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:
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.
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.