For over three years, Apple’s iTunes store has been the world’s largest music retailer. Now that Apple has announced an online radio service to compete with the likes of Pandora and Spotify, it raises the question: do we need physical music carriers like CD anymore? Or to put the question more succinctly, are discs dead?
From an audiophile point-of-view, the answer is “yes, no and maybe,” with lots of “ands” and “buts.” It’s interesting to note that sales of both CDs and DVDs at HMV Canada have enjoyed modest growth this year. (Click here to read more.)
There’s no mystery about why customers are gravitating toward digital downloads and subscription services. It’s all about convenience: the ability to buy music at the click of mouse and have it on your computer and/or mobile device in a minute or so; the ability to have a huge library of digital music at your fingertips, complete with meta-data that makes it easy to find a particular song or artist.
So it’s not surprising that lots of people are abandoning their CD libraries altogether: ripping them to computer and transferring them to a mobile device, then disposing of the discs through garage sales or used record stores. Not only does this cut clutter, it makes listening a lot easier: no more scanning CD shelves for that album you haven’t heard in a decade (but are in the mood for right now).
But this convenience can carry a cost in sound quality.
To minimize file sizes and bandwidth requirements, the iTunes store and all online subscription services all employ lossy compression coding schemes like AAC and MP3. Compressed files exploit psychoacoustic factors such as masking (a loud tone masking an adjacent quieter tone): if a sound isn’t normally audible, there’s no need to encode it. Lose it, and you can reduce file sizes and download times.
These formats are fine for casual listening through headphones or low-end computer speakers. But for serious listening using good phones or speakers, the effects of lossy compression are clear once you know what to listen for. With aggressive compression used for low bitrates (128kbps and below), you may hear a harsh metallic edge with some content; cavernous echo-y artifacts become audible as bitrate descends. At high bitrates (256kbps and above), artifacts aren’t as obvious, but trained ears will notice a compromised portrayal of space and ambience.
Consequently, uncompressed or lossless formats are preferable for serious listening. With most music, the easiest way to (legitimately) obtain an uncompressed file is to buy the CD. Maybe you’ll spin it on a CD player; maybe you’ll rip onto a computer in an uncompressed format like WAV or AIFF. Or if you want to save space, you’ll use a lossless format like FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) or Apple Lossless. Lossless formats yield lower file sizes and download times, but are fully reconstituted during playback.
There are online music stores that sell uncompressed CD-quality in FLAC format (easily converted to Apple Lossless using an inexpensive utility). But …
But selection at these sites pales in comparison to iTunes and Amazon’s MP3 store, or what you can get on CD. Many of the online music stores offering CD-quality downloads specialize in specific genres, such as classical or world music. The biggest vendor of CD-quality downloads is HDTracks, which offers a broad variety of genres, from rock to folk to jazz to classical (but other sites have content that’s not available on HDTracks). But …
However, selling digital files instead enables small labels to offer titles that are no longer available on disc. A case in point: I recently downloaded CD-resolution files in Apple Lossless Format of J.S. Bach’s English and French Suites performed by ex-pat Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt. Those wonderful performances are no longer available on CD, but Hyperion Records continues to offer them as digital downloads. But …
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, downloading the music that you’ve purchased from some of these sites can be a painful process. Frequently, their online storefronts leave a lot to be desired. As it stands, the easiest way to get CD-quality music is to go to a record store and buy the CD, or else order it online. But …
But you can do better than CD.
A growing number of online stores are high-resolution digital music files. Instead of sampling rate of 44.1kHz and resolution of 16 bits (the CD “Red Book” standard), they have sampling rates as high as 192kHz and resolution as high as 24 bits. My digital music setup supports PCM audio to 96kHz/24 bits. In my experience, 96/24 files created from a good master (instead of simply being upsampled from CD) can deliver amazing sound, with a subtly but audibly superior portrayal of time and space.
The only time I indulge in that obnoxious behaviour known as “showrooming” (going to a bricks-and-mortar store to find out about a product, but then shopping online) is when I’m shopping for CDs. If I’m tempted to buy a CD, but think a high-resolution version may be available, I’ll take out my smartphone and surf to an online service like HDTracks to check. If an album I want is available as a 96/24 download, that’s probably how I’ll buy it. If not, I buy the CD from the bricks-and-mortar retailer, even if the price is higher than online, because the store has earned my business.
In other words, my behaviour isn’t motivated by price, but by quality. For some music, high-resolution downloads offer the best sonic experience. But …
Downloads aren’t the only way to get high-resolution music. Over the past decade or so, I’ve amassed a 100-plus collection of Super Audio CDs. SACD is definitely a niche format, and has struggled to survive in its 14 years of existence. While the number of new titles continues to decline, several specialty labels still release music on SACD.
One attraction of SACD is the fact that many titles are available in 5.1-channel surround sound. Some audiophiles dismiss surround as a gimmick, at least for music. I don’t. While it’s possible to use the extra channels in a gimmicky manner (having instruments pop up in front, behind and beside you), that can be a very enjoyable guilty pleasure, say with the alarm clocks in the SACD surround mix of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
More often, especially with classical releases on SACD, the surround channels are used to add an extra degree of spatial realism, expanding the boundaries of your listening room to more convincingly create the sense of being in a large space like a cathedral or concert hall.
SACDs also contain a two-channel track; and even for two-channel stereo playback, the format offers real benefits. SACD stores music in a high-resolution format called Direct Stream Digital. DSD is a single-bit codec with very high sampling rate (2.8224MHz, 64 times higher than CD). Because of the very high sampling frequency, the noise that results from quantization errors inherent to single-bit encoding is far beyond the audible range, and can be removed by noise-shaping processing, while still maintaining very high audio bandwidth.
I’ve found the sonic advantages of SACD sufficiently compelling to buy music in that format rather than CD whenever possible. When I recently assembled a new hi-fi system after ripping my CD library, the question about these advantages resurfaced. Most SACDs also have a CD layer, so that they can be played on a standard CD player. Should I rip music from the CD layer of my SACDs onto my Mac Mini, and enjoy the convenience of having all this music accessible with a click of a mouse? Or should I hold onto the discs? The decision would have an impact on the components I would choose for my two-channel system.
To make that decision, I conducted a couple of simple listening tests. I ripped the CD layer of a few favourite SACDs onto a Mac Mini, then played them through an Arcam rDAC connected to Arcam A38 amplifier and KEF LS50 speakers, and compared the sound with the SACD played on an Arcam CD37 CD/SACD player.
On tracks as varied as Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine” and Handel’s Opus 4 Organ Concertos played by the Academy of Ancient Music, the SACD layer sounded bit more refined, with less digital glare. It wasn’t a big difference, and I’d be perfectly happy with the CD; but in all cases I preferred the SACD.
I also compared the CD and SACD players of several discs on the Arcam player. On a wonderful SACD of music by Philip Glass played by harpist Lavinia Meijer, the rich instrumental timbres came through well on both the CD and SACD players. But there was a difference in spatial presentation. With the CD layer, the music appeared from a plane between the speakers; with SACD it came from the entire front of the room, with greater width, depth and precision.
These experiments were enough to convince me to keep my SACDs, and build a system around the Arcam disc player and amplifier.
Not Dead Yet
So are discs dead? The world is certainly shifting from physical media to digital files, for lots of reasons, including convenience and choice. But I’ll be buying discs for some time to come. I’m still buying CDs, because that’s often the simplest way to get uncompressed versions of music I want in my collection. However, I’ll opt for a high-resolution download when one is available. And when I can find them, I’m still buying SACDs.