CDs sound better

CDs just sound better

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I listen to a lot of music – I stream music when I drive or while I travel, and I also listen to vinyl when the mood strikes. And while I love all of it, when I want the best audio quality, nothing sounds as good as a CD.

Do you remember the first time you heard a CD? I do. It was 1986, I was a sophomore in college, and my girlfriend at the time (who’s now my wife) gave me a Sony Discman as a present, along with a Santana CD. When I popped that CD in for the very first time and when I put on the crappy headphones that came with the Discman, I was blown away by how clean and crisp and loud the disc sounded.

Yes, vinyl has that “analog warmth,” but CDs don’t crackle and pop, they don’t skip, they have a much wider dynamic range so they can get louder than vinyl and they can get much quieter than vinyl. Bass, in particular, might need to be attenuated when a track is being mixed and mastered for vinyl to avoid having the needle jump out of a groove on playback, which is not an issue for CDs.

And, frankly, which average listener can really hear and appreciate that analog warmth – especially when listening on a consumer turntable, amp, and speakers?

And then there’s streaming and downloads. These digital files are so highly compressed, you don’t get the full rich sound experience — and they’re prone to distortion.

So if you want your music to sound its best, you have to put it on CD. It sounds so awesome you just have to dance… check out these moves! [Ed note: this is where you have to watch the video to see Tony dancing. I highly recommend it.]

If you’re interested in the technical reasons why CDs sound best, here’s some background:

Uncompressed audio

CDs offer full 44.1kHz uncompressed digital audio. Here’s what that means, according to “What Data Compression Does To Your Music” (Sound On Sound), which offers a very detailed look at the science behind file compression:

The audio is stored digitally on a CD via a technique known as PCM, or Pulse Code Modulation. PCM data consists of snapshots of an audio waveform’s amplitude measured at specific and regular intervals of time. The CD format consists of 44,100 measurements of the waveform’s amplitude per second, so is said to have a sample rate or sampling frequency of 44.1kHz. This is important, because the Nyquist Theorem states that the high-frequency limit of a PCM digital audio system is dictated by the sample rate, and that the sample rate must be at least double the highest frequency that will be recorded. So a 44.1kHz sample rate can theoretically store frequencies up to just above 20kHz, approximating the theoretical upper limit of the best human hearing.

Translation: CDs offer amazing sound quality.

Compressed audio

MP3, AAC, WMA, and other compressed file formats employ lossy compression, which basically means a bunch of the digital information in the audio file gets removed in order to shrink the size of the file. For instance, an uncompressed AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) file of The Beatles’ “Fixing A Hole” is 27.9 MB, while its MP3 equivalent is 3.4 MB. You don’t have to be a scientific genius to realize something has been removed from that file.

This compression can result in a loss of bandwidth, the introduction of pre- and post-echoes, loss of detail, the introduction of transients, degradation of the bass, and other issues that were not intended by the artist and recording engineers. So yes, lossy compression makes storage of thousands of songs on a thumb drive and streaming of digital content possible, but the cost is the final quality of the audio file.

And when it comes to physical product — the only way to provide printed cover art, liner notes, lyrics, and credits — CDs are way more affordable than vinyl (or even cassettes, which have seen a bit of a resurgence recently). Granted, vinyl wins the day when it comes to 12″x12″ cover art, but there are so many options for CD packaging that can really make an impression on a music fan (beyond the sheer excellence of the sound).

So there you have it. You make music because you have a passion. You work hard on your recordings, and you want them to sound as good as they possibly can. Well, you’re not going to do better than the sound quality of a CD.


“The Indie Music Minute” is a video series featuring Tony van Veen, CEO of Disc Makers, distributing bite-sized nuggets of information and actionable ideas to help you make the most of your career as an indie music artist. See more on the Disc Makers YouTube Channel.

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37 thoughts on “CDs just sound better

  1. I just bought Led Zeppelin III on Vinyl. Played it through a nice Project Turntable on Adam Studio Monitors. I also listened to the album on Spotify. I heard a huge difference on the high end spectrum of the record. Strummed guitars and cymbals sound so much detailed on vinyl. I want to do the same comparison with CDs.

    That being said, I think there’s a presence on vinyl that gets cut out on digital emulation. Also, bass is bigger on digital, but nothing a great amplifier and EQ couldn’t compensate.

    What you guys think?

  2. 32 bit high res is as good on good equipment and unlike vinyl does not have any crackle hiss or pop sorry but that spoils enjoyment

    . Most CD ayers and amps have a dac so most streamed music can be in glorious high res.

    Mp3 is pretty poor in comparison. Once you get a dac CD player like the marantz guy said as every ounce is taken off that master the
    Sound is superb.

    The kit used to make the sound also makes a difference. You can’t make great sound out of cheap so called hi-fi I have had separates since 1982 then listening to music on cheap systems just ain’t the same. After having an amstrad tower system that got destroyed I never have gone back.

    Sorry I ditched vinyl and I ain’t going back anytime soon, gone on to qobuz as the music is high res and CD quality not mp3 still listen to my cds and they still sound great after most being purchased 30 years ago. The other thing often overlooked is a poorly engineered piece of music can sound awful.

    It’s that simple now with superfast Broadband

  3. Vinyl captures the complete tone color of the frequency (i.e. the distortions of the sine curve that makes A440 on a violin sound like a violin and not like a synthesizer). This is what gives vinyl its “Warmth.”

    That said, I remember looking at the recording process when making a buying decision. (AAD / ADD / DDD). This was especially important when buying Classical music. The ADD (Analog recording/Digital mastering/Digital playback) was the preferred format with the warmest sound. With analog recording, the entire curve was captured.

  4. I’m still partial to analog. When I do a mix in analog, there are harmonics created that we used to call the god effect. You would hear a sound and not know where it was coming from and realize it’s the harmonics. Digital would clean them out of a mix, making the mix sound tighter and give it a bit more headroom, but it definitely takes away a good amount of the feel. Those harmonics create a certain amount of energy that they musician feels and plays a certain way because of them. When you clean them out of a mix, you lose that energy when your listening to it. I’m a big fan of recording with waves over numbers. Also as an example, Pink Floyd has always been my favorite band, but when I started listening to them digitally I just didn’t have the love for it anymore. The drums sounded thin, the bass was way to clean and tight, I couldn’t feel it the way I normally would. Then I bought a used Fishman setup with a turntable. I put some Floyd on and it was like I was listening to them again for the first time. The warmth, you could feel the drums hit your chest. Analog pushed air into your soul, digital was kind of injected into your ear. That said, CD’s would be my second choice. But mostly because as a musician buying music was a full experience. You open the Album or CD, and look at the liner notes, look at the artwork while you listened it created a full experience. You still had all that with CD’s and allot of the times CD’s even came with a poster or stickers. People were truly vested in the artist. Cd’s and digital, is much more convenient. Recording is much cheaper and you could fix mistakes much easier, and you don’t have to flip a CD after 5 songs. Speaker size means nothing when listening to a CD. If you had to use a tiny digital speaker for analog it sounds thin, but a nice 10″ or 12″ or if you have the room 15″ speaker gives you a nice fat bottom while your mids and highs sit in the tweeter and 4″ or 6″ speakers. Throw an EQ on that with an album and ugh it’s so good. All feel. Anyway interesting article.

  5. What does sound better is full spectrum sound:

    Great Post

    Many kids are missing full spectrum sound as a stimulation tool I believe. They close down (selected hearing) from frequency ranges that they feel threatened by in such cases of abuse and war sounds. Through stimulation they often open up and release trauma but don’t actually know where it is coming from.

    As Nicola Tesla once said: “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”

    Because we are made up of frequencies, research has shown that when we are missing a certain range of light frequencies, it can lead to “Seasonal Affective Disorder” SAD and is linked to reduced exposure to sunlight during the shorter days of the year.

    Sunlight stimulates the release of the brain’s happy chemicals and hormones. The theory is that light stimulates a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls mood, appetite and sleep. In people with SAD, a lack of sunlight creates a problem with the release of certain brain chemicals which stops the hypothalamus working correctly.

    The lack of these light frequencies is shown to have an affect upon:

    Production of the hormone melatonin that helps you to sleep
    Production of serotonin with its nickname “the HAPPY hormone”
    Body’s circadian rhythm (which regulates several biological processes during a 24-hour period)

    Now, what is interesting is that the same thing happens with sound as with light because it’s all frequency.

    When we are missing certain tones and frequencies within our energetic system, then we don’t feel as healthy as we naturally should do.

    “Sound and light frequencies act like vitamins and minerals in the body, so the body needs a full spectrum of frequencies to stay fit and healthy”.

    The future of healing is in sound
    Jeff Moran
    https://soundtherapy.co.uk

  6. Hi Tony,

    Have to agree with you there. I have a decent setup and have had subscriptions to Tidal for a while, Qobuz for the past two months and Apple music for over year. Today I decided to listen to CDs after quite some time on my Oppo UDP-205 player. While streaming has the advantage of access to a lot of music, it has been my experience so far that it does not compare favorably in sound resolution to my CDs. Just to validate, I stream from my MAC to very good DACs both costing around 2 grand each. The CD is clearly much better resolved (especially dimension and spacial info. Imaging is more clearly defined and sound from my cd player playing CDs is much more dynamic. Qobuz does have hi-res, but my ears it still does not sound as good as the 16bit/44.1 CD, to say nothing of SACD or DVD-A.

    Am I missing something with the streaming method? Anyone care to chime in?

    Cheers,
    Adam

    1. Adam – if you can hear the difference between the same recording on a CD vs lossless streaming on Tidal, there’s probably something more wrong with your equipment than anything else. Those should be bit-perfect by the time they get to your DAC.

  7. I think it depends on the person’s source hardware. I listen to my many cds on an old Pioneer PDRW739, connected to an old Technics SA 400 receiver. The speakers I use are Sonus Faber Chameleon Ts. The cd sound great to me. For nostalgia purposes I Lao have an old Sony Discman D-2/20 coming, but of course cannot move around like you are, it would skip:) Anyway, I wont be getting rid of my cds anytime soon.

  8. A cd has never made me feel like I was in the same room as the musicians, the way vinyl does.

    And, think about the waveshape as you approach the Nyquist limit. it no longer has enough sampled points to make an accurate reproduction. At all. This is why when mastering for cd, you have to use a low pass filter to make sure that nothing gets close to that upper frequency limit. (real) cymbals, harmonics of acoustic piano or acoustic guitar, etc. Without that LPF, frequencies above 22KHz reflect off that “wall” and create artifacts in the upper treble range.

    On the plus side, music made by digital instruments can generally be accurately reproduced, and there’s more than enough sampled points at 44.1KHz to reproduce bass. Perhaps this explains why pop music changed so much in the 80’s and 90’s to digital instruments, so that it would still sound good at club levels.

    1. And what is the upper limit of a vinyl record?
      You will be hard pressed (sorry) to find anything above 15kHz.
      That is because a low pass filter is applied in vinyl mastering to prevent the cutter head from burning up. Only half speed masters have anything above that.
      The resurgence in vinyl records is due to a lot of factors, but frequency response isn’t one of them.

    1. Certainly, the popularity of the CD depends to an extent on your genre and your audience, and in some markets it’s hard to sell CDs. But many genres – rock, jazz, classical, soul, and so on – continue to sell physical products, and CDs specifically. They become especially useful when an artist offers to autograph them at a gig. And for every $10 CD you sell, you’d need to get 4,000 Spotify streams at $.0025 per stream!

    2. The library system in my area lets you borrow 15 cds at a time. You order them from their website which covers the database of thirty libraries and the CDs are ready for pickup at the library you choose. You can keep them for three weeks and rip a lossless copy on your computer. Plus you can order brand new cds and they will buy them and put them in their catalog for you to borrow. You can’t beat that.

    3. I still have a Hifi system with a CD player, and still buy CD’s, a lot of my collection are from the 80’s before they started to damp the sound, from what i recall CD was invented to improve the sound quality, and the sound on those CD’s is still as good today as when i first played them over 30 years ago. The only thing i honestly miss about vinyl was the bigger sleeve artwork on a lot of the Rock and Heavy metal albums.
      I really don’t get why anyone from that era would want to go back to vinyl, surely it’s for the youngsters who are curious about the old analogue stuff including cassette tapes.

    4. i Just brought a new Marantz HD CD-1 and it has brought new life to my CD collection. I’m even buying new CD’s to replace my vinyl collection from the 70’s and 80’s I lost due to flooding. I do miss the ritual of playing vinyl.

    5. What are you 12?

      Of course people still own CD players and buy CDs but teenagers and younger adults moved on to streaming music and think it’s as good.

      It’s not.

    6. I still buy CDs. I also digitize them in .WAV format. I have close to 1.5 Terabytes of uncompressed music. I have no desire to pay 1,411 bit rate prices for 256 quality. Now if the iTunes store had an audiophile area where we could download music at CD or higher quality, then I would stop buying CDs.

  9. I think you’re forgetting FLAC and high res wav files. I record in 96K/24bit format and this format allows significantly higher sound quality than the 44.1K/16bit of CDs. FLAC can handle up to 192K/24bit.
    When I render a mix down to CD quality from 96/24 tracks, and listen to the rendered mix, I end up wishing that 96/24 was the typical resolution for music delivery.
    Fortunately HDTracks is now delivering more and more high res files – I hope it catches on to become a mainstream norm…

    1. Certainly not forgetting them. Well aware of other higher res digital formats. However, most listeners don’t know them. For my money, the CD is the best sounding MASS audio format.

  10. I don’t know what you guys are listening to. There is a reason audiophiles listen to vinyl and so much work has been done on portable listening devices (Neil Young for example). It is because all digital delivery systems compress everything. I know you want to sell CDs and they certainly have a place. They are cost effective and durable. But they do not in any way sound better. Come on, you guys are better than this.

    1. “I don’t know what you guys are listening to.”

      We’re clearly listening to CDs! LOL

      Look, vinyl is great. I listen to vinyl, as well as streams. I love the vinyl ritual of dropping the needle, and especially the artwork. And tastes are subjective. This is my personal opinion. Many vinyl lovers will disagree. And that’s perfectly ok.

  11. Vinyl sure has that ‘analogue warmth’. Record the vinyl to CD and the resulting CD will also have that same ‘analogue warmth’. Or just listen to the vinyl straight off – with the treble turned down.

  12. I’m disheartened by how many people will settle for quantity over quality! Reminds me of VHS: fit 4 movies on one tape that look like boiling bees (SLP mode) or one sharp, clear movie (SP mode). All of these compressed-file-listening music fans are growing a tin ear and don’t seem to know or care. AUDIOPHILES MUST SURVIVE!!!

  13. I remember the first time I listened to a CD. It was sometime in the ’80s, and a bunch of us guys crammed into my cousin’s basement to listen to his new CD player and a disc of Sgt Pepper.

    “Disappointment” was the key reaction that afternoon. The sound was brittle and harsh. All my favorite parts of that iconic album were somehow sterilized almost beyond recognition.

    As a musician and studio owner, I learned a lot about digital sound/recording over the next couple of decades as I gradually upgraded my analog studio to digital. I encountered terms such as “jitter” and “sample rate” on the road to digital audio refinement.

    Now in 2019, I would tend to agree with the author of this article – CDs do sound great – that is well-recorded CDs! And I would challenge any audiophile to a blindfold, A/B listening session between vinyl and high-end digital. Whoops . . . I forgot – vinyl crackles and pops!

      1. These crackles and pops drove me to distraction back in the day. It’s a strange logic that any music playback system that involves friction and wear and tear and degradation with every play.
        Still remember the guy who only ever played his album once recording it onto cassette! I mean “cassette” seriously!!

        1. I was one of those guys. I paid big bucks for the higher quality Japanese pressings and recorded them on TDK SA-X chrome tapes. I wore out the tapes instead of the LPs. Most of my vinyl at most has been played two times.

      2. Funny you say that. The ear actually does get used to them. Sure microphones the 57 and 58 actually have a horrible sound but they were the industry standard for live performance for decades because people were used to the sound. I happen to like the crackle also.

  14. Tin ears, nothing compares to analog because it’s analog; the air is not removed in the recording process, so space is still perceptible, unlike digital.

  15. Interesting article. I grew up in the 70s listening to vinyl and still have my vinyl and I still think it’s superior to CD. CD for sure is better than MP3 and streaming due to compression and is no comparison to a vinyl record. CD audio is compressed in comparison to vinyl that was originally recorded in analog. It’s more apparent if you listen to an album original released on vinyl verses re-released on CD.

    Having said that i’ve released my own work with DiscMaker CD and been very satisfied as has my clients that I’ve produced and recorded in my studio.

  16. Thank you so much for everything, l always thought CDs were the best sound quality and still do. I did my music project with Discmakers and was very satisfied looking forward to working with you on all my projects.

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