Life begins at forty? Not for the Compact Disc. The CD format was co-developed by Sony and Philips in 1979 but wasn’t shown to the public until 1982. The format picked up steam throughout the eighties to become the number one mainstream choice by 1990. Twenty-five years later, the CD is the music format equivalent of smoking indoors, its mid-nineties heyday as remote as a Counting Crows b-sides compilation.
CD sales have been in steep decline since 2008, giving way first to downloads and then to the now ubiquitous/dominant streaming services. And yet CD sales rot didn’t arrive with the iTunes store or Spotify’s initially limited territorial reach. It started in the late nineties when computer CD drives learned to write and blanks could be had for one-tenth of the price of retail CDs. Those flip wallets full of burns were the aesthetic nadir of music collecting for this guy.
By the turn of the millennium, anyone with a PC could rip a CD to its hard drive and play the resulting files with Winamp. Two years later we could send those files to an iPod for listening outside the house. Bye-bye CD Walkman. Napster, Audio Galaxy, Kazaa and The Pirate Bay then made the CD irrelevant to anyone with an Internet connection and a will to give copyright law the middle finger.
Going further back, how many remember that were it not for the CD, the cassette would have driven vinyl into its 15-year long niche interest? The cassette had more mainstream appeal. It could go out of doors, into a Walkman or – crucially – into a car. But so could the CD — and with the instant gratification of everytime-accurate track skipping. Classical music fans no longer had to hear quiet passages of their favourite pieces ruined by surface noise. Yes, life has surface noise (mate) but it doesn’t have aneurysm-inducing rotational clicks.
In 2019, it often feels like the conversation about vinyl’s return from the abyss runs faster than actual record sales. Make no mistake: CDs still outsell records roughly 5 to 1 and it will be a while yet before CD sales dip below vinyl’s numbers. In Japan streaming is still in its infancy, physical items are fetishized and the CD continues to dominate.
Upon settling in Berlin some two and a half years ago, PS Audio dispatched a full suite of electronics to get me up and running with music playback. I still remember choking back the guffaw when PR representative Bill Leebens told me that the DirectStream Memory Player (US$5999) had been included in the consignment. Me? CDs? Don’t be ridiculous.
I’m now laughing on the other side of my face and eating crow. Why? Having bought a handful of CDs for ripping to the Innuos Zen MK3 server/streamer, my mind had been prized open. I pulled the protective sticker from the Memory Player’s IEC socket, connected it to the DirectStream DAC using the supplied I2S cable and let her rip with some House of Love, Talking Heads and Nicolas Jaar.
The audible results had me reaching for my Rolodex for confirmation. Would Hegel send me their Mohican CD player (€4595) at the drop of a hat? Indeed they would. What about something more affordable to round out this disc-spinning hardware set? Pro-Ject stepped forth with their diminutive CD Box S2 (€399).
What followed was unexpected, raised to the power of three:
With their tangibility, artwork and playback ritual a scaled down version of vinyl’s (but considerably cheaper at the checkout), I’m coining it here: CDs are Hipster Digital.