We need to talk about the future of the compact disc. How much longer will it exist?

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Edmonton record lovers and owners react to vinyl outselling CDs
RELATED: Record lovers and owners react to vinyl outselling CDs – Mar 29, 2023

When Luminate, the company that monitors music sales and streaming consumption, released its weekly numbers last week, I sighed over the year-to-date sales of compact discs. For the week ending Nov. 16, only 1,652,136 CDs have been sold in Canada all year. That’s a drop of 13.4 per cent from the same time last year. Looking at the U.S., a billion discs were sold in 2001. Last year, the number was 33 million.

Yes, we still had Black Friday and the whole holiday shopping period to go, but when the calendar flips to 2024, CD sales will still see another year-over-year decline.

Meanwhile, vinyl sales are up almost 24 per cent over 2022, despite prices being ludicrously high. More than a million new LPs have sold so far this year. Factor in the bustling market for used vinyl — something that Luminate does not track — and it’s conceivable that vinyl will outsell CDs in 2023. Because of its high price point, vinyl has already generated more revenue than its shiny 5-inch cousin.

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When the CD made its public debut in December 1982, we were told that this was an End of History moment. Through the magic of digital technology, the ultimate in audio reproduction had been achieved. What’s more, CDs were purportedly indestructible. “Perfect sound forever,” they said.

This, of course, wasn’t true. No, you couldn’t scratch a CD all to hell and not have it skip. Even if you leave a CD alone, it’s susceptible to the glue holding the plastic and aluminum layers together will eventually dry out, causing everything to separate and leading to a phenomenon known as “disc rot.” Given that the estimated lifespan of a CD is somewhere between 50 and 100 years, we’re very close to the time when the first discs issued will be reaching the end of their usefulness.

Despite the “perfect sound forever” bumpf we were sold, there have been attempts to replace the CD with something better. In the late 1990s, we started hearing about Super Audio CDs, an upgraded version of the compact disc co-developed by the OGs of the technology, Sony and Philips. An SACD could store more than four gigabytes of data (and up to 8.5 gigs in a “dual-layer” format), which was way more than the 640 megabytes of a standard CD. SACDs also had a much higher sampling rate (2.82 MHz compared to the CD’s 44.1 kHz), meaning that audio resolution was substantially better. And instead of being able to decode to two-channel stereo, SACDs had up to six channels of audio of 100 minutes each and still left room for data like photos and liner notes.

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SACDs had a competitor in the form of High Definition Compact Discs which had spun off from technology developed by Microsoft in the mid-1980s. There was also a proposal for a disc about the size of a Loonie, but I don’t think it ever made it to market. The damn things were so small they were a choking hazard.

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Despite the superior high fidelity of both formats and a robust number of releases (6,000 for SACD and 5,000 for HDCD), the marketplace didn’t care. No one wanted to repurchase their music libraries so soon after having done that in the transition from vinyl to CD in the ’80s. Besides, you needed to purchase special digital players in order to use the discs. (I have a shelf of SACDs that were given to me and nothing to play them on.)

But the CD’s biggest foe wasn’t another physical format. The future was a whole new form of amorphous digital music. First, it was attacked by the illegal file-sharing introduced by Napster and its descendants. Then came iTunes and legitimate digital downloads. And then after that, streaming. In all cases, convenience, access, and low cost trumped possession when it came to music.

At first, the audio quality of these digital files was substandard when compared to CDs, thanks to compression algorithms. Some streaming platforms promise CD-quality audio. Eventually, we started to hear about things like Hi-Res Audio and FLAC files which were not compressed to hell but had better-than-CD audio quality. They still needed to be purchased through digital music storefronts like ProStudioMasters and 7 Digital Canada and often require audiophiles to upgrade their hardware. But this time, people started paying attention. Uptake has been slow but exponentially faster than what we saw with SACD and HDCD.

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Now, though, streaming has caught up. Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz, and a few others offer millions of songs in higher resolution than the old 16-bit/44.1 kHz spec we get with CDs. (Spotify is lagging but promises to up its game soon.) It’s Hi-Res Audio with the same convenience and access to old-school streaming. Some platforms charge more for the better sound while others are swapping out their old CD-quality files for new Hi-Res ones.

The thing I’m most excited about is Dolby ATMOS, Apple’s Spatial Audio, and Sony’s 360 Reality Audio). Each technology allows for mixing music into multiple channels, either physically (i.e. using multiple speakers) or through software that offers an immersive audio experience through just two channels (read: headphones/earbuds).

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to visit an ATMOS remixing facility in L.A. where I was played new ATMOS versions of songs by Faith No More and The B52s. Wow. And then last week, I was invited by Universal Music Canada to hear ATMOS-enhanced versions of Beatles hits created with all sorts of machine learning that teased out incredible multi-channel detail from songs that were recorded on old mono machines at Abbey Road back in the 1960s.  Just … wow.

The downside? I heard these songs using a setup that required up to 14 carefully placed speakers and hundreds of watts of amplification. My wife will never allow that in the house.

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Other hardware is still lagging behind. If you have a newer iPhone (<2017 and using iOS11 or better), you can listen to FLAC files, but only through Apple File’s app and not at full-tilt Hi-Res levels because of the capabilities of the iPhones onboard Digital-to-Analogue Converter (DAC).

And don’t even think of listening to these files on any device with wireless Bluetooth headphones or earbuds because that tech just doesn’t have the bandwidth to transfer all the data encoded in a Hi-Res file. The only option to achieve maximum audio quality is to connect headphones with a wire through a Lightning-to-3.5 mm adapter and then through an external DAC. It’s an expensive workaround. (FYI: I use DragonFly external DAC. I love it.)

The upshot of all this is that after more than 40 years, it’s possible to stream millions of songs in better-than-CD quality for about the cost of a single compact disc. This is where the recorded music industry, audio gear manufacturers, and mobile phone makers are headed, too. Even though music consumers have been largely indifferent to audio quality since the days of Napster — access and convenience proved to be more important than proper high fidelity — they’re going to get better-sounding music whether they know it or not.

The next question is, “How long can the CD hold out?” We’ll find out. And my guess it’ll be sooner than later.

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