I love my CDs

So I’ve been a little bit absent for the last little while. Yes, that’s right. I’m a Bad Blogger. The main reason for this, though, is that all of my stuff arrived from Australia – my entire material universe, magically compressed into five boxes. Quite a bit of that material universe is made up of CDs, and also my stereo (a surprising portion of the rest of it is made up of the predictable scores and reference texts, along with the artefacts of several abortive attempts to learn dead languages). And, as I’ve been spending so much time reacquainting myself with CDs that I’ve been separated from for the last five months, I want to talk about why I think that the ‘Death of the Compact Disc’ is highly exaggerated.

Now, my stereo system is pretty good – not audiophile quality, by any stretch of the imagination – but I have a good CD player, good amplifier, and good speakers (good enough that, had they arrived a week earlier, there is absolutely no way that I would have failed the Pepsi challenge. Which I did. Failed like a dog. It turns out that laptop speakers aren’t very good. Who’d have thought?). The fidelity of sound offered by a CD in this context is far beyond anything even a ‘lossless’ file can produce. After five months without my stereo system, Brahms had me blubbering like a baby (he was saying something about all flesh being like grass, to the consternation of vegans everywhere…), which requires a level of immersion in the recorded sound far beyond what is possible with the fidelity offered by a computer.

Now, I don’t believe for a second that this is due to any shortfall in the quality of the variety of digital formats available (lossless and otherwise). But the fact is that very few people have the hardware available to play files off their computer in anything resembling the quality that even a modestly-priced hifi can offer. The first hurdle is D/A conversion. As far as I understand it, the majority of people connect their computer to either speakers or an amplifier via the computer’s headphone jack, relying on the computer’s built-in A/D converters (less than stellar).

Furthermore, computers simply aren’t precision instruments when it comes to the performance of recorded sound. While I’m no expert on digital minutiae, I’m not convinced that the standard personal computer, using its processing power for the myriad other things that computers do, can even theoretically offer the precision of playback in terms of things like timing that a CD player can.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible that audio playback software will develop to a point which offers similar stability to CD players, and when dedicated, high-quality A/D converters offer a more faithful listening experience. Indeed, with the ever-increasing volume of music sourced from ‘soft’ media such as digital downloads, I imagine it’s only a matter of time until the standard mid-range audio system consists of a computer transmitting digital output wirelessly to a D/A converter, which effectively takes up the cabinet space vacated by the CD player.

But that time is not here yet. In the meantime, I heart my CDs, and I’m so glad they’ve come back to me!

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  1. ELISION, Ferneyhough, “Terrain”, and the performative tradition of complexity « Sound is Grammar

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