Thursday, March 16, 2023

The latest might not always be the greatest after all

Sorry Marty, we still need roads
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.  It was a bizarre combo of grounding ourselves and yet imagining the sky was the limit.  For instance, by the time I was in later elementary school I think most people realized we were not going to be flying back and forth to moon colonies before the end of the century.  Yet the tech revolution was in full swing, and it seemed every year saw some new tech or electronic devise that promised to change our lives forever.  I think by now we're learning our lesson, but I'm not sure. 

Anyhoo, one of those brave new inventions was the Compact Disk.  That's CD for short.  I recall the first time I heard one in college.  I wondered if that was an improvement or not.  The fellow playing the CD assured me that I would be foolish not to see the obvious superiority in this latest new tech compared to dusty, rusty old tapes and records.

Well, we must be getting foolish.  I saw on the news that for the first time since 1987, vinyl records outsold CDs.  I have no doubt part of this is less the rise in vinyl as much as the decline in CDs owing to modern digital music and downloading.  Nonetheless, I find it interesting that vinyl records continue to increase in popularity in our digital age. 

Our family has been amassing a collection of vinyl over the last few years.  Two of my sons are seriously into them - both of them being among the musical ones in the family.  They insist vinyl is far richer and deeper sounding than CDs, which often come off as rather sterile.  I think they're right. I can certainly tell the difference.  It reminds me of digital versus film.  I'm sorry, but the best digital lacks something that traditional film has.  The same is true for vinyl records.  

Of course CDs weren't perfect to begin with.  The original selling point was that CDs, like cockroaches, could survive anything.  Once you have a CD it will last forever, so said the sales pitches.  We know that is far from true.   CDs wear out long before the inevitable scratch makes them useless.  And while only the worst damage can permanently disable a record, one minor scratch is all it takes to make a CD worthless.  Plus as a fellow in a local store put it, he sees records from the 1940s that sound fine, while CDs from the 80s are faded and muffled sounding - and those are the CDs that actually work. 

There were other issues.  For instance, an early  and well known example of CD limitations was the Abby Road album by The Beatles.  The song 'I Want You' famously repeats itself over and over as white noise - usually avoided in recording - builds and builds in the background.  Problem?  CDs eliminated white noise.  Therefore the CD versions of Abby Road have an improvised sound effect to duplicate the white noise.  If you listen to the CD and the album, you can't miss the difference.

But there you have it.  CDs, once part of the great leaps forward in tech and invention, are on their way out.  And the old dinosaurs, those old vinyl records, are making a comeback.  I wonder if there will be other examples of the old latest tech fading away and being replaced by pre-tech preferences.  I'm thinking the rise in boardgames over the years.  Who knows, maybe sitting around the living room and telling stories will become the rage in another few years. 


  1. (Tom New Poster)
    I taught computers many years ago. The CD was an improvement over the floppy disc and was invented as a way to move information between computers in the days of slow modems and before the Internet. It was adapted to music to replace the tapes that had become popular, as more folks wanted their music "on the move". Playing vinyl records requires a large machine and a static setting. You can easily carry and jog or drive with a tape or CD player. Each technology has its use, depending on what you want. What's driving down CDs is not some superiority of the old technology, but merely the development of different ways to share information and have your music "on the move". They weren't created for music, but for dense information storage, at which they remain vastly superior to the vinyl record.

    1. Oh, kudos for the storage space, but you still can't beat that richness that vinyl possesses that is lost on CDs. Not to mention the durability. And since CD players are becoming a thing of the past - the most recent new cars we have no longer include CD players - and are replaced by various digital means of listening to music, they are becoming obsolete. We still have our CDs and I don't mind getting them because in some cases (Carpenter's Christmas album) the storage allows far more than the vinyl. But getting new albums is becoming a thing because, just like film v. digital, you can't miss the quality difference.

    2. What's killing CDs is the same thing that's killing all physical media, the idea "you will own nothing and you will be happy." Now CDs have issues as portable media, so they would have been replaced by something eventually. But it would have been something else if it wasn't a desire to kill ownership. For example, some offshoot of SD cards would be much more convenient for transportation (since it would meet the "can fit in your pocket" standard that cassettes and 8-tracks did.) At the same time the file space would be large enough to put high enough bit-rate files on albums so as to make the sound difference irrelevant to anyone but the most hardcore audiophiles.

      If it was just trading files rather than physical media, then MP3 players and the like would still have a role to play. But MP3 players not only are less common now but the new ones are noticeably inferior in their features to those that came out 10 years ago.

      Some of this can be attributed to the smart phone user, but compare the situation with movies. No one is going to watch all of his movies on the smart phone, he will want to watch things on a big screen with better sound. But physical options are becoming less and less supported. We also should have had a more convenient medium than blu-rays by now, but there has not been any effort to develop such a thing. Instead the push is to have everything delivered by streaming services, where your music/movies/books/etc. can and will be lost at the whim of a corporation. You are not allowed to own anything permanently (and forget about giving away your media!)

      The really bizarre part of all of this is that there is a rebellion against streaming from a subset of the younger people. They are a big part of the crowd buying vinyl, but they really don't know what formats are better than others so they'll go to other media as well. This has led to a spike in cassette tapes sales, of all things. (Cassette tape sales doubled from 2020 to 2021 and have continued to increase since then.) I found out about this when I needed a new tape deck to listen to some old tapes, and surprisingly was able to buy one new in store at Target (in 2022!)


Let me know your thoughts