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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20 thoughts on “CDs just sound better

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!!!

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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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