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Monthly Editorial by Marc Mickelson
June 2003

The Case for CD

I thought it only fair to finish off my series of "The Case for…" editorials with one on CD, which time and buyer approval have proven to be one of the most successful consumer-electronics products ever. Audiophiles and non-audiophiles alike have CD collections that in most cases dwarf all other formats combined, and far more recordings are released on CD today than any other medium. I still buy CDs at a brisk rate, and I've grown to enjoy burning CD-Rs to take to shows and use for demo purposes. And there is an incredible glut of fine-sounding CD-playback equipment available now. If CD players like the Audio Research CD3 or Mark Levinson No.390S would have existed in the early days of CD, not to mention a DAC like the Zanden Model 5000 Mk III, I doubt we would be snickering over the "Perfect Sound Forever" tagline as we have.

But there really isn't much of a case to be made for the CD on purely sonic grounds given the introduction and growth of SACD and DVD-A. There have been attempts at pumping sonic life into the CD format, however. HDCD is still alive, but its use is often not even noted on the outside of a disc's packaging. Audiophile labels Mobile Fidelity and DCC went out of business even in the midst of CD's popularity, and while MoFi has made a comeback, the company is producing only SACDs presently, with plans for vinyl releases, not CDs, in the future.

But the word "remaster" does carry some consumer clout when it appears on a CD. Just look closely the next time you visit a record store at how many CDs are remastered recordings, especially classic jazz titles. And then there's JVC's XRCD series, which as a group are the very best-sounding CDs you can buy. There is no gimmickry at work with XRCDs, just close attention to mastering and production details. If every CD were an XRCD, we'd be thinking very differently about the format right now.

I suppose the only real issue to discuss regarding CDs is how long we will continue to see them. I can only hazard a guess, but in my opinion, it won't be sound quality or multichannel capabilities or any audiophile concerns that push the CD to extinction. It will be computers and the Internet, which offer new methods of music distribution and storage. Yes, I'm talking about MP3 here, but more than this I'm making an observation about the computerization of our society and lives. When I want to find a product, from shoelaces to scratch remover, I go to the Internet first, and more often than not, I not only find exactly what I'm looking for, I find several varieties and prices. The Internet offers more choice, and as society becomes more complex, choice will become more a fabric of our lives. And so it is with our entertainment -- we won't settle for the old paradigms of music stores in malls when we can search for the music we want on the Internet, find it with ease, and download it immediately.

In the short term, the CD will be the preferred storage medium for music, which means PCM or MP3 format. I don't think we'll soon see the raw DSD datastream available for burning on a DVD (you do know that SACDs are DVDs at their core, don't you?). But with our hunger for choice will come a need for more storage space, and the CD just can't compete with DVD here. We'll still be able to buy CDs at Best Buy and the like, but doing so will be pushed from our consciousness because it just doesn't offer as much choice.

Progress is inevitable, and the CD represents the past, not the future. I suspect that in 20 years or so, we'll be having this same discussion about SACD and DVD as well. The next big thing will be on the horizon, and we'll see the merits of embracing it. I only hope that progress doesn't take us away from understanding and appreciating content. After all, the disc only stores whatever is encoded on it.

...Marc Mickelson

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