Kanye West calls it: the CD’s days are numbered

  • “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?

    Be afraid.


    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. MQA man will save us…. or turn us into Kim Kardashian’s retirement plan…

      Ha, Audiophiles put North West through college… There’s a sentence you never thought you’d hear…

    2. All things considered, I still think the humble CD is the best value for money music transport based on the following:
      1) More versatile than the other physical format, vinyl. I don’t know about others but I can’t really get to know an album through plays on the turntable. Other housemates just don’t want to hear something 20 times in a row. I have to get acquainted with new music purchases in the car, on the DAP and laptop (from CD rips). 2) They sound good. Ok, vinyl is better but CD still trumps mp3 and I can’t tell the difference between CD and Hi-res. 3) They’re cheap. Most are a fraction of the cost of vinyl and many titles are cheaper than a lossy Itunes download. 4) They’re a physical product. You can read the lyrics from the booklet and show off your collection to someone who cares. 5) Make a good backup. Even if you listen to your music through a music server you can rip your CDs and store them in paper sleaves in the shed in case your hard drive gives up the ghost. Granted, the reasons above are from someone who fits an older demographic and still likes to own rather than rent the music they listen to.

    3. The real issue here is ownership: Will there be a world where you no longer get to own your music, but rather rent it through some kind of subscription model?

    4. John, I’m sorry to say it, but trying to save the CD at this point reeks of “old man yells at cloud.” What good is a CD when you can no longer play it in anything? When the computing world is largely made up of MacBook Airs and Surface Books and tablets, what good is a CD? Oh you need to use your other computer, the old one in the basement that sort of works and still has a CD drive in it, to rip the CD to FLAC or ALAC so you can then listen to it in all of the devices you actually USE day to day, none of which have CD drives. There are also already cars on the market without CD players, and by the end of the 2020s, I suspect the majority of new cars won’t have them.

      It’s time to let go of a format created in the 1970s, that wastes an absolutely enormous amount of space to hold all of 700MB. In an age of terabyte MicroSD cards, that’s ludicrous. A simple “buy lossless” option from Amazon or Apple completely solves the problem. Instead of wasting time and energy pressing and shipping CDs to stores, shipping them to your house, and then ripping them on the old Pentium in the basement, wouldn’t it be A LOT easier to just click a mouse button on your music store of choice to buy whatever album you want in a lossless container format?

      What makes vinyl fundamentally different from CD is not that its “like, really old and stuff.” Vinyl is cool because it has inherent worth. Owning a 1 of 100 pressing actually means something. Who cares if you own a 1 of 100 or even a 1 of 10 CD, when anybody can instantly create a perfect 1:1 copy with a $20 CD burner?

      I remember trying to sell my CD copy of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Purple” in the late ’90s at my local record shop when I got tired of it. They wouldn’t even give me a dollar for it, they didn’t want it. Today, a ’94 LP of Purple is worth about $50 if it’s in good shape. Meanwhile, there’s loads of CDs of the album for sale for $1, and somebody will be lucky to get even that for it. Why buy it at all? If you care about the sound, and ownership, and having something in your hands, the vinyl is a FAR better choice than the CD. If you don’t, I’m sure it’s on Spotify, or Youtube for that matter.

      For me, if the CD release has the same garbage DR5 mastering as the lossy iTunes verison, I really could care less about having a lossless 16/44 option. Any extra fidelity gained by going lossless was already lost at the mastering stage. If you want consumers to care about lossless and high-res, maybe somebody should start making albums that sound good again for a start?

      The Life Of Pablo has absolutely terrible production, so ultimately, who really cares what format it comes in? “Famous” comes in at a lovely DR3, with -5.35 dB RMS volume. You could release that in 32-bit, 384kHz DXD, or Quad Rate DSD, or whatever stupid and pointless ultra HD format you want, it will not sound good, no matter what.

      • Dave – sure, cloud’s are there for the yelling at but that ain’t me here. I’m not getting sentimental for the silver disc and neither is TLOP my bag, hot or not. My worry is that we’re on the cusp of a significant change: 1) a move to a world in which the supply of LOSSLESS audio will no longer be a given and 2) that much of the audio world is so darn pre-occupied with the FAR narrower catalogue of hi-res formats that they won’t notice the slow erosion of the audiophile arena’s ground floor: 16/44.1.

        “A simple “buy lossless” option from Amazon or Apple completely solves the problem.” <--- where is this? I've not seen it. That would indeed solve the problem...IF it existed.Furthermore, you might not see/hear value in an album compressed to DR5 and released in a lossless format but it doesn't necessarily follow that people like me should not. The option of a lossless version might be irrelevant to those sensitive to dynamically compressed masters but its absence does affect those who are not.

        • I agree that if the CD goes it may well take lossless 16/44 with it… provided that stores like Amazon and Apple don’t step in and provide that option. So rather than fight a clearly unwinable battle to try to save a format that frankly is already well past its expiration date (remember that SACD and/or DVD-A were supposed to kill off the CD some 15 years ago) why not instead push Amazon and Apple to step in and offer lossless downloads, something that could easily happen if there’s demand for it?

          For me, when you start getting into DR5 and below, pretty much any musical enjoyment just goes out the window. For example, I own the new triple album from Swallow The Sun on both CD and vinyl. The lossless DR5 CD version sounds like garbage. It’s so bad that I just want to turn it off after a few songs. Compressing it from lossless 16/44 down to 320kbit MP3 might make it a tiny bit worse, but honestly I doubt I could even tell, as the starting point is already so terrible. The fully dynamic vinyl version on the other hand sounds fantastic, and I want to turn it up and enjoy all of it. My 24/96 needle drop of the vinyl still sounds great. If I dither that down to 16/44 using a resampler, it still sounds great. And guess what? If I then take that 16/44, and compress it to 320 MP3 (horror of horrors) yep, still sounds great. Maybe not quite as good as the 24/96 drop, but far, FAR more enjoyable than the lossless 16/44 CD.

          A big part of the problem with stores like Pono (aside from the ridiculous album pricing and general lack of actual high-res material in any significant quantity) is how incredibly disingenuous the marketing is. Young and others repeatedly tout the claim that MP3 removes “90%” of the information. No it doesn’t, that’s absurd. If MP3 removed “90%” of the sound, there would not be AES studies showing people unable to distinguish the difference between 16/44 lossless and 320 MP3. A difference does exist, and I’m sure plenty of people including yourself can hear it. But for the vast majority of listeners who listen on their phones, laptops, or basic car stereos, it’s just not going to matter all that much.

          Dynamics on the other hand matters to everyone. There’s been a systematic effort to destroy fidelity through volume over the past 20 years, and I never fail to be astonished that so many so called “audiophiles” simply throw up their hands and accept DR5 as “the new normal” while simultaneously whining and moaning “oh, MP3, why must you hurt the music I love so dearly.” If given the choice between a DR5 recording in 24/192, or a DR10 version of that recording in 320 or even 256 MP3, I’ll take the MP3 every time.

          • Good point about MP3 and Pono. Remember at the Pono Player’s launch when NY referred to listening to CD as like listening underwater? Ugh.

            However, does the average mainstream consumer know about DR? And if he did, would he care? Is a single message not easier to communicate? Is it not the case that when audiophiles start discussing the complexity of the broader issues (e.g. DR, HRA), he tunes out? Would it not be better to make him care about lossless audio supply first and DR after that? After all, the consumer has some control over the former – he can buy CDs, opt for Deezer Elite – but very little over the latter, especially when DR is seen in some quarters as an ‘artistic decision’. If DR should prevail as the headline, how does one influence the work of the mastering engineers? And assuming we can bring some correction to trend toward hot masters, how to unlock their true potential if/when Redbook is no more and HRA encoding only touches a tiny fraction of new releases?

            • You make an interesting point John, though I could respond by asking if the average mainstream consumer knows that uncompressed CDDA files on CD and MP3s purchased from iTunes or Amazon are different. I’m just not sure that the typical person really understands that there’s any difference there at all, much less that they are potentially losing fidelity when choosing the MP3 option over CD or FLAC when given the choice.

              I would also say that while the average consumer may not (yet) grasp what DR is, the average *music fan* is really starting to get it. Look at the tremendous backlash to Death Magnetic. Or more recently, look at the response to the “Audiophile” version of Nine Inch Nails’ Hesitation Marks. The engineers there tried to pull the wool over the eyes of NIN fans by releasing a pointless secondary junk master that had just as much dynamic squashing and nearly as much clipping as the CD release, and people were having *none of it.* We covered it on Metal-Fi, the response was brutal. Loads of regular folks on the NIN forums were furious.

              To me, comparing the damage done to fidelity by compressing from lossless 16/44 to 320 MP3 vs. the damage done by compressing a DR10 studio mix down to a DR5 final master is like comparing a paper cut to being shot by a cannon. Paper cuts are annoying, sure, but cannon ball wounds are a little bit worse.

              I say let’s work on getting the cannons to stop firing first, and then maybe we’ll move on to paper cuts. It’s true that consumers have little control over DR, and the politics around this issue are tricky. But little control is not the same as no control. Metallica may be well beyond reach (and by most accounts they seem to LIKE the way Death Magnetic sounds) but most bands are not multi-millionaires who care less what their fans think, and it’s FAR easier to get in contact with bands than it ever has been before. Fans should reach out, tweet at them or contact them via Facebook, email, whatever, and request that their next album feature reasonable volume levels.

              I’ll give you an example of this working in practice: the most recent album from the band While Heaven Wept. This is a band that has been around for a quarter century, and is on a major label which can create its own set of problems in terms of being “allowed” by the label to release a dynamic album. Prior WHW albums had typical Loudness War volume levels, not because of anything malicious, just because the band would be listening to other dynamically slammed albums while they were working on theirs, and then would engineer their albums to be comparable. This is the feedback loop that has allowed the problem to keep festering for so long. But then this happened:

              “Over the last few years, we’ve had some audiophiles reaching out to us regarding the “loudness wars”, so we were very much committed to delivering an album with a wide dynamic range, with very little peak reduction or compression…insuring it was as dynamic and organic as possible versus being Pro-Tooled to death or overtly compressed/limited for loudness…not unlike our labelmates SATYRICON, who definitely impacted our approach to Suspended At Aphelion…so you may have to turn it up compared to “X album” from 2014, but we feel like this epic journey is even more gratifying because of this.”

              It worked. People got in touch with them, pleaded for more dynamics, and the band listened, and their latest album sounds GREAT. Anybody can do that, it’s really not that hard. A lot of bands honestly don’t know that people would prefer to listen to more dynamic music. Rather than make the passive choice of picking the lesser of two evils (a dynamically smashed but lossless version instead of a similarly smashed but lossy version) why not make the active choice to get involved?

              The way certain things are done today are just not going to go back to how they were done before. Bands are not going to record by having everybody together in a room playing and just letting the tapes roll, mistakes and all, and I think we’ve probably lost something because of that. However, I think we CAN go back to the way it was prior to around 1993, when DR10+ was the norm, whether it was Metallica or Madonna. We just have to demand it.

    5. I completely agree John, if you listen to music (and not your hifi) the demise of CD is worrying. But to the average consumer, listening via bog standard bluetooth box or apple earbuds it doesn’t matter a toss. The hifi “business” and I use that word loosely, needs to acts like a industry, work together, and take new customer acquisition seriously. Surely it’s about convincing potential customers, they’ll get far more musical enjoyment from something other than mp3’s, make it trendy to have better headphones and a good small system. Get behind, help sponsor etc., venues where the target customer can listen to better sounding music, run by people who are of the same age and musical tastes – well at least the latter. Case in point, there is a great store/coffee shop near Fudan University in Shanghai where I live They let customers listen to a range of stuff at their own pace, mainly headphones from good, affordable up to JH Audio, 1964Ears etc. They also carry a small range of systems, there is usually an AudioEngine/Aries mini system playing. Listen to music in a relaxed environment, no sales pressure from knowledgeable people of the same age group, buy an affordable coffee, free wifi and even a guy who comes by to make impressions for CIEM. There are always customers and I’m the only one over 30. I bought my Mojo and Aries there. Surely encouraging this kind of environment with marketing $’s and demo gear is a better way to spend your marketing budget. Perhaps, for some in the industry, thinking about how to get new customers is money better spent than the development and marketing effort that goes into the the latest DSD, MQA whatever, product.

      • I think you make a sound point here David – that access to better hardware can drive demand for better source material. Because without better hardware ready to expose the subtle but important differences, Spotify sounds the same as Deezer Elite.

    6. I don’t see CD’s dying. It is still the best format when considering cost, convenience and sound quality. Vinyl is cooler but more expensive, and tapes are cheaper. or perhaps I am of an age that prefers to own in a physical format opposed to downloading/streaming and I am kidding myself ? if you’re a true music fan then surely you want to have a record (or cd’s or tapes) collection opposed to just lines on a screen or accessing music you love only via a subscription service ? The record companies will push what they can make most money out of so will probably be quite happy to do away with Cd’s (although the punters will fight back!). For the same reason they are pushing hi-res downloads – way over-priced – there should only be a marginal premium over a normal download but there’s a massive difference (and generally what is on offer is old mainstream stuff of no interest anyway – where’s the new music? No, what they want to do is sell you music you already own in a different format!). Similar scenario with the vinyl resurgence. This is being capitalised upon by record companies remastering and reissuing old material in box sets for which they can charge a fortune – hence the resurgence. Ker-ching! You can’t really do that with CD’s or tapes. and just look at what gets released for Record Store Day – lots of old sh**e !! It should change its name to Record Company Day.

      • I don’t think CDs will die out altogether but they will become a marginal concern. Next to streaming, physical format supply is expensive: production, distribution and shop floor space. As for punters fighting back, this is partially the thrust of my argument. Listeners who won’t get out of bed for anything less than Redbook will eventually find lossless audio tricky to source, especially to own, unless the bigger download stores like Amazon and iTunes offer lossless downloads.

        You’re aware that the vinyl resurgence is being driven by the under 25’s?

        • It’s certainly interesting if it’s being driven by under 25’s. They’re the demographic group with no cash, piles of student debt etc whereas vinyl is expensive. If they want to buy vinyl, then to me it says they want to buy something “real” and download/streaming doesn’t do it for them. That gives me hope (they’re fighting back!). I do wonder though if they will still have the appetite once they’ve got a couple of hundred and find out how easy that is to move around!

          • History is littered with the ashes of companies that catered to the fickle tastes of under 25’s, I wouldn’t read too much into their driving the vinyl market. Yes, vinyl is expensive these days, I can’t really stomach the price for a release myself!

    7. IMHO too, it is very important to be honest and say to normal people that Redbook CD quality, in any format, as long as it is uncompressed, is the real deal, when played on a real system.

      Leave it to audiophiles to discuss other options (higher resolutions, different masters) amongst themselves, but don’t confuse the rest of the world.

      Qobuz does sell standard FLAC/ALAC downloads from a very large number of artists at reasonable prices. CD’s are sometimes cheaper but not always.

      For example, I just bought all 8 Kraftwerk albums (2009 remasters) of The Catalogue from Qobuz in 44.1/16 FLAC quality (these sound so good and are super fun, BTW) for EUR 83.51 – cheaper than buying the individual CDs or the box from Amazon.


    8. Stock up!!! Buy Vinyl, CD’s, SACD’s, Master Tapes or whatever floats your boat. There is a catalogue of at least 50 thousand albums that you can buy in flesh. Enough music to satiate even the most hungry + you will have music that is truly outstanding and better recorded. Fans of DARKO: do yourself a favor and seek out demo of a professional reel to reel master tape playback – you will be amazed and you will wonder what have you been missing all these years…:) Without DR5…:) Cheers!!!

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    AURALiC mainman talks Aries, Roon, MQA (kinda)