The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc PhillipsAfter spending the last few years writing articles with such titles as "CD is Dead" and "The Death Rattle of the CD," I bet you're surprised that I have the nerve to talk about the comeback of the so-called "redbook" compact disc. Well, here we are, halfway through 2004, and CD's are still with us. (Boy, I loved saying that!) I guess when you look at the sales figures objectively, these are still dire times for the music industry, with unit sales way down across the board. But the CD format still makes up about 86% of these sales, depending upon your source, so it's hard to talk about its failure as a music medium.
Part XLV: The Comeback of the CD
The downturn in sales, of course, has been blamed mostly on MP3 and downloading in general. The newer digital formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio have also had an effect, but much less than originally predicted. It seems that we are at a real crossroads in the format wars, a real interesting time in history, and no one really knows which direction we're headed. I've seen the premature obituaries for SACD, and I've heard owners of SACD players sigh in disgust when they complain that nothing new has happened in the last year or so. Rumor is that Sony is getting ready to make another big push, with a ton of new titles, but that doesn't seem to be curbing the ennui among the hi-rez troops. Even home theater and multi-channel formats seem to be stagnant. In fact, the only bright spots seem to be satellite radio (which I own and love), and the continued growing resurgence of vinyl. Oh, and the i-Pod, of course.
The SACD Patrol, however, is still very much on point. I have to respect these guys a lot, because they're no different than I am, pushing for something they believe in and enjoy on a personal level. So I wasn't really that surprised at the negative e-mail I received after writing SACD Revisited. Apparently, many SACD fans thought I was condemning the format and saying it wasn't worth saving, even though I wrote "I would like to say, once more for the record, that SACD is a good thing, and if absolute sound quality is important to you, and LP's somehow aren't right for you, then this is the way you should be listening to music." That doesn't exactly sound like a condemnation to me. In fact, I got into two rather long e-mail exchanges with a couple of guys who refused to believe that they misinterpreted the intent of the article, which was supposed to be a wake-up call to Sony and others about the overly-complex, confusing way they were marketing SACD. One of these guys became so abusive that I had threaten to call his ISP if he persisted. The other guy e-mailed me back a few days later, saying he had had too much to drink when he wrote the initial diatribe, and he apologized. He then re-read the article and agreed with me.
So I guess when I talk about the comeback of the plain, garden-variety CD, I'm not talking about facts and figures as much as industry and consumer perception of what's going on. For instance, I start noticing a lot of new CD players being introduced, which intrigued me. It seems like over the past few years, there hasn't been a lot of research and development going on with redbook CD. The same old players ruled the roost, ones that had been available for years. Most high-end manufacturers had stopped making separate transports and digital-to-analog converters (DAC's) and opted instead for high-quality one-box players. I'd gotten to the point where I was telling anyone looking for a good CD player recommendation to buy a nice, cheap DVD player instead, preferably for less than $300. And I'd personally jettisoned the idea of updating my eight-year-old Naim CD3 player because there was nothing out there I really wanted instead.
Lately, however, there's been a lot of activity in the CD player segment of the market. I'm seeing the return of really expensive players, such as the Burmester 001, which retails for $14,000. I'm also seeing the return of separate DACs from dCS, Theta, Wadia, and Weiss, as well as Burmester, all of which flirt with the five-figure mark. I'm also seeing the return of Giant Killers- that is, CD players that do everything that the big boys do, but for pocket change. Giant Killers used to be extremely common in the first decade or so of CD player development. It seems that there was always some modified $229 Magnavox player (we used to call them "kludges") that blew the pants off every sub-$1000 player on the market. Then Rotel came out with a $399 player back in the mid-to-late '80's, called the RCD-855, that was truly something special. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the best-selling single model of all time, since it seemed like everyone had one, including both of my brothers. After a few years, other CD players caught up, and then Rotel replaced the 855 with another model that didn't seem to have the same magic. Then, in the '90's, Rega came up with the Planet, which was a truly astounding player for $795. That was the last of the Giant Killers, until now.
It seems that there are two players that have risen form the ashes of 21st century compact disc R&D to once again get people excited about the format. First, Rotel just introduced a new $699 player, the RCD-1072, that's been getting favorably compared to players in the $2000-$3000 range. It's also a great-looking player, not chintzy-looking like the original 855. If my Naim bought the farm right now, I'd probably turn to this player for a replacement instead of looking for something expensive that could somehow improve on that famous Naim sound (another Naim, probably). Then, a rather strange Dutch company named Ah! (yes, you read that correctly) has been spending the last few years taking stock Marantz CD players and adding vacuum tube output sections to them. Their first player was called the Ah! Tjoeb, which is pronounced "ah, tube," and means the same thing, obviously. The first time I heard of this company, I thought my leg was being pulled. Then they came out with a second player, called the Ah! Njoe Tjoeb, which is pronounced "new tube." In the last couple of years they've been selling the Njoe Tjoeb 4000, at the same price of the Rotel. Again, this is supposed to be a phenomenal player for the money. I've heard more than one person claim that the sound of this CD player with the silly name is as good as any SACD player they've heard. That's right, I said SACD.
CD technology also seems to have one last card up their sleeve, and that's upsampling. Upsampling describes a process where the digital data stream is mathematically stretched from redbook CD's standard 16 bit, 44.1 kHz sampling rate to a much higher 24 bit, 192 kHz rate. For most players, this is done by merely inserting an optional module into the player for a few extra dollars. The Ah! Tjoeb 4000, for instance, offers upsampling as a $349 option, and--get this--the modification can be done by the consumer! It's that easy. I've seen quite a few players reviewed recently that offer the upsampling option, and while the stock player usually gets decent marks for sound quality, the upsampling player is usually invariably compared to SACD players. For the SACD Patrol, that has to be very bad news indeed.
As expected, however, CD's spiritual recovery from a fate worse than Betamax has been met with some studies exposing some more basic flaws. For instance, the words "CD rot" have been echoing through the halls lately, and while PSF editor Jason Gross hates it when I refer to "perfect sound forever" in a negative context, wouldn't it be wonderfully ironic if all the CD's in the world had a finite lifespan? I've actually complained for some time now that I own at least two dozen CD's that flat-out no longer play (Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory is one of these, but I think that's just karma). And while I certainly have my share of completely fucked-up LP's, the thing about a scratched LP is that IT DOESN'T BECOME COMPLETELY UNPLAYABLE. You can't say the same thing about CD's. A dozen years ago it was discovered that treating your CD's with Armor-All really improved the sound quality. Then it was discovered that it also destroyed the CD in just a few months. So we've known for some time that CDs are not indestructible, as originally advertised by Sony.
But what's with this new plague, CD rot? Jason sent me this article from the Salt Lake City Tribune a few weeks ago, which documents a "gradual deterioration of the data-carrying layer" which can be identified as "a constellation of pinpricks, little points where the light was coming through the aluminum layer." That never happens with LPs, now, does it? DOES IT? In fact, when I typed "CD rot" into my Google search engine, I got 1.04 million hits, which seems to indicate that this might be a real problem, especially for those of you who like to leave your CDs spread out all over the floor of your apartment, covered in Cheetos dust and cat pee. (You know who you are.) The jury still seems to be out about whether this is caused more by manufacturing processes or consumer misuse, but let's just say that I'm waiting for apologies from all you digiphiles who say that it's too much work properly caring for LP's.
And the bad news doesn't stop there for the Redbook Brigade. Jason also sent me some text from a Brian Eno mailing list where the question was brought up about copy protection and its effect on sound quality. There's been a large amount of controversy over the last few years about "watermarking" DVD and DVD-Audio products, that it visually alters the overall product. This is tantamount to writing "Property of Three Blind Mice Records" with a Sharpee right across the grooves of your pristine copy of Midnight Sugar. Do you hear a difference? Maybe, maybe not. You still don't want it done. The music industry does a have a right to protect their property, especially in the face of music downloading. But what they're currently doing is like Chiquita switching from adhesive stickers to a heavy stamping die press to identify their bananas.
The worst part of this is that the music industry really hasn't perfected copy protection technology, and they're always trying out new, untested ways to do it. One article, from the Campaign for Digital Rights website (not something I'd normally bookmark), brings up some scary points about how consumers are often guinea pigs when it comes to trying out these new methods, which can often result in CDs containing corrupted data: check out the entire article at http://ukcdr.org/issues/cd/. As the article states, sometimes this involves a pressing of hundreds of thousands of CDs. One such protection method resulted in a 4% return rate of a certain title because it wouldn't play at all. And for everyone who's tried to return a CD to a record store because it wouldn't work, and has received a ration of shit from the clerk who blamed it on the CD player, you know this is unforgivable.
So where does all of this controversy leave us vinyl lovers? Happy as clams, obviously, because all of the articles concerning the resurgence of our beloved format are all overwhelmingly positive. The sales unit figures get stronger every year. The amount of new titles released on LP increase every year. New turntable models are introduced nearly every week. And, best of all, we're fixing our problems. Within the last few years, we've come up with better and better ways to clean our records, as you saw in the last installment, More LP TLC. We're cutting new releases with shorter sides to help eliminate inner groove distortion. We've even come out with a new product, the Air Tight Disc Flatter, which is a huge heated press that completely eliminates warps from LPs without affecting the sound quality. So the three biggest complaints that people have had with the LP are largely becoming a thing of the past.
For all of the lovers of the digital formats, however, the problems seem to have just begun.
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