“Beginner’s talk: why CD quality still matters” – a post penned by yours truly last July on the ongoing relevance of Redbook (16bit/44.1kHz) audio. With the right hardware – not Bluetooth monoboxes – the audible difference between a song played from a lossless streaming service like Tidal Hifi or Deezer Elite and that same song streamed from a lossy provider like Spotify or Pandora is small but unassailable. Ditto when comparing a CD ripped to MP3 or AAC vs. a CD ripped to Apple Lossless or FLAC.
The music fan chasing better quality playback through lossless sources has options: 1) subscribe to an enormous supply of content stored in the cloud (see Tidal, Deezer or Qobuz); or 2) purchase the CD and rip it to a hard drive.
But how stable are these options? In the yesteryears of physical formats, once purchased, a record or tape was yours to keep for as long as you chose. Ditto CDs.
A streaming service provides us with rented access to a online library, the supply of which is beyond our control.
Occupying the digital netherworld are CD rips. Their longevity might only run in lockstep with hard-drive lifespans but such rips represent a security blanket for listeners who don’t fully trust in the ongoing nature of cloud supply.
And who can blame them: Qobuz almost went belly up a few months back and Tidal’s purchase by Jay-Z has seen its marketing aim shift away from the marginal world of audiophiles and toward more mainstream concerns. Exclusives from top-tier artists are far more likely to bring the subscriber-base expansion needed by the Norwegian company to be seen as a serious rival to Spotify and Apple Music than any audiophile-centric technicality.
In the mainstream playground of music streaming each future subscription hinges more on a service’s UX than it does audio quality. Audiophiles need Tidal more than Tidal needs audiophiles.
Set against the topsy-turvy world of lossless streaming provision, the humble CD still matters to some.
Vinyl aside, millennials’ contempt for the five inch disc isn’t just a sign of this generation’s prerogative to push back against that which preceded it. Like millennials’ renewed interest in vinyl – “it’s warm”, “it’s tangible” – young’uns’ rejection of CDs could just as easily be the forwarding of received wisdom: CDs are inconvenient, environmentally toxic and deeply uncool.
Vinyl is inconvenient too but sufficient time has passed for the big black disk to complete the circle from new to old to new again. No such luck befalls the CD. Yet.
For many audiophiles, the solution to the mainstream’s waning interest in sound quality is message propagation. If only the they knew what they were missing. “We need to spread the word…”, they claim, “…about hi-res audio”.
The problem with this message should be obvious: you don’t teach someone how to run before they can walk. The leap from MP3 to 24/192 is too large to make in one step just as the move away from junk food doesn’t necessitate diving straight into macrobiotics.
Neil Young has already been down this path – and failed – with Pono. Not only did he (rightfully) sing the praises of the Ayre Acoustics’ designed Toblerone but he doubled down: the future of audio was with hi-res audio. At US$25 per album. From the Pono Music store.
You probably know what happened next.
The inconvenient truth that couldn’t be dodged by those foisting their hi-res agenda onto the mainstream listener accustomed to multi-million song access from his/her smartphone is this: a 24/96 might well sound better than a 16/44.1 but only a tiny fraction number of all albums released each week arrive in hi-res formats.
If spotty availability wasn’t enough, the sound quality argument failed to withstand hi-res audio’s questionable financials. Ignore the need for a second device for one moment. What motivation for the consumer to go hi-res when a single album costs as much as two months’ Spotify? And would newcomers starting out with super cheap headphones really feel the benefit, especially when the message coming from mainstream tech journalists was that there was no difference?
Absent almost entirely from the conversation between audiophiles like Neil Young and Joe Public is the importance of Redbook. It’s the stepping stone to hi-res. (An irony that doubles back on itself when noting how many 16bit/44.1kHz encodes populate the Pono Music store).
The limited hi-res download catalogue is dwarfed by present Redbook supply. An album playable on Spotify but missing from Tidal Hifi’s catalogue isn’t a technological glitch but a licensing issue.
Now our attention turns away from demand for lossless audio and towards its supply. In case you’ve not noticed, the CD is in trouble.
The shiny silver disc that revived the music industry in the nineties and spawned its downfall in the noughties is under serious threat. The CD might not be dead yet but it’s almost certainly on life support. Demand is down. Way down. CD sales in the first half of 2015 dropped by a whopping 31% in the USA alone. Streaming service revenue on the other hand was up 25% in 2015.
Today, the CD took another shotgun wound to the leg. Kanye West announced in a series of tweets that he’s done with releasing music on CD. Whether this is yet another attempt by West to funnel fans into a Tidal subscription, the only legal way one can hear The Life of Pablo, is beside the point. Beside the point also is West’s financial stake in Tidal.
Whatever you think of the man, his music or his Twitter rants, Kanye West is one of the most popular artists of his generation. He has the power to start trends, to influence behaviour. When Kanye West says “No more CDs from me”, you can bet other artists, their management and host labels will be paying strict attention.
To the mainstream listener quite happy with the quality of Spotify’s or Pandora’s lossy encodes, West’s Twitter rant will be read with a roll of the eyes and “like duh”; only old men listen to CDs nowadays.
For (old men) audiophiles the implications are far more troubling. On other artists following Kanye West’s anti-CD lead, it’s not a matter of if but when. And without a CD release landing in-store for purchase and ripping, control of lossless audio supply is moved from the consumer and into the hands of companies like Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer.
And unless hi-res releases step in to fill the gap left by an absence of CD, Bandcamp download or lossless stream, we’re left with Spotify or Apple Music et al’s lossy encode.
Should we therefore not be dialling down the volume on talk of hi-res in favour of shouting about the importance of CDs before it’s too late and audio nerds find themselves alongside mainstreamers, facing the music together, delivered by lossy compression?