The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XVIII: CD is Dead
CD is dead. Long live SACD. Or DVD-Audio. Or MP3. Or, especially, the LP.
I know I've been leading up to this for the last few months, so now is the time for us to examine the real future of the Compact Disc. Now that I've listened to SACD, and, to a greater extent, DVD-Audio, my reports on the demise of CD may have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, it is true that the sound of Sony's new SACD technology simply blows away the sound of a normal CD, but that may not be enough.
Do you remember Beta? You know, as opposed to VHS? It's the epitome of a failed technology, one that offered promise but ultimately went teats up due to the sometimes arbitrary concerns of the buying public. Proponents of Beta video claimed that the picture quality was better than on VHS, and the sound quality was also easily superior. So why did it fail? Tape breakage. Yes, Beta cassettes were more fragile than VHS cassettes. This was inconvenient. Slowly, the scales shifted, and the consumer made their choice, and by 1989 Beta was pretty much dead in the water.
Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it? The LP almost went the way of the dodo and Beta. Now it resembles the California Condor- dwindling in numbers, but still making a brave stand. People thought the lack of surface noise on CD's was the equivalent to better sound, and this technological Achilles' Heel of LP's almost buried what is still the premier format in terms of sound quality. Fortunately the Vinyl Brotherhood had greater intestinal fortitude than the Beta Brotherhood. It took only about six or seven years for VHS to overwhelm Beta, but the LP's have withstood the digital onslught for going on seventeen years now.
So what Achilles' Heel has been revealed in the CD format now that Super Audio CD's have arrived on the scene? Sound quality. That's about it. SACD sounds much better than CD. But there is no real added convenience to using SACD over CD. In fact, the first player of this new technology, once again manufactured by Sony, will run you about $5000 (Sony is already set to release a second, stripped down machine for about $3500). That's a tad inconvenient. The first CD player, the Sony CDP-101, released in 1982, cost $900, and although that was a lot of money back then, it wasn't prohibitively expensive. But five grand for the first SACD? That doesn't exactly sound like the beginning of a revolution.
But is it worth $5000? I think so. There is no $5000 CD player (and trust me, there are quite a few at this price point) that can measure up to this sound. The Sony SCD-1, playing SACDs, in fact, sounds better than the $20,000 Linn Sondek CD-12 CD player I talked about in The Vinyl Brotherhood. In fact, the Sony SCD-1 sounds a lot like some of the hyper-expensive turntable rigs I've talked about. The playing field may finally be level between analog and digital.
In addition, the SCD-1 will play regular CD's. This, in my estimation, is pure marketing genius- you won't have to abandon an old format in order to indulge in the new. In fact, it will now be easy to directly compare the sound of SACD's and CD's on an SACD player (obviously you will be unable to play SACD's on regular CD players). But this is where it gets a little tricky- as a CD player, the Sony SCD-1 is rather mediocre-sounding for the money. It does not sound much better than my Naim CD3, which sold for less than half the price. And I think it is completely surpassed by Dr. Cameron's new $3995 Meridian 508-24 CD player. So the bad news is that if SACD software doesn't really take off, you'll still be able to play your CD's, but on a ridiculously overpriced player.
The bottom line is this: there is no overwhelming reason why you should forsake CD's for SACD's yet, unless ultimate sound quality is your first priority. The conveniences are almost non-existent when you compare them with the differences of LP's and CD's. The Sony SACD players will have to come down, way down, in price before anyone will be sounding the death knell for CD. In fact, I think SACD will only really succeed if the prices become competitive with normal CD players. That's when CDs really took off, when you could get a CD player for less than $300. For now, however, I think that SACD will just be another toy for the rich.
You can get a DVD player for less than $300, though! I mentioned this a couple of months ago. Whenever anyone asks me for a low-priced CD player recommendation, I tell them to buy a DVD player. DVD players play CD's (again, not vice versa), and they play them well. DVD machines sample data at a higher rate, and that means more music gets through. Remember my complaints about the bright, strident sound of CD's when compared to LP's? This is almost completely ameliorated with DVD players. (It IS completely eradicated with SACD, I feel.)
My Pioneer DVD player, which I purchased for $349 a year ago (Audio Advisor is selling them right now for $299), sounds great as a stand-alone CD player in my main home system! (Not better than my Naim, though.) I'm putting together a bedroom system right now, and I was listening to a lot of low-priced CD players from such stalwart brands as Rotel, NAD, Marantz and Denon (I am definitely looking to cheap out here), but now I think I'll just buy a second Pioneer DV-414! It's true. I'll say it once more- the best CD players under $500 are DVD players. If SACD won't topple the King of the Mountain, then DVD's, which still sound better, aren't appreciably more expensive, AND double as video players, will.
There is another technology, however, that is poised to vanquish the CD format: MP3. I'll admit it right now. I don't know a lot about MP3, but I really don't want to. This technology magnifies every problem I had with CDs. It is purely based on user convenience. It sounds dreadful, worse than audio cassettes, hell, even 8-tracks. But it is so easy to download music from the Internet. It's just too bad your computer, with its puny loudspeakers which claim to sound almost as good as REAL loudspeakers, was not built with sound quality in mind. Sure, add-on speakers are getting better and better (a by-product of MP3's sudden, alarming success), but it will be a while before I'm satisfied with using my computer as a primary music source.
So that leaves our old friend, the LP. I'd love nothing more than to say that the vinyl format was responsible for the demise of CD's. That simply won't happen. But my faith in people and their love for music has been renewed with The Vinyl Renaissance. It tells me that some people do care about ultimate sound quality. It tells me that some people can resist the power of marketing. It tells me that some people still have a taste for the finer things in life. It's disconcerting that the LP format, once a technolgy for the masses, is slowly becoming a hobby of luxury, but better that than total annihilation. I still have people e-mailing me several times a month (at firstname.lastname@example.org) to tell me they have gone out and purchased a new turntable. So while I can't say that the durability of vinyl has contributed to the mortality of CD's, and that CD's will not be around for much longer, I can say this- you'd be smarter right now in buying a new turntable than a new CD player!
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