On a digital download’s lack of soul

  • Digital downloads. There’s no high street store to visit, no racks to browse, no store clerk to give advice and make recommendations. We add to cart, enter our credit card details and watch our purchases fly virtually from cloud to hard drive.

    Once landed, we might edit each FLAC/ALAC file’s tags with mp3tag and/or add cover art with Bliss. We then drag n’ drop the folder into our library for Roon, iTunes or Audirvana+ to pick up as a new addition.

    We do all of this without leaving the house. Some of us might not even leave the chair we’re sitting in. It’s a lonely business – there’s no need to interact with anyone: no store clerk, no FedEx driver, no postal worker – nobody.

    An entire digital audio library can be contained on a device the size of house brick (often smaller). That’s a boon for mobility but it fails to satisfy our need as music fans to collect stuff.

    CDs strike the middle ground and yet the shiny silver disc barely rates a mention in the mainstream press’s coverage of contemporary music formats where, all too often, a lossy iTunes downloads or Spotify stream is pitted against the uber authentic cool factor of a vinyl record.

    The CD returns us to the record store. It gives us something to take home and rip to a hard drive before being filed as part of a larger collection. A CD can often be snagged for fewer dollars than the equivalent lossless download, all the while keeping our inner collector active and engaged.

    Elsewhere, digital downloads are slowly killing our inner collector. Little wonder long-time digital audiophiles like myself now look to vinyl in order to fill our homes with objects that reflect who we are.

    Does each music format’s popularity somehow reflect the Western world’s re-distribution of wealth. The one-percenters gorge on all they can eat vinyl whilst the common man must subsist on a diet of instant streaming. Like the middle class of the USA, the CD is slowly being forced from land it has occupied for 30+ years.

    With the CD banished to the margins, we’re left with a digital audio world that reframes the art/fun/challenge of collecting music as nothing more than a data management process where expansion and/or back-ups require us to simply buy another hard-drive. What could be more soulless than that?

    John Darko

    Written by John 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. I’ve never once bought a download, all cd’s and vinyl for me. Cd’s are, IMO, the best value in music today. Downloads must be like photos on a computer; we’ve got 1000’s of them but we never see them.

    2. I LOVE digital downloads, especially the higher definition. But now the internet police have made it IMPOSSIBLE even using private ISP or Ghost VPN or whatever. So it is impossible for Aussies to get downloads….if anyone knows how…??? I am happy to pay, but I am not even allowed to pay

      • Murfie is a good way to get FLACs of old CDs. HDtracks and Linn for hi-res. NativeDSD for DSD. Tidal for streaming.

    3. Love the Lovely Recordings posted every week on Audiostream – Michael did us a huge favor. It’s often a good read how folks associate with music and what they like. Often found music that is interesting, engaging and great sounding. Tidal works out very well here and it’s a joy to discover new music all the time. Having purchased thousands of records, thousands of CD’s and hundreds of hi-res downloads I simply get most kicks with new discoveries. Sometimes new music finds its way into a shopping cart but not as much anymore. The collector became wayfarer and its all for better. It’s not a bad thing to have an entire library on couple of 4TB hard drives that can travel with…and new music on temporary download from Tidal…Cheers!

    4. John,
      You’re right. Nothing compares to the saturdayafternoonvisits of the record stores in the days I selected I bought my music on vinyl, later CD’s. One vinylalbum at the time, sometimes two, when I spared a bit more money. Traveling 30, 40 km with train or car for this ritual was no problem at all. The week after I listened and discovered my new music from the first to the last note, day after day. From almost every always carefully stored 12″ slab of vinyl I remember the moment it made part of my music collection, when I put it again under the Needle to enjoy a new listen…

      Later I bought CD’s from Amazon and other virtual shops and later highres or at least lossless downloads. No problem for me, after all it’s the music that counts. But the things I mentioned above will never come back. That extra spark is gone forever.

      A little shine of it returned with the arrival of Roon. First I thought I didn’t need a another streamingformat. My Auralic and Aurender streamers have nice app’s. But when I gived Roon a try, there was no way back. For the first time I get a bit back of the good feeling nice album artwork packed with the music I love can give. Specialy with vinyl. The future of music listening seems not all black and cold…

      So, now here is a new Sunday all before me. Let’s make coffey an play some nice music. I will start with Chet today… Happy Sunday!

    5. For every 1000 digital pictures you have on your hard drive, I suggest you find the time to print on paper the 36 that are most valuable to you….but what would be the audiophile equivalent of “printing” when referred to our download? Maybe the vinyl could be just that…

    6. What a wonderful piece it’s a true and sad fact that music is going down the route of theclikes of facebook.

      Im a vivid lover of vinyls and IMO are the best medium to enjoy your collection. Better quality, more emotional involvement and much more over digital and cds.

      But it’s great to see that vinyl is making a come back with some very good artist using all mediums.

      I live in hope.

    7. Ditto Angelo, Vinyl and CDs, which can now be picked up at a Pawn shop near you for $0.77usd each. Downloads? Sacrifice my precious bandwidth for something at silly prices that i don’t actually get to own; get real.

    8. Still an old-timer I have over 1300 CD’s and buy them if I can find what I like ! Digital download is justified when you cannot find the CD’s you want or to expensive to ship by air ! (As I have to do)
      I do miss the old days when I worked in Singapore in 1998 seating on my day off at my favorite CD store and browsing /listening to many CD’s with a fine cappuccino and talked to other people in the store about music . Downloads can be lonely and somehow missing the fun of old days ! One can only hope the CD will stay life as LP did .Just came back from my vacation in Germany and still could find (“surprisingly”) quit a few CD stores in my home town !

    9. For me it’s only about the music. No nice tags. No collecting. Just enjoying the tunes. I’m on my way back from Holland where one of my mates has walls full of vinyl and CD’s. I love it but it does take up a lot of space and time. Time that could be spent listening.

    10. As far as I am concerned, digital downloads could be the best thing ever for collecting my hi-rez music. I would love to forgo piling up useless discs (both CDs and vinyls) and do without wasting time for ripping and constant cleaning of LPs – not to mention saving some coin on useless pieces of audio equipment.

      However, the companies selling digital downloads never learned how to attractively and efficiently do that over Internet. Their music catalog websites are boring, lifeless and lacking in every other way. Their downloads are too expensive. Qobuz is the closest one to defining the new business model, but still – they have a lot to learn.

      Sadly, hi-rez music download business is taking a second-rate position behind streaming business. Nevertheless, I am a happy owner of almost 400 GB of hi-rez music downloads (and slowly growing)…

    11. For years I thought I was cutting edge with my collection of digital files, super cool Squeezebox/DAC, minimalist Naim system and having moved on from physical media (vinyl and CDs). Yet this week a work buddy, who’s also a music lover, made me feel like an obsolete ”hoarder” of gear and files telling me all he needs is a yearly subscription with possibly a Mu-So or similar one box solution.

    12. I guess it’s soulless. But it’s so damned convenient, and plus it sounds great when done properly. My major drawback is the backup copy “2 is 1 and 1 is none” policy. I end up backing stuff up about once a month because I’m paranoid of losing a bunch of material.

    13. A decent front end to play ripped CD’s or high rez downloads to external DAC can be had for about $1200 counting renderer and NAS. I don’t think I could get a CD transport approaching that level of performance for less than $3k plus like vinyl I’d have to jump up every time I wanted to play a different recording. I truly don’t miss the buying experience of flipping through store shelves trying to find a disc based on a stores arbitrary idea of what filing category a CD belonged in

      • I did my time with vinyl and, yes, buying a new disc was so exciting; browsing the racks in Virgin Records on Rose Street in Edinburgh as a teenager, made the perfect Saturday afternoon….but that was then.
        I love digital downloads and ripping stuff into the computer. In terms of ease of use and SQ, there is simply no comparison. I mean it is about the music, isn’t it…?

    14. Yes I do miss, when I lived in Boston, those trips to Newbury Comics browsing their large Indie section, going next door afterwards for coffee and trying to open my new haul of CD’s and vinyl just for the fun of opening – you’d think they’d have figured out a better way to open new CD’s by now. I still love browsing in Disk Union or Piccadilly Records in Manchester (UK – great website for finding new music btw.) But we live in a golden age of music discovery, even if the collecting part is less…tactile. Without downloads there’d be no streaming and I’m not just talking about Tidal. Spotify and for me, living in China; QQ music & Xiami, have huge, amazingly up to date catalogs. The joy of finding a new band you like is so so much easier. Although I fondly look back on the old days, was it really as much fun as I remember? How many of those new CD’s I bought on my Saturday jaunts were rubbish? Those days are gone, new music discovery is now simply a matter of how much effort you can afford to put in.

      • Wow is Piccadilly Records still going David? Many student afternoons were spent there… Along came punk and blew the lid off, then I had a 10 year respite from long winded concept albums.. 🙂

    15. As many here I too have fond memories of hanging out at the record shop after school or on weekends. Where I lived it was Phantasmagoria and the Record Cave for rock and Sam the Record Man for jazz, blues, etc.
      But that was then and this is now. I was much younger and I doubt I’d still have the time or the will to spend hrs on end hanging out listening to music in an altered state of mind.

    16. I was born in 1951 and recall the wonder of listening to the radio and hearing the great music of the ’60s coming from a 2-inch mono speaker. I loved it and was thrilled when a song I loved suddenly came on the radio. I now have a Bluesound Node lashed to a Devialet amp and subscribe to Spotify and Tidal. I have more musical choices than ever before and can be gratified instantly with sound quality I could only have dreamed of in my youth. But somehow, the magic of spontaneous music is gone. I am spoiled. I guess the answer is to put on a curated playlist sourced against my preferences and resist the urge to press “next” when I am too eager for my next fix!

    17. Much food for thought John from your post. Soullessness is the challenge of our time as technology brings so much to our finger tips but also makes it much easier to be isolated and absorbed. For me music is for sharing. I’m tempted but not going back to vinyl as the cost to match my digital gear would be way too much. Streaming (hi res) is such a great addition to the mix and with Roon the magic is back. Hi res downloads are too expensive, its business model thats going to kill itself in my my opinion. I also love browsing in second hand shops too for CD gems plus listening to live music and discovering new talents at venues like the Vortex in London – so many new young talents coming up that don’t show up anywhere else. I do wonder where we will be in 10 years, I hope the rich mix of choices continues…

    18. I’m anti-social and don’t like clutter.

      I’ve never been happier. The whole world can kiss my arse.

    19. Am I alone in finding the hard drive in the photo above a thing of awe and beauty?
      You can’t even see the grooves!!!

    20. I for one think the new model of browsing online and downloading is fantastic — I would be sad to go back to having to go to a store to do that. I’m convinced I find way more diverse music and actually purchase it by listening through Bandcamp or Spotify and then buying the highest resolution I can find (Bandcamp or Qobuz mostly, but I use other sites for more obscure titles when necessary). Truth be told, I would not buy nearly as much music as I do now were it not for these tools, and I would not listen to as much of my music were I obligated to go fetch a physical disk/disc, pop it into or onto a player, and cue it up.

      I not only appreciate the convenience but the reduction in stuff that fills my home and in waste that fills, well, landfills. In many ways, my musical life feels richer and yet less encumbered because of my acquisition habits.

      As far as the social aspect is concerned, I get my fix by sharing music with my husband and friends and by going to shows. I don’t feel that that part is by any means diminished.

      All that said, I can understand John’s perspective. While the analogy might be imperfect, I feel the same sense of isolation today when I go to a cafe. Almost everyone is on a computer or mobile device, and a good number of those people have their ears plugged in to music on their devices. We might all be occupying the same space, but we’re not really together in a social setting. In that scenario, I get what I want — a beverage and an excursion out of the house — but the social aspect has been diminished to a mere shadow of what it should be.

    21. Only problem for me is that the best pricing on CD’s is usually had through Amazon.
      Back to sitting in front of a computer with credit card in tow.

      Still from a collector standpoint, I love my CD collection.

    22. I don’t think digital music is soulless at all. It’s the same music.

      I nostalgically remember searching for CDs in stores. That was fun but limiting. Now I discover so much more new music online. With Tidal, it sounds great + I’m googling the artist and reading about them while listening. How exciting. For me, that’s real progress and far better than just reading the CD / record sleeve.

      The social side comes from sharing songs and albums with your friends on Facebook etc and chatting about these new and old musical discoveries. Or if you have a dinner party, everyone can select and play a song from Tidal and laugh at how crap everyone’s musical taste is. Great fun and something you just can’t do as well with physical media.

      Digital audio … Best thing ever!

      • I strongly agree, Dave; acquiring my first iPod many years ago totally rekindled my love for music. Until then, I had almost stopped listening to music other than the radio and rarely bought a CD.
        Suddenly, millions of songs were available with no more than a left click of a mouse and I was discovering music I would never have known existed because I could sample album after album on iTunes.
        I had to chuckle the other day when my friends 15 year old daughter looked me in the eye and told me how much ‘warmer’ vinyl was. I opened my mouth to respond and then thought better of it; what could a 50-something possibly tell a teenager…?

    23. For Collector, change to the word Hoarder. Stacks of LP’s in mouldering cardboard covers; shelves full of cracked plastic CD cases; perhaps even walls lined with yellowing, decayed books. All of this dusty crap stacked so tight you can’t even see the covers and have to squint at some miniscule printing on the edge to determine what they are. Give me a full hard drive and ebook anyday. I’ll fill the space on my walls with gorgeous artwork and let my house breathe.

    24. I had my time browsing racks of LPs in the late 60s. Years later, my wife and I hit the sales at Tower records with our shopping lists. The trouble was that no record had many of the records we wanted to buy. The more we owned, the less productive browsing racks in a store was. I can usually find what I want to buy on Amazon even if it has been out of print for years. If I can buy it cheaper as a download and get it immediately, so much the better.

      My music collection has been on a hard drive for over 10 years. I don’t miss “the good old days” when it comes to buying recorded music.

    25. RE: “The CD returns us to the record store. It gives us something to take home and rip to a hard drive before being filed as part of a larger collection.”

      Have you guys heard of AMAZON? And possibly other vendors where you can listen to an MP3 version of the CD before buying – and hear, more or less, with a good desktop DAC and cans, what you will get in the plastic box?

      Better than the store where you can’t. And an advantage: Amazon curates its CDs with suggestions for other artists in the genre. I found countless new music doing it.

    26. I listen to a lot of Indian music, which is never released on vinyl. Investing in vinyl makes no sense to me (and I speak for myself only)

    On vinyl’s inconvenience and expense

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