Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XXXIII: The Death Rattle of the CD
(June 2002)

I was wondering what I should name this installment. I've already used "CD is Dead," so I was thinking maybe "CD is Really Dead Now," or, as a homage to Pulp Fiction, "CD is Deader Than, Uh...Dead." I settled on the death rattle thing as a tribute to another one of my favorite movies, Fight Club. You remember what Helena Bonham-Carter said after she took all that Xanax. "Have you ever heard a death rattle before?" she asks. Well, I have, and it sounds like this:

New Release CDs for as low as $7.99!

I touched on this briefly in the last column, Ch-ch-changes, and after finishing up the article, I starting really thinking about what it meant when most major labels, in conjunction with the major retail outlets, lowered the MSRP on CD's by half. It sounds like a great thing, doesn't it? I mean, I went right out and bought a bunch of new music from Tower, Target, and even Wal-Mart. I bought into the whole "CD-sales-are-a-little-down-from-last-year" mantra the major labels were chanting rather publicly. And then it hit me. I do have a bit of business experience (I spent eighteen years in the retail and restaurant management trenches) and lowering your prices by half means one thing: you're trying to liquidate your inventory.

When I started discussing this with some of my audiophile friends, they automatically assumed I was going to proclaim victory for the LP, and even throw out some leftover crumbs to the burgeoning new digital formats. But anyone who pays attention to what's going on in the audio industry knows this isn't true. LP sales have remained stable over the last few years, and I am constantly amazed at the amount of new turntables that keep getting introduced to the market. And the newer digital formats are succeeding, albeit on a smaller scale than CD's did almost twenty years ago. But the real reason people aren't buying as many CD's as before is because many of them are downloading their music off the Internet. And I think that's a bad thing.

What was that? Did I just say the death of the good ol' fashioned garden-variety CD was a bad thing? Of course I did, because once more we are taking a step in the wrong direction, placing convenience over sound quality. I've downloaded music off of various websites, I've played around with programming some of the more complex MP3 players, and I have to admit that like multi-channel audio systems, this type of format shows a lot of promise. One day, it will be the best way to listen to music. But in its present form, there is no comparison to listening to LP's on my home system. The sound quality sucks. I think it sounds worse than cassette, maybe even 8-track!

Yet this is becoming the new format of choice, over better-sounding ones such as SACD and DVD-A. It's funny, but when people told me a couple of years ago that the CD was dying, I had to laugh. "The last time I went to Tower, the place was still stuffed to the gills with CD's," I'd retort. I didn't really see large sections, or even small ones, devoted to SACD's and DVD's. And now, when I visit, I still see a store full of CD's, and not much else... including customers! The last two or three visits to Tower was like a visit to a ghost town. Empty aisles, bored clerks. I bet every single CD was in perfect alphabetical order in the bins. I've read about Tower's financial troubles over the last couple of years, but it never really hit home until now.

I know, I know. I'm going to get e-mail's from the technical types who insist that the MP3 format is limitless and perfect (sound familiar?), and that with the right equipment and configurations, the sound quality can be truly amazing. So before you yank out your laptops and start pounding on the keys, please know that I have had this conversation many times before, and it still didn't convince me. Every time I pushed for specific details about sound quality, all I heard in return was FEATURES! CONVENIENCE! FLEXIBILITY! PORTABILITY! Don't think that didn't send up some red flags. And I've heard techies explain how to get the optimum MP3 setups, and to say it sounded complicated was an understatement. Setting up a home theatre system sounds easy in comparison, and there are morons out there publishing entire books about how to do that.

Of course, there are some problems with my "inventory liquidation" theory. If the major music retailers sell off most of their CD stock, what will replace them? I see larger chains doing such things as going into the used CD market and even devoting more room to video products such as DVD's and video games. But will they start selling MP3 players? DVD players? Appliances? Cell phones? When will it stop? And it's never a good idea to have most of your store empty, because it looks like you're going out of business, as opposed to just having a crappy selection. People will get out of the habit of shopping in your store very quickly.

Also, this could all blow over by the time you read this. I sent my wife to The Wherehouse the other night to pick up the DVD for Ocean's Eleven and the new Wilco CD, and she came back with only the movie because she didn't want to "blow nearly twenty bucks on a CD" (we've been a bit spoiled by this $7.99 stuff). So either The Wherehouse was never in on the deal, or the good old days of cheap digital is on the wane. And we, the public, will never really be sure if the plan worked or not. We'll certainly get the major labels' spin, but who can trust those guys?

Any way you look at it, the CD is doomed. It's a Pyrrhic victory for us vinyl lovers, because we won the battle against the compact disc, but they're sending in the reinforcements, and they're much better warriors. I've commented before that SACD sounds really, really good, and I'm still thinking about getting an SACD player in the next year or two. But right now there are only 200-300 titles available. And while DVD-A seems to be taking off at a much quicker pace, it's tied too closely to the whole multi-channel surround biz, and that's in such a wacky state of flux right now that every purchase seems like the wrong one. But MP3 has done what the others haven't. It has captured the attention of the youth. It's portable, it's convenient, it's flexible, and it has lots of cool features. It even comes in bright colors. And everyone in the music industry knows that if you corner the youth market, you've cornered it all.

I have hope, though. I've recently received two e-mails, both of which made my day. The first was from a 20-year-old college student who asked for help in assembling an analog-based system. He told me that most guys in his dorm have really good turntable set-ups (usually centered around low-cost but good-sounding rigs from Music Hall, Pro-Ject, and Rega), and he was feeling left out with just his CD player! The second e-mail came from a 16-year-old (!) whose father had just given him his old Thorens table. While he explained to me that he continues to use and enjoy MP3 for the usual reasons (convenience, portability, blah blah blah), he listens to his turntable when he "really wants to hear the music."

Bless you both.

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