When CDs came onto the scene circa 1983, they answered a true calling, delivering noiseless, high-fidelity audio to discerning consumers in a nonlinear format. A CD wouldn’t degrade over time simply by playing it back either, which was untrue of both vinyl and magnetic tape. Listeners went through culture shock when they sat next to a set of speakers and heard nothing—as in true, sonic silence—before the first note of music sounded. Only the terminally geeky and audiophile party-poopers groused about how “digital was sterile” or that better fidelity was actually achievable through analog means, assuming your turntable cost more than the GDP of a small country. For everyone else, CDs, and the era of digital audio democratization they heralded, were a godsend.
And so it seems inconceivable that the death of the CD is nigh, coming as it will in 2012, if reliable prognostications come to pass. Not even 30 years old, not even surviving its twenties into some kind of maturity. Optical storage for music consumption is now an obsolete notion, it seems. Sure, CD technology had its problems—chiefly that it was certainly never well-suited to portable use. You have to admit, seeing a yellow DiscMan in a holster and elastic strap around the arm of a jogger these days is about as likely as a Wham! or Culture Club song charting on the Top Ten. The size of the disc itself guaranteed a bulky housing so that the mechanism could play it back, and what about all those moving parts? These same limitations were also being felt in other linear-tape and disc-burning technologies too, most notably video recording. No wonder the MP3 player supplanted the CD player.
Yes, it’s true that if you considered just the mechanics, you might see how optical discs would eventually be replaced.
But there were other endearing aspects of the compact disc that shouldn’t necessarily be discarded so cavalierly.
Take, for example, album art and storage. While the CD definitely compromised on album art, there still existed an almost 5′x5′ area in which to attach a visual component to the audio in hand. And what about liner notes? These disappeared with the MP3 player. And having a zillion songs on a device with the form factor of a pack of sugarless gum doesn’t lend itself to the pleasures of the browsing experience, nor does it satisfy the folks who still liked to devote a good portion of their living room or bedroom as a listening sanctuary—a place where CDs lined one wall and the audio equipment lined another. There’s a certain thoughtfulness in preparing for a long car ride where you have to choose only as many CDs as you can comfortably carry in two hands. When you can always have everything you’ve ever owned on tap (literally, as in the touch of a finger), it takes the fun out of being a song programmer.
But the worst part about losing the CD is that we as a consumer audience never really replaced it with any single lightning rod of superior fidelity, even if the mechanics of the medium begged for evolution. We have never come to grips with the whole audio fidelity issue. Though CDs became commercially available in the U.S. in 1983, their audio fidelity has improved not a whit since then. Can you imagine any other digital technology—processor speed, storage capacity, recordable medium material—not advancing for 29 years? It would be unthinkable.
So when we had the chance to improve on the technology, did we do it for audio good? We did not. We made our lives easier, but compromised on the issue quality by way of that dreaded affliction called “data compression.” Devices eventually caught up and can now play files with CD fidelity—and better—but does anyone know how or really bother with doing that? Where is the hue and cry for better audio? It’s not there. Other issues, like digital rights management and cloud-based storage are a distraction from the fundamental issue of raising our standard of audio-living.
In the CD, we had a physical touchstone that had its fidelity indelibly stamped into it. The twin specs of 44.1kHz and 16-bits were inseparable from the medium, and really good for the times—better than we’d experienced before. So as the mechanics improved, we should have seen that the audio improved—at least a little bit. We didn’t see it in the CD, and we didn’t see it in portable music players, which emphasized the “portable” over the “music.” What we need now is something—a physical object, an acronym, or even a couple of initials—that will standardize the higher-resolution audio and better fidelity that we’re capable of supporting. And should demand.
— Jon Chappell