Here’s why CDs are the best and cheapest alternative to vinyl records

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We’ve heard many sad stories from music fans who sold or gave away their collection of dust-collecting vinyl records in the 90s and 2000s. ‘analog and into new digital pastures, only to now blame themselves for not holding on to their records in order to take full advantage of the recent and ongoing vinyl resurgence.

It’s something – a vicarious lesson, perhaps – that crossed my mind recently when I decided to save my CDs or take them to the local charity shop before a big move. The thought disappeared from my mind almost as quickly as it had come. (Sorry, Mom, those CD boxes are yours for a while yet.)

Earlier this year, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) published a report indicating that CD shipments in the United States increased by 47% in 2021 compared to the previous year (from 31.6 million to 46 .6 million), with revenues increasing from $483.2 million to $584.2 million. This is the first time that CD sales have increased in over 15 years.

Now, that’s still a far cry from the heyday of the CD at the turn of the millennium, when nearly a billion records were shipped in the United States alone. And last year, revenue from CD sales was – surprisingly – only 40% of revenue generated from vinyl records. Heck, according to music data from Luminate, Harry Styles’ album Harry’s House recently sold 219,000 vinyl records (compared to 130,000 CDs and a measly 28,000 digital downloads) in its first week of release! The popularity of vinyl shows no signs of waning.

But nevertheless, CDs are also on an upward trend. Is this the start of a full-fledged comeback? Will the popularity of the CD return, in the same vein as that of vinyl, with the production of hi-fi products CD player, Sony Discmans and more? Maybe not quite. CD playback may not quite have the attachment to exoticism and long-lost anti-digital art that helped spur vinyl’s resurgence.

It can be said that CDs are now part of a growing and fashionable trend for the physical possession of music. And we think, for good reason.

First, the CDs are yours, giving them a nod to music streaming, if not vinyl or downloads. And not only can you play them in a CD player, stereo or in your car (because you can’t play vinyl in your car unless it’s a 1956 Chrysler with a “Highway Hi-Fi” add-on (opens in a new tab)), they can also be easily extracted and stored as digital files – files that, again, belong to you. Vinyl can also be ripped if you have a record player with a USB output, but ripped files (even 24-bit ones) tend to sound less clean and crisp than CD rips (16-bit) from after my experience. You can rip discs to your computer and the files are still there. With streaming services, however, a song can simply disappear due to a change in licensing agreements (much like movies on video services). Annoying.

What certainly separates CDs from vinyl is the price. CDs are relatively cheap. Music streaming services may have made music consumption essentially limitless for the first time, but the ubiquity of new and used CDs in charity shops and online makes them the cheapest way to own music. older versions these days. More so, it is the most affordable form of physical media for new releases, with a new chart release often costing twice as much on vinyl as on CD.

They are also much easier to store than vinyl. Even if you haven’t chosen to rip your CDs to your laptop or NAS drive and hide the cases except for special occasions, the fact is that CDs are called “compact discs” for a reason. I have three times more CDs than vinyl albums and yet it took one box less to transport. And as many of you know, that size difference is much more relevant when it comes to home storage. Although CDs don’t care about scratches any more than records do, at least their plastic casing is extremely easy and inexpensive to replace if they crack or break during storage or handling.

And let’s hear it for the CD booklet, which is a distinct advantage over streaming (where your “added extras” usually start with simple metadata and end with an artist bio) and usually better than the cover material vinyl too – unless you’re buying a special edition record, in which case the size of vinyl and vinyl sleeves can certainly lend themselves to some pretty cool and substantial booklet accessories.

Now here’s where the CD scores another big plus against streaming or downloads: gapless playback – that is to say an album that flows without being interrupted by silences on either side of the “pieces” – is not acquired on streaming platforms. And if, like me, you’re a fan of live albums that sound like live albums (or operas or instrumentals that sound as expected), that might be the biggest sticking point in this article. Some services support gapless – Spotify does, Qobuz can and Roon supports it well, for example – but it’s far from a given on streaming platforms and streamers, and the implementation on those who have it isn’t always transparent anyway. With the CD (and vinyl), it’s right there.

Only five or six years ago the debate over whether streaming, vinyl or CD sounded technically better would have been a victory in favor of disc, but now that more and more streaming services offer lossless and, even better, hi- res quality, the winner is again up for debate. That said, even if you opt for a high-quality level of streaming, the sound quality of the stream still depends on the quality of your internet connection – and of course requires the internet in the first place (although you can download albums for playback offline these days). CD playback quality does not depend on such external factors; its quality is simply more consistent.

As for how CDs measure up to the sound quality of vinyl, well, the two formats sound… different, and ultimately the argument is subjective. Generally speaking (since there are obviously good and bad examples of productions recorded on both formats), vinyl tends to sound distinctly warm and full and…may I say “lively”? While CD has a more cohesive, clean, crisp, and precise presentation, vinyl doesn’t handle extreme treble or bass, or large dynamic ranges as well.

All told, I believe there’s still a lot to love about the glossy compact disc today. CDs can perhaps be considered the middle ground between vinyl and streaming, offering a mix of convenience, quality, and affordability. We think there should still be a lot of life in the CDs. And if you already have a large collection of CDs – even one that’s currently out of service – I’d think twice about getting rid of it. Think of the CD renaissance that could be in full swing by 2031…

AFTER:

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