Yes, I still buy CDs

This week’s poll tackles the subject of music and, more specifically, where you buy it. That got me thinking about my own history, which reaches way back into the land of cassette tapes. Too many years have passed for me to remember the specifics of my first cassettes, and my tastes obviously weren’t that memorable. However, I do recall that my first compact disc was U2’s Rattle and Hum. Some 20 years later, that very same CD sits with a slew of others in my living room. It’s still one of my favorites.

Rattle and Hum was the beginning of a collection that now numbers more than 500 albums. I used to have an insatiable hunger for new releases and would devour at least a couple every month. My appetite for fresh tunes has waned, though, and I’m now down to a few new albums two or three times a year. Rather than chasing new releases, I’m most often filling out my back catalog of oldies. But I keep buying CDs because, well, I just can’t bring myself to spend money on the alternatives.

My buying habits might make a little more sense if I actually owned a CD player. I bought my last one of those while still in high school, and it didn’t last past my first year of university, which marked my introduction to the burgeoning MP3 scene. Coaxial cable was strung from window to window in my freshman dorm, and most of the bits flowing across our impromptu network were these newfangled digital music files. Well, most if it was actually, erm, special video files; the rest was a combination of MP3s and network traffic associated with Doom II and Command and Conquer: Red Alert.

Soon, I had stopped playing CDs entirely, opting instead to rip them and manage playback with my PC. Winamp turned my desktop into a digital jukebox far cooler than any stereo I’d ever seen. Forget multi-disc changers and chintzy graphic equalizers; I now had playlists, skins, and visualization plugins. That was the last of my ghetto blaster, which was useless without the ability to accept input from my SoundBlaster.

Before long, Napster had popularized MP3 sharing on a grander scale than our hacked together dorm network. Intrigued at first, I was quickly disappointed by the inconsistent and generally poor encoding quality of songs available for download. Tracks were often mislabeled or infected with viruses, and full albums weren’t always easy to find. At the time, I also became increasingly uncomfortable with, well, stealing music. I don’t want to get all preachy here, but my listening habits squeeze a lot of replay value out of the music I love. There’s little doubt in my mind that I’ve listened to some albums several hundred times already, and my favorite individual tracks have surely been played into the thousands. In that context, the cost of a CD is pretty trivial.

Led by iTunes, online services started offering music downloads minus the peg leg and eye patch. Unfortunately, they did so with DRM-encrusted files that were a far cry from true CD quality. Online services weren’t necessarily cheaper than buying CDs, either. You could save money keeping up with one-hit wonders, but full albums were a pretty raw deal, so I kept buying real ones.

Like most things, online services improved as competition increased. Proprietary formats and DRM were largely phased out in favor of MP3s, and bit rates climbed upward. These days, the norm seems to be 256kbps, which is twice the bit rate of early MP3s that were overly optimistic in their claim of "CD quality" at 128kbps. Prices have fallen, too. Amazon MP3 offers loads of downloadable albums for $5-8 a pop. Still, I stubbornly buy CDs. You see, Amazon put downward pressure on CD prices long before it tackled the MP3 market. Shipping is often free, and cheap used CDs can be purchased without the hassles associated with eBay.

Honestly, I’d rather pay my usual $10-13 for a CD than $5-8 for an album’s worth of MP3s encoded at 256kbps. You may not be able to hear the difference between the two without a good ear and quality speakers or headphones, but it’s definitely there, and I’m willing to pay a premium for a higher-quality recording—or, perhaps more accurately, I’m unwilling to accept a lower-quality recording—for something I expect to endure for decades. Besides, there are other perks associated with CDs, such as the artwork and liner notes, occasionally novel packaging, and the peace of mind that comes with having a pristine backup tucked away on the shelf. Add it all up, and CDs continue to offer pretty compelling value when compared to downloadable alternatives.

For me to give up compact discs, I’d need to be able to download music in a non-proprietary, lossless format that’s substantially cheaper than the equivalent optical media. Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be an option outside of releases from a handful of artists and smaller labels. The big labels and services don’t appear to be interested in changing their tune, either. I don’t expect them to cater to a minority, though. The vast majority of folks are satisfied with 256kbps MP3s, and there seems to be more interest in subscription services with multi-device streaming options than in lossless encoding. So, I’ll keep buying CDs… just not actually listening to them.

Comments closed
    • barleyguy
    • 9 years ago

    Amazon now sells most of their mp3s in 320 Kbps VBR rather than 256 Kbps CBR. It takes up the same amount of space but sounds slightly better. I can only tell the difference on good headphones, and only on some songs, but it is a little bit better. On speakers, even high end ones, 256 and 320 are hard to tell apart.

    I haven’t bought a physical CD in a couple of years. I think it’s the immediate gratification of mp3s that gets me. Also, I listen to Pandora One several hours a day. I’m thinking of adding Slacker for their mobile cache feature, so I can listen while driving without using wireless data.

    • Richie_G
    • 9 years ago

    I’m still buying vinyl…

    • clone
    • 9 years ago

    haven’t bought a music CD is quite a while… don’t remember the last time.

    don’t pirate music either have outgrown the interest.

    listen mostly to NPR nowadays and enjoy music as it comes, rarely if ever bother to find it on Youtube let alone pay for it.

    • Kreshna Aryaguna Nurzaman
    • 9 years ago

    To me, DRM is still the biggest concern, and that’s why I am still buying compact discs. I want to have my music in a lossless, *[

      • Hrunga Zmuda
      • 9 years ago

      I don’t know where your’e getting your DRM-restricted MP3s and AACs, but mine from Amazon and iTunes are free of DRM.

      That being said, I mostly buy used CDs from Amazon (two this weekend) for all but the most important music, which I buy new. Great quality, easily ripped to high-quality ACC (ACC is the successor to MP3, not a competitor) except for a few that I rip lossles.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 9 years ago

        While he did mention DRM quite a bit he also stipulated lossless. For ‘mainstream’ music there isn’t much if any lossless distribution aside from a few artists like NIN and Radiohead who are already successful enough to flaunt the labels and give away their albums. However there is a lot of non-popular/mainstream/money-making music like classical that is available in DRM-free lossless download format.

          • Kreshna Aryaguna Nurzaman
          • 9 years ago

          Indeed. While lossless, non-DRM distributions exist, it doesn’t deny the fact that lossless formats like AAC and WMA /[

            • MadManOriginal
            • 9 years ago

            I absolutely agree being a CD-buyer myself. At worst I see CDs going to a ‘niche’ format but still being available, although it might mean a lot less new stuff comes out on CD a lot of new stuff is crap anyway so who cares. Not to mention that the used CD market will remain very healthy as long as there are new CDs being made to feed the used market.

      • Taddeusz
      • 9 years ago

      There is no such thing as lossless AAC. AAC is not lossless. I think you’re confusing it with Apple Lossless which is NOT AAC.

    • HammerSandwich
    • 9 years ago

    Let’s forget about what’s audible for a moment and simply examine the storage cost of lossless files.

    Stereo-CD bandwidth is about 600MB per hour, and lossless compression will easily allow 2 hours per GB. Thus, a 1TB drive can hold well over 1500 hours of music.

    That much music will cost over $15,000 at $10 per album or $1 per track. (You could do a lot better with used CDs at $6 each…) Three $50 HDs would provide a reasonable backup strategy and add a storage cost of 1% of the media’s cost.

    1%!

    Keeping an additional copy of compressed files for portable use hardly affects the numbers.

    Compressed downloads have their place, but why wouldn’t I rip to lossless?

      • Zoomer
      • 9 years ago

      Precisely. And you’ll be pleased that it is of the highest quality — real or imagined.

      • glynor
      • 9 years ago

      I completely agree. I rip everything I have on disc to FLAC. If you have the storage space, why not use it?

      As I said in the poll thread… There are legitimate reasons to buy music on disc, many of them intangible. I was simply arguing that in almost all circumstances, audio quality is not one of them.

      That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons, and if you are going to rip the file yourself off of a disc you already have, then certainly, you might as well use a lossless format. But many, many, many people are way far too concerned with the “idea” of having lossless, instead of the reality of the situation.

    • crose
    • 9 years ago

    Bought a lot of CDs between ’96-00 .. now they are just boxed and stored. I use Spotify to stream at 320kps and make my play lists.

    • paulWTAMU
    • 9 years ago

    I can’t tell Amazon’s downloads from CD when listening on my speakers, so I jsut do that. I ripped all my physical CDs using 256 k bitrate a long time ago and can’t the difference there either.
    I haven’t bought a physical CD in years now. The prices are usually a little cheaper for downloads, plus it saves me a step in the process (I don’t have to rip the CD) and it saves me physical storage space–no finding ap lace to hold 100, 200 more CDs that I’ve bought that way.

    • dmjifn
    • 9 years ago

    That sounds pretty much like my music media history and habits, except I was less prolific. I’ve also bought several CDs – usually used – that I’ve never actually played in a CD player.

    I finally delved into Amazon’s MP3 service when I found some “expanded re-releases” of albums I already owned but didn’t want to repurchase. And for interesting covers of cool songs where the rest of that band’s album just isn’t for me.

    I’m on the verge of switching over. As much as I like having the CD (or DVD, or paper book, or boxes for XBox & PC games), I’m also feeling a little overwhelmed by the boxes and shelves of it. I also finally got on Steam and started borrowing books/movies from the library instead of buying.

    Also, I think my desire to collect started dying off when I stopped having friends to share it with. Enjoying music’s an increasingly isolated event for me, so it’s been getting more of a back seat. (Suddenly I feel pretty unhappy about this fact.)

    • dashbarron
    • 9 years ago

    I’m not afraid to admit I’m a pretty big noob when it comes to audio (and video) technical specifications, hardware, etc: KBPS here, encoders there, audiophile gear everywhere, where’s a man to start? Anyone have some good resources with straight facts where I could read-up and trying to further my knowledge on this confusing disarray of audo info?

    • sluggo
    • 9 years ago

    There’s something like 800 albums (vinyl) in my garage that still haven’t been digitally archived. Most are fairly common, but others aren’t. That’s about 550 hours of playing time alone, ignoring the actual archiving and notes.

    Anyone know of a good way to proceed with something like this?

      • elmopuddy
      • 9 years ago

      They do make USB turntables, which would work, otherwise, a standard turntable, then feed the amp’s line out to the line-in of a decent soundcard?

      I have about 60 albums that I’d love to transfer as well.

        • way2strong
        • 9 years ago

        generally the usb turntables have a built in sound card of pretty poor quality. I haven’t done it myself but last time I looked into it it seemed like the way to go was: turntable => amp => sound card. I’m sure you could find good info on the HydrogenAudio forums

      • OneArmedScissor
      • 9 years ago

      Audiophiles have a big bowl of Placeb-Os every morning. The ridiculous irony is that the people who claim to hear a difference in proper MP3s never say a word about clipped mixes.

      I’ve even heard people claim that MP3s ruin death metal, source of the world’s inherently most undynamic mixes. The sound quality was already destroyed before you got it, dingdongs. Gee guys, thanks so much for acting like you care and then letting the music industry walk all over everyone. *double face palm*

      You can just about always get any real album in a better format than something pre-compressed, but good luck finding anything rock-related today that wasn’t obliterated for the sake of an extra 3 dB.

      I’d gladly pay more money for a separate version that is still mastered as is the trend today, but just leaves the clipping out. Compression has its musical applications, but clipping a mix just sucks the life out of it.

    • swaaye
    • 9 years ago

    Digital downloads vs. CDs. It’s the old physicality issue. I’m not really caught up on that aspect though. I don’t necessarily want all of the songs on some CDs so being able to drop $1 for a single tune is desirable sometimes.

    It’s too bad that lossless formats aren’t more popular for digital downloads. I suppose that a lot of players don’t support the various lossless formats so which one would work for sure? Everything can probably play WAV but can you expect your customers to know what to do with large WAV files? Probably not. Won’t mesh very well with those low storage flash players. So MP3 is clearly the safest bet and I can relate to their not wanting to confuse the masses any more than necessary. 🙂

    But I personally don’t really want to pay for what is undeniably damaged audio quality. It’s not archival quality by any stretch. You don’t know how good the quality of it is (what encoder, what settings). So I don’t buy many digital downloads just because of that. I realize that the quality is good enough for most people though and that digital downloads are primarily about simplicity and instant access. But I will prefer CDs until lossless takes over someday.

    • paco
    • 9 years ago

    I pretty much stopped buying music when I stopped “sharing” music online since I was worried about getting sued. It was like a hobby and it kept me intrested in the music but since I just listen to what I have or I can use Pandora now. I would probably get 3-4 CD’s a month but now I’ll only buy once in a while when I see amazon selling an entire album of a band I like for $4 or less so probably twice a year. I was first a member of one of those rip off music companies back when CD’s were rarely under $10 but I later found yourmusic.com when it was $1 cheaper so I got Cd’s for $6 + tax and made sure not for forget about it.

    • OneArmedScissor
    • 9 years ago

    I think buying MP3s for about the same price as CDs is stupid.

    I also think the stigma against MP3s is just as stupid. You really should not be able to tell the difference between formats with /[

      • Taddeusz
      • 9 years ago

      To a point. Despite what I said in my earlier post I can hear audible artifacts in 128kb/s MP3. To the point where it’s not very pleasant for me.

      That being said bitrates across formats are NOT created equal. A 128kb/s AAC is quite a different beast from a 128kb/s MP3. AAC is a more advanced and more efficient compression scheme and packs a lot more quality into less space.

        • OneArmedScissor
        • 9 years ago

        Believe me duder, I’m not arguing that a 128k CBR MP3 isn’t missing something that should have been there. But to judge the MP3 format as a whole as inferior is silly talk. It’s a pretty logical standard to have adopted for portable players.

        As standards go, something tends to come along further down the line that does X ever so slightly better, but there has to be one. It was a blessing that LAME and VBR worked out so well. That’s like going from USB 2.0 to 3.0. Sure, USB itself isn’t absolutely perfect, but damn, that sure makes up the difference. Any incremental improvements other things may have or could make in the future aren’t worth starting over from scratch.

          • Taddeusz
          • 9 years ago

          Just because something has become the “popular standard” doesn’t mean it’s not inferior. AAC is far superior to MP3 in every way. But at the end of the day MP3 wins because it has more momentum from popularity and support. I will however continue to use AAC knowing it is the better format regardless of how advanced MP3 encoders may have become.

    • ratborg
    • 9 years ago

    The biggest problem I have with albums (whether CD or digital) is that usually I only like less than half the songs on the album. Buying singles digitally gives me the flexibility to only buy what I want. When I find a song or artist I like I try to sample the other songs on the album and usually end up buying a couple of other ones that I like. I do wish that it was easier to listen to the full album.
    I do realize that this means that I will occasionally miss some great song that is a deep track. That risk is greatly outweighed by the time and money savings on just getting the songs I want. Digital purchases enable this where CDs do not.

    • Taddeusz
    • 9 years ago

    I used to agree with you. Any more though I buy all my music from iTunes. Most of the time I buy only one or two tracks off an album. Rarely do I ever buy a whole album unless it’s from someone I really enjoy.

    BTW, AAC after they got rid of the DRM is not classified as a proprietary format. It is a standard as part of MPEG 4.

    As far as the quality goes I discovered a long time ago way after I’d purchased my first iPod that I couldn’t tell the difference between the ~192kb/s vbr MP3 files I was creating and the 128kb/s AAC files encoded by iTunes and sold on the iTunes store. iTunes has since moved to 256kb/s files for everyone and I still can’t tell the difference. Even the few Apple Lossless albums I’ve done I really can’t tell the difference. Just not worth my while to worry about something that makes no difference in the actual enjoyment of the music.

    • sfroach
    • 9 years ago

    Purchasing CD is well worth the money for the reasons you mentioned. If we don’t support the CD manufacturing industry we will not have one.
    hdtv-calibration.com

      • bthylafh
      • 9 years ago

      We’re getting signature-link spam in article comments now too? Oy.

    • Waco
    • 9 years ago

    l[

    • MadManOriginal
    • 9 years ago

    This article could have been written by me. Geoff, are you my alter ego?

    • MrBojangles
    • 9 years ago

    I’m with you completely on this.I flat out refuse to pay same price for digital media of any kind as i do for a actual physical copy.The only 2 digital media services i use is the app store for my iphone for obvious reasons, and steam do to there discounts and massive sales.Which is exactly how pricing should be for a distribution service that has no manufacturing,materials, or shipping cost.Yes i do realize bandwidth and server maintenance does cost money, but no where near as much as the overhead involved with manufacturing and shipping a physical copy of the game, movie,or music in question.

      • Suspenders
      • 9 years ago

      Same here, I am in complete agreement.

    • ShadowTiger
    • 9 years ago

    I get all my music from di.fm… until recently you couldnt even buy this stuff from itunes etc, and even today some songs are not available (mostly import stuff)

    That being said, If i did start buying music, I wouldn’t even download the crappy mp3. I would just buy it and immediately go get a flac from the various sources. Same thing I do with games, buy a retail copy and download an ISO for it so I don’t have to deal with DRM and other inconveniences.

    • PeterD
    • 9 years ago

    I still buy cd’s too. And I’m doing the same thing: I buy them, and put the files on my pc.
    But neverthelless I don’t buy mp3’s.
    This is interesting too: “early MP3s that were overly optimistic in their claim of “CD quality” at 128kbps.” -> It’s amazing how much crap there is when it comes to computers. I once couldn’t believe my eyes (well, actually, ears) when somebody showed my his “good quality loudspeakers” he had bought for his pc. It didn’t cost much, that was true, but, my god, it were mere toys! Nobody having a decent hifi installation would ever have considered buying /[

    • orurubabutt
    • 9 years ago

    edit: ohhh this is the blog section, whatever do your thing

      • DrCR
      • 9 years ago

      touch a nerve, eh?

    • DrDillyBar
    • 9 years ago

    I drove across Canada once with Slippery When Wet and a spank’n new Walkman. I was 9.
    Edit: Great taste in music there Diss.

    • Blazex
    • 9 years ago

    the best thing about still going for cd’s is the fact you can use any bit rate/format you care for and not have to worry if it doesn’t work on anything but an ipod without ripping and reconverting…
    i still buy a cd when possible, and save it onto the hard drive so it stays pristine on a shelf, and just encode to ogg or something when i need it for my S9 🙂 which could play flac anyway but thats a good deal of space for it to consume…

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