In Defense of the CD

Attacking the compact disc has lately become almost a blood sport among audiophiles and audio writers. Not a month goes by that I don't read—often in Stereophile—some vehement statement about how CDs are a musical abomination.

The attack is two-pronged. On one flank, the CD is under assault as being vastly inferior to the "about-to-be-introduced" DVD audio format, with its 96kHz sampling rate and 24-bit word length. On the other, CD is charged with offering absolutely no potential for providing musical satisfaction.

The first line of attack—that we should abandon the CD because it's about to be replaced—is factually wrong. Yes, 24-bit digital audio sampled at 96kHz sounds fabulously good. It has an ease, refinement, and resolution that 16-bit, 44.1kHz CDs can't match. But what good is that level of performance if it's limited to expensive professional recorders playing a handful of master tapes? Why must we condemn an existing format purely on the basis of a proposed format that consumers can't buy? I'd love to have 96kHz, 24-bit playback in my home, but I can't.

Neither can you. Everyone talks about the "imminent" introduction of DVD, but the existence of DVD-Video players doesn't imply that a super-high-quality audio format is around the corner. Although DVD movie players and DVD-ROM drives will be available by the time you read this and the DVD-Video specification does include a provision for two channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio data, a standard for an audio-only DVD format with multiple high-resolution audio channels hasn't even been written yet.

I've just returned from a press trip to Tokyo (full report next month) that included a question-and-answer on DVD with Nobuyuki Idei, President and Chief Operating Officer of Sony Corporation. When asked about Sony's plans for a high-quality audio version of DVD, Idei's response was unequivocal: "I don't think there's a need for a new audio format." It doesn't get more explicit than that. And it doesn't come from anyone in a greater position of power and inside knowledge than the President and COO of Sony Corp.

The consumer-electronics giants couldn't care less about a new audio format. They have bigger fish to fry: replacing VHS tape with DVD over the next decade. Moreover, record companies don't want a new format, retailers simply will not accept a dual-inventory scenario, and hardware manufacturers are spending their research and promotional dollars on DVD-Video and DVD-ROM. Their attitude? If the average consumer isn't complaining about CD sound, why make a new format that serves only a tiny niche market?

During my trip I had dinner with Dr. Teruaki Aoki, President of Sony's Computer Peripherals & Components Company. We discussed the technical feasibility of making a dual-layer, audio-only DVD that would play conventional 16-bit audio on the huge base of existing players, yet would also carry a high-resolution audio signal that could be read by newer DVD-based machines. I prefaced my question by bringing up the fact that Sony demonstrated just such a system at the World CD Conference in March 1995.

Dr. Aoki looked almost wistful as he described how that format would have been perfect for a single-inventory, backward-compatible, high-quality audio carrier. And yes, Sony had originally proposed a single-sided format that would have accommodated a dual-use disc. But when Sony agreed to a joint DVD format with Toshiba, that possibility may have been lost forever. Toshiba's insistence on a disc that could be made double-sided killed any chance that DVDs would play on existing CD players—an ironclad requirement for the viability of a high-quality DVD-based audio format (footnote 1).

Dr. Aoki did say that discussions were under way for a DVD-based high-quality audio carrier, but that the specification would not be finalized for at least another year. If the specification won't be written for another year, DVD-Audio won't be a reality for at least two more years—if the hardware and software giants go full speed ahead. Even then, little professional infrastructure is in place for making high-resolution recordings (footnote 2). The sad truth is that the backward-compatibility and single-inventory requirements may mean that it will be another decade before we get a high-quality audio disc based on DVD technology.

The second wave of attack suggests that CDs are musically worthless. This idea is best exemplified by Michael Fremer in his March 1997 "Analog Corner" column. In describing The Disc Doctor's Miracle CD Cleaner, MF wrote that "The miracle there, of course, would be if the fluid could somehow make listening to CDs enjoyable." (MF's italics) This extremist position doesn't take into account the great strides CD sound has made in the last few years.

I don't know about you, but I get a huge amount of musical satisfaction from my CD collection. I listen to and enjoy LPs, but most of my listening is to CD. So much music is available only on CD that to repudiate the format is to ignore a vast trove of musical pleasure. It's just as big a mistake to issue such a blanket condemnation of all CDs as it is to miss out on vinyl's pleasures.

This doesn't mean that I uncritically embrace CD. Digital audio has its problems, particularly the fact that its distortions become inextricably woven into the musical fabric. By contrast, LP's errors (noise and pops) tend to overlay the music rather than become part of its overall texture. Consequently, LP's distortions can be easier to tune out, leaving only the relatively pristine musical tapestry. But in the rush to tout LPs, let's not gloss over their many problems: warp, noise, inner-groove distortion, variability in pressing quality, speed instability, and susceptibility to damage, to name a few.

The recent attacks on CD are just as extreme—and just as wrong—as 1983's infamous "Perfect Sound Forever" marketing slogan. Until we really have a replacement for the compact disc, let's stop bashing CDs and get back to enjoying music.

Footnote 1: See "As We See It," August 1996.

Footnote 2: The hardware does exist, however. Both the Nagra-D and the Sonic Solutions digital audio workstation, for example, can now be upgraded to 96kHz operation. The day this column went to press, Stereophile recorded pianist Hyperion Knight performing Gershwin with a small orchestra. While the stereo CD release will be prepared from 44.1kHz tapes, with the help of Steven Lee of Canorus, we also recorded six channels of 96kHz-sampled, 24-bit data for possible eventual release as a full surround-sound recording on a dedicated high-quality audio-formatted DVD.—John Atkinson