, that my lady stuck a new stylus in my Christmas stocking. Nothing crazy or expensive, just one of those cheap off-brand replacements you can get for $5-10. But it works. I never claimed to have any kind of audiophile setup when it comes to vinyl. In fact when I hear some audiophiles claim that vinyl is not supposed to have any pops or crackles during playback, I say “what’s the fun in that?” And I mean it. They may be after some perfect audio experience, but to me that’s already achieved through CDs. I’m listening to vinyl because I want the bon fire of audio formats. The format you sit around, poking at, as you stare into it and listen to it pop and crackle.

That said, I’ve been temped by a few records, especially the new rerelease of Tori Amos’s Under the Pink in 180 gram pink vinyl (being released in the middle of this month), the prices still continue to put me off. That one goes for (I think) $28. Which is not terrible for vinyl these days, but considering that most of my life I’ve bought CDs at half that price (or less), it’s really difficult to spend that much on a single album. Especially when it’s really only a novelty for me. It’s not easy for me to play that format. In fact it’s often frustrating since it skips so much. It’s not portable, and it’s not higher sound quality. So it’s really difficult to justify spending twice as much on it. Just checking Amazon the CD is $13.97. So yeah, half the price.
After looking again to confirm the $28 price, it seems the pink vinyl is now sold out, before it ever really went on sale. So I guess that saves me from having to ponder that choice any longer. Which is a bit unfortunate, but like I said, I didn’t pull the trigger during the pre-sale because it’s hard for me to justify.

I still find vinyl fascinating and sometimes fun, if not a mostly frustrating format to listen to. What gets me about the format is the physicality of it. The idea of music being imprinted into physical grooves on vinyl discs that are read by a stylus as it spins. It’s almost archaic in its analog nature. In the modern era of super advanced semiconductor powered computers and wireless headphones, it’s strange to consider getting your music from a needle being dragged across the surface of a big plastic disc. When I really think about it, I’m like “What the hell are we doing? We’re not cavemen anymore!”
It’s the same way I feel about film photography and cinematography. Some of my favorite movies of all times are shot on film. I love the look of classic film stock like Eastman color and Kodachrome, and I learned both film photography and cinematography back in the 1990s when that was the best we had. Yet today, when I really think about it, it’s almost amazing to me that studios still let filmmakers shoot on film. A mechanical physical medium without any backup, and yet it can end up being the primary image capture format on a $100+ million dollar production. Crazy!
Imagine if film were a new invention. If we had been shooting digital for a century and some filmmaker walked into a studio and said “I want to shoot this next $100+ million dollar production on this clockwork device that runs strips of plastic through it that are light sensitive. Oh and also, that strip of plastic needs to be sent to a lab and developed before anyone can see any moving images off of it. Oh and if at any point between the camera and the lab it gets exposed to light, everything is lost.” Not to forget the added cost of film stock, processing, and scanning.
I would guess that the studio executives would laugh their asses off before booting that guy out the door. And yet film has proven itself for over a century. So it continues to be taken seriously. As it should be. But still, when I really think about it, it seems archaic and such an unnecessary risk. And personally, modern film stock doesn’t really look any different than digital to me. Sure there is a bit of a difference, but seeing footage from an ARRI Alexa and Kodak Vision 3 film stock, I’m hard pressed to tell the difference most of the time. Which makes me wonder why anyone would still want to shoot film. For me, I would want to shoot film if I could shoot the older more unique looking film stocks. Although I guess an argument can be made for smaller gauges like Super 16mm and Super 8mm. Even running Vision 3 through them, they tend to have a character that looks more vintage to me.

One last thing about vinyl before moving on to the real topic of this post. I have a good friend who collects vinyl and has done so continuously from either his childhood or teenage years. I’m not sure which. Let’s just say, all of his life. When having a conversation with him a while back he told me some advice his father gave him. Which was something along the lines of buying the real music on vinyl because you can always digitize it, but you can’t go the other way. I could be seriously botching that message, but I think I’ve got the gist of it.

I guess to him that made sense, and from personal experience, advice from your father can often be taken with more weight and meaning at times in your life than from complete strangers. But when he said this to me, it struck me as kind of strange. I remember thinking “so are you saying CDs aren’t real music?” I never asked him that question, and I assume would say that is not what he is saying, but I also assume that to many audio purists, the answer would in fact be “that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
I think there is this idea that once the analog audio is digitized, it’s nothing more than an imitation of the real thing. So if you want the real thing you need the analog tape or the vinyl record. You know, the real audio. I guess I look at things differently. To me there is no real audio. Just like a photograph, everything we capture is a stylistic imperfect representation of the real thing that happened one time in the real world. No medium we have ever created is perfect to reality. And while there is no doubt that some are better than others from a common sensory and consensus perspective, better can also be subjective. Such as the case with vinyl and film. So whether you compress the audio into physical grooves on a vinyl disc, or particles on magnetically coated mylar, or ones and zeros embedded in polycarbonate and read by a laser, you are always creating an imitation of what actually happened. And for my money, the ones and zeros are a more perfect imitation. Or at the least it can be when properly mastered.

Which leads me to my real post. An ode to the CD.

While I grew up being able to play with and use a variety of formats over my lifetime, the one that has been there most often for my generation and me personally, is the compact disc. The CD. Despite buying or being gifted a few albums on cassette tape in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, I really began my music collection on CD starting around 1991 or 1992. It’s hard for me to remember exactly when I got my first CD player. Although it was on Christmas one of those years and it was a Sony Discman. I believe the model number was the D-202. This:

It came with a set of these headphones. The Sony MDR-A10.

In my attempt to find out what Discman it was that I first owned, I came across many that I have owned over the years. Probably a handful total. All of them broke on me at some point. Usually the center spindle plastic would break and the metal bearings that click and hold the disc in place would come out. So they were replaced with whatever similar model was new at the time. This was back in the 1990s, when owning a Discman for me was a utility. Something needed to play my CDs on the go. Not something owned for the novelty of it, like I might today if I bought one. Though there is still utility in owning one even today. But I would be more likely to baby it today and pull it out on special occasions when I want to directly listen to a CD on my headphones. Not something I need to use to listen to my music. Since all of it is available on my computer and my iPhone 8+ (256GBs).
At some point I should update this post with pictures and model numbers for all of the portable CD players I’ve owned. Similar to my list of cameras I’ve owned.

As I count now, I own eight devices that can play audio CDs. My girlfriend owns three. So between the two of us, we have eleven players. That’s counting the one built into my car, but not counting the one built into her car, since that player is broken. That’s also not counting the Nintendo Wii and Gamecube we have, since those don’t play audio CDs. Although they do accept disc media that is CD-like. It’s possible I even have another CD player somewhere I’m forgetting about. I’m thinking of the boombox I used to own, which I could have either thrown away or could be in storage. Not sure. The point is, we have a lot of CD players. They may come in different form, CD player, DVD player/recorder, DVD-Rom drive, Blu-ray burner, game consoles, UHD Blu-ray player, but they can all play audio Compact Discs.
Even to this day, outside of files on my computer, my largest collection of physical music is on CD. In fact just about a month of so ago I bought a couple small shelving units so I could pull my CDs out of storage and display them. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve had all my CDs on display and accessible. Although I’ve always had a stack on hand just for fun. So I’m pretty geeked about having them all out.

I’ve never stopped using CDs. If no where else, I’ve consistently used them in my car over the years. My car (and my last car) could play regular audio CDs and MP3s burned onto CD-Rs. And I’ve got a mix of both discs. Mostly regular audio CDs. So even if it’s rare that I pull a CD out and put it on my stereo system at home, I am still listening to CDs in the car all the time.

I’m also at a point where I’ve been throwing around the idea of buying a used Discman. A newer model that can play MP3 discs. While I’m still considering if I really need one, the prices are right at the moment. CDs are considered boring to most people right now. They haven’t hit cult status like vinyl, cassettes, or minidiscs have. At least not yet. So as a result, retro fans haven’t been buying up old used gear and driving the prices up to ridiculous amounts. Luckily I was able to get a Sony Minidisc player before things got too high. At basically the price a Discman is today. Although I should have bought a couple more at the time and certainly a bunch of used discs. Still kicking myself over not having bought a lot of used discs when they were basically a buck a disc. So I should probably buy one or two used Discman while I can still get them for under $35 a piece. Even if I’m not sure I need one. I do want one and will only be kicking myself if I discover that in a year or two I can’t get one for a decent price anymore.

So what’s the purpose of this post? It’s really just to say that I still have a loyalty to CDs in some way. They are the format of my generation. Even if some in my generation may disagree. Such as older Gen Xers who collected vinyl or cassettes. But for younger Gen Xers like my friends and I back in the early to mid 1990s, we (and most people we knew) were all about the CD. It was the format of choice. A modern, high quality, portable, and convenient format that offered track skipping and no need to rewind or fast forward. It’s digital nature meant that every listen was like the one before. Even today I still own all my original CDs, including the first ones I got, and they still play as good as they did on day one… thirty years ago.

I remember the first time I heard a CD on headphones. It was the setup above, the Sony D-202 with the MDR-A10 headphones. It was Christmas and I loaded one of the three new CDs I had gotten as gifts along side the player. The clarity was so immense I couldn’t believe it. I knew CDs were supposed to sound better, that’s part of the reason I asked for a Discman for Christmas. But previous to that I had likely only heard a few CD demos in a noisy store over loudspeakers. I hadn’t heard them up close and in-person with headphones on. The lack of background hiss and the resolution of the audio stuck out. It was amazing. My ears have never heard anything like it since. My brain has tuned itself with every listen afterwards to accept that digital clarity as the standard. Today digital audio is everywhere. It’s unusual not to hear it. We’re spoiled by it. And my ears have only gotten older.

There is certainly room in my life for a lot of different formats. It’s silly to claim one and stick with only that. All of these formats are part of my life. They all hold a special place in my heart. Each with their unique quirks and characteristics. But I often don’t give CDs the credit they deserve. They have been the digital workhorse of my music collection for thirty years. The constant medium. The format that first introduced me to perfectly clean sound. The format that shaped a lot of my music discovery. The format I have collected. The format that has taken more road trips with me than I can possibly count, and the format that acts as the vigilant backup for all my audio in case my hard drive crashes. So while I may have spent several posts extolling the virtues and fun of the Minidisc format or waxed and wained about vinyl; CDs have been there the whole time, doing everything they do for me. This post is my genuflection of respect to the CD as a format.

UPDATE  – July 9th, 2021
So I was doing a little research on hi-res and lossless audio the night before last (July 7th-8th). I guess the skeptic in me never believed that FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) or ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) were actually lossless. Despite the word lossless being in the names. I figured something of some kind of audio purist importance had to be lost in order to reduce the file size by nearly half. But I read on and watched a bunch of explainer videos and while I don’t know the science well enough and can’t do the tests myself with any degree of sophistication, there are enough people out there who know what they are talking about who agree that it is in fact lossless. Enough that I have to given in and go with the consensus.

So with that in mind I started re-ripping some of my CDs to Apple Lossless. Since I’m Mac/iTunes/iPhone based.

Can I actually he hear the difference between a CD/Lossless file and a 320 kbps MP3 that I have ripped my CDs to previously? Probably not. And yet I found myself still gravitating toward the lossless files more. It felt like there was something else there, even if it wasn’t apparent to my ears. SoI guess the best way I can describe it is, relation to fonts or good design in general, which is to say that even if you don’t understand the technical and aesthetic reasons why a good font or a good design looks good, on some level your brain is processing it and enjoying it more based on something you may not even understand.
Or maybe it’s a purely placebo effect. Either way, there is some effect on me. Make of it what you will. I’m not entirely sure what to make of it myself yet.

As for hi-res audio, the jury is still out on that for me. CDs are definitely more than good enough for me. I’m still enjoying my mp3s. But ripping my CDs to lossless and the prospect of buying a new discman, definitely has me handling my CD collection more these days. And it has given me a desire to hit up some thrift shops and used record shops to pick up more. Especially albums that had special collectors editions that are out of print. We’ll see.

The one big downside to CD/Lossless quality is the lack of wireless support. I listen mostly on my Bose bluetooth headphones these days. And while I can and do wire them in sometimes, most of the time I’m listening to music, it’s wireless. I like that freedom. So to rip my collection to lossless means not just more file space being taken up but also being tethered by a wire again like the old days. It also means my computer need to work harder to transcode those lossless files to AAC when sending them over bluetooth when I want to listen to that collection wirelessly. Lastly it means stirring up my iTunes library that has been in place for over a decade or maintaining two different library, which is sort of the route I’m on at the moment. My main decade long library is on my laptop, whereas this new lossless library is being started on my desktop computer. On the plus side though, this new library is giving me a chance to probably structure and organize my music collection. I started ripping my CDs to mp3 back in the late nineties, so it’s all a mixed bag or structure and organization over the last couple decades. Different bitrates, file types, folder structures, etc. Kind of a mess. This new one is much more organized. But I run into the issue that a good portion of my collection isn’t lossless. I bought a lot of music online over the decades that is AAC or even MP3. So the question is, do I make this just a smaller all lossless library or go with another mixed bag, but just replace the stuff I can with lossless versions? Still deciding on that one. Though I’m kind of leaning toward the former at the moment. Might be nice to have a digital library that I know is all lossless for when I want to just sit down and listen to that. I don’t do a lot of listening off my desktop to begin with. My laptop, iPhone, and my wireless headphones allow me to bring my main music collection everywhere around the house as is. So turning my desktop into a lossless listening station is probably the better choice.

This entry was posted in Audio.

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