The CD Is 40, The CD Is Dead

The Compact Disc is 40 years old, and for those of us who remember its introduction it still has that sparkle of a high-tech item even as it slides into oblivion at the hands of streaming music services.

There was a time when a rainbow motif was extremely futuristic. Bill Bertram (CC BY-SA 2.5)
There was a time when a rainbow motif was extremely futuristic. Bill Bertram (CC BY-SA 2.5)

If we could define a moment at which consumers moved from analogue technologies to digital ones, the announcement of the CD would be a good place to start. The public’s coolest tech to own in the 1970s was probably an analogue VCR or a CB radio, yet almost overnight they switched at the start of the ’80s to a CD player and a home computer. The CD player was the first place most consumers encountered a laser of their own, which gave it an impossibly futuristic slant, and the rainbow effect of the pits on a CD became a motif that wove its way into the design language of the era. Very few new technologies since have generated this level of excitement at their mere sight, instead today’s consumers accept new developments as merely incremental to the tech they already own while simultaneously not expecting them to have longevity.

The Origins Of The Format

It isn't only audio that's improved in quality in the digital age, a magazine-quality promotional shot of the Philips prototype from Elektuur magazine, from Elektuur 188, June 1979. (Public domain mark 1.0)
It isn’t only audio that’s improved in quality in the digital age, a magazine-quality promotional shot of the Philips prototype from Elektuur magazine, from Elektuur 188, June 1979. (Public domain mark 1.0)

The format had its roots in contemporary consumer video technologies, with which in parallel research programmes both Sony and Philips were working on next-generation audio products. Sony had showcased a digital audio system using its video tape format in the early 1970s, while Philips had investigated an analogue system similar to LaserDisc video discs. By the middle of the decade both companies had produced prototype optical audio discs that were not compatible but were similar enough for them to investigate a collaboration. The 1979 prototype players with their 120 mm polycarbonate discs containing over an hour of 44.1 kHz 16-bit stereo audio  were the result, and books and magazines with a futuristic outlook featured the prototype players along with the inevitable rainbow shot of a CD as the Way of the Future.

TV shows such as the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World made extravagant claims about the new format’s durability compared to vinyl LPs, leading to an expertly marketed fever pitch of expectation   The Philips silver top-loading player might have looked good, but consumers would have to wait a few more years until 1982 before the first commercially available models hit the stores.

How Does A CD Player Work?

The CD player’s mode of operation might have seemed impossibly high-tech to the general public in 1980, but when it is laid out into its fundamentals it is refreshingly understandable and considerably simpler than the analogue VCR so many of them would have sat next to in an ’80s living room. At the end of the 1980s it was the example used to teach all sorts electronic control topics to electronic engineering students at my university, when we were all familiar with the format but probably most of us didn’t have the cash to own one of our own.

An annotated picture of the CD player laser assembly. Zim 256 [CC BY-SA 3.0]
An annotated picture of the CD player laser assembly. Zim 256 [CC BY-SA 3.0]
The business end of a CD player has surprisingly few moving parts. It is contained in a combined laser and sensor module which is mounted on a sliding actuator usually driven via a worm drive by a small motor. An infra-red laser diode shines into a prism which directs its light downwards at right angles through a lens towards a spinning CD. The lens has a focus mechanism, usually a set of coils and a magnet, allowing it to float on a magnetic field. Light is reflected back from the CD and passes directly upwards through the prism to land on an array of four photodiodes. At ideal tracking and focus the reflected light should be concentrated in the centre of the array, so by monitoring the current produced by each photodiode the player can adjust the focus, disc speed, and linear position of the laser module to keep everything on the track and retrieving a clean data stream at the right data rate.

The analogue signal from the diode array contains the data stream produced as the beam traverses the pits and lands on the CD, and a one-bit front-end simply digitizes these into bits.. These bits are assembled into data frames that have been encoded in a form designed to maximise the recoverability of the stream by encoding each byte of data into a 14-bit word intended to reduce the instantaneous bandwidth of the stream by avoiding single logic ones and zeros.  This decoding is performed using a look-up table, resulting in a 16-bit data stream with Reed-Solomon error correction applied. The error correction step is performed, and the result is fed to a DAC to produce the audio signal. There are many variations and enhancements to the system that have been created by various manufacturers over the years, but at its heart the CD player remains a surprisingly simple device.

Whatever Happened To The CD?

The Commodore CDTV. Patric Klöter (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.
The Commodore CDTV. Patric Klöter ( CC BY-SA 3.0).

The heyday of the CD probably came in the 1990s, when players had moved out of the realm of the wealthy audiophile and into the cheap consumer electronics stores. A portable CD player could be had for a very affordable sum, and they began to oust the Walkman-style cassette player as the choice for music on the go. Meanwhile the CD-ROM followed a similar path to affordability, and no mid-1990s beige-box PC was complete without a CD-ROM drive and a multimedia encyclopedia. There were other CD-based appliances, multimedia appliances such as Philips’ CD-i and  Commodore’s CDTV Amiga in a black box , Video CDs, and of course a crop of CD-based game consoles. The CD was largely responsible for the huge success of Sony’s first-generation PlayStation, while cartridge-based consoles had required developers to pay up front for a vast inventory of cartridges that might have become landfill if the product flopped, PlayStation developers merely had to pay for the CDs produced.

While the gaming public were going crazy about their PlayStations and listening to drum-n-bass on their Discmans, the writing was on the wall for the CD format. In 1998 the MPMan MP3 player made its debut, quickly followed by the first Diamond Rio, then a host of other players. The accompanying growth of file-sharing services such as Napster prompted a self-destructive legal meltdown from record companies and bands who turned on their own customers and fans in an effort to protect their CD sales, instantly making an MP3 file from the internet a far cooler choice than a CD from a corporate legal bully. The arrival of Apple’s iPod brought both an easy legal online music store and the MP3 player as a desirable lifestyle accessory, and the CD began its decline. It’s ironic in 2019 that the standalone MP3 player has experienced a steeper nosedive in the face of streaming services than the CD did, while the vinyl LP somehow always maintained a diehard following and has managed a resurgence (PDF) as it is rediscovered by a new generation.

115 thoughts on “The CD Is 40, The CD Is Dead

  1. Streaming music = music on someone’s else’s computer. My CD = my music.
    mp3s on a CD, even better.

    While the format might be obsolete, it is better than giving ownership of something I bought to someone else. Same with cloud services, etc. Just a scam to control your own data somewhere else, and spy on you.

    1. I keep saying THIS to people, but they are seemingly happy to put all their stuff in the “cloud” and give up any control to headless corporations.. I think it is part of the great filter.

        1. I used to have access to library – none of those books was really mine but I still had access to them. The same goes for streaming services. It’s nice to have access to all of that music out there (usually for rather small money) but there is music (and books) that I really like and would like to keep (for that I prefer to choose vinyl and sometimes CD) at least on MY hard drive.

          On the other hand popular music today is really repetitive, short living and “single serving”. Most people don’t care if they have access to their “old songs” because new songs are not only similar but also “old songs” are not worth memorizing. The access is so easy that people don’t buy albums as a gift like it used to 20 years back. One could risk to say that never before music was so profitable and yet so meaningless.

        2. Steam doesn’t require an internet connection to play, and I can’t think of a single game of the hundreds I own that has been pulled in 15 years. In contrast, try finding Tool albums on streaming services find out how long they’re available. The most important reason Steam gets a pass is capacity: there just isn’t a physical medium that makes any kind of cost sense for sending 100GB (Shadow of War, GTA5). For music, it’s the reverse. Though CDs are less convenient, but they’re superior in quality and the content hasn’t outgrown the format.

    2. Over 20 years ago I bought a box of 100 CD-R’s in jewel cases from (the original) Egghead for $80.
      What a fantastic buy! I imagined all the great things I could do with all of them.

      The box with more than half of them (unused) is sitting on a shelf in the garage…

      Things such as special mailing rates and mailing boxes, as well as the hassle of labeling the CD’s and boxes, took some wind out of my sails.

      1. I don’t know much about these formats you list here.
        m-disc – ?
        dvd-ram, is that the same as a rewritable DVD?

        I do know that DVD-Rs and CD-Rs that I have burnt, placed in protective containers and kept in warm, dry, dark safe places have still failed after only a few years. Magnetic media are the only ones that I have ever had any luck storing data for decades.

        After being bitten many times by CD-R bitrot I only really consider writable laser media as usable for burning the latest installation isos of OSs that I know will be out of date within 6-months anyway or making digital “mix tapes” to listen to in the car. I trust nothing of importance to such things!

        1. Storage method is paramount to whatever medium you use. So far painting in caves & paper seem to have the best longevity, but unfortunately have a very small information capacity.
          Magnetic storage is great, in the absence of heat and/or magnetic fields.
          Electric field storage (think flash memory… SD cards) is pretty good, but unproven for long term.
          I’ve had good experiences with M-disc coupled with software like DVDisaster.
          But ALL modern storage formats have the problem of reading the data back and they all need some type of technological process – completely unlike paper (or rock paintings) where we might not understand what we see, but we can at least see it.

        2. warm?
          The advice generally given on CD-R & DVD-R is *cool*.

          There is also a significant difference in how data is stored on a DVD-R as opposed to a DVD+R. After finding out what that difference was, I *never* bought another DVD-R blank, and gave away all my -R blanks – it was just not worth the risk to my data.

          1. -cool, dark, horizontal storage in PP/PE sealed box with desiccant bag –> archival timeline
            -dvd-ram has /hardware/ error correction superior to dvd+r plus inorganic PT dye
            -m-disc – basicaly limited by polycarbonate stability, not writing layer

            that and tape for redundancy and you are set for life

    3. Agreed. BUT

      That’s kind of a false dichotomy though. Streaming DRM’d content is hardly the only alternative to using a CD!

      Even if we lump DVDs and BlueRay discs with CDs they are still vulnerable to scratching and you can get more music into more space with an SD card or USB stick. With the USB stick you don’t even need any special hardware to read/write it!

      So yah, even if the world woke up today to all the evils of the cloud the CD would still be dead.

      What makes me sad is that everything new seems to be micro SD. That’s just too small! It’s easy to lose and hard to pick up without touching the contacts. I liked full sized SD better. Compact Flash was my favorite format as it is much sturdier. It’s still plenty small to keep a dozen in a pocket but you would have to try to break one! That seems to be mostly dead too though. :-(

      I always thought usb sticks with their plugs directly attached are inviting trouble. They are levers stuck into USB slots just waiting to accidentally pry either themselves or the USB slot apart! They are convenient in not needing any sort of chip reader/writer though. These newer USB “sticks” that are so small as to barely stick out of the socket would make good media for a music player.

      Also, I would make a division between different sorts of streaming.

      Streaming where one “buys” specific music but then only gets to ever listen to it by streaming it off the seller’s DRM’d server is bad. If you buy something you should get a copy that you can keep forever regardless what happens to the seller.

      Streaming where you are allowed to archive your purchases in a non-DRM’d format is not so objectionable.

      Streaming where you rent access to a library of music may give you access to a far bigger library than you could ever afford to buy. So long as it’s clear you are renting, not buying I don’t see anything wrong with that.

      Then there are subscription streams where pay for access you don’t chose what plays not unlike Satellite radio.

      Finally, then there are free streaming “radio” stations. Recorded music always co-existed with radio. If nothing else convinces you I would hope this convinces you that the term “streaming” is too general to object to or approve of.

      Also, if you never listen to any form of streaming music how will you ever discover new songs to buy and keep?

      1. what the hell do you mean CD is dead ?`? I listen to CD´s every day when driving my car. FM radio is a far cry from good sound quality. Streaming music in an overloaded cell phone network, not going to work. CD is alive and well, for a very foreseeable future.

    4. I agree with Miroslav in regards to actually owning the content vs renting it. I prefer mp3 or flac for music and keep that saved on my NAS backed up in 2 locations as well as B2. I still buy Cd’s from time to time but I don’t use them very much after I convert to flac.

    5. No, streaming music = a subscription to listen to more music than you could ever buy yourself. With the added convenience of listening whenever and wherever you want from the computer you carry around anyways. It also doesn’t get scratches and doesn’t gather dust in your spare room.
      No, you won’t own the music, but no one really cares about that anymore. Because no matter how large your CD collection is, the digital pocket rectangle always holds more.

      1. Personally I like having the CD inset to read & hold in my hand. Sure, I can get a PDF or look at the wikipedia page, but that never has the same ‘feel’ to it as something tangable.

        1. I’ve never been a hardcore vinyl advocate, but I loved LPs for this, and its probably one reason why records are seeing a resurgence. For me, though, this magic was spoiled by CDs with their dodgy tabs that held (or failed to hold) the often flimsy inset. It seems that the more pleasing LP-like CD cases made of card stock with a plastic CD spindle affixed came too late in the game for me, but even then you’re plagued by the miniaturization of the media. Being a bit nomadic myself, streaming has been fantastic – my last move involved shipping rates upwards of $20 US/kg for surface – for me, there’s value in not owning physical media, especially with another transcontinental move on the on the horizon.

    6. I think that it depends on what you mean by streaming and what your expectations are out of it. I use a paid service to gain unlimited access to an enormous library. I view it as ad free broadcast radio where I get to be the DJ. I find new stuff that I like and I buy it (DRM-free format, physical media had no place in my lifestyle) so I’m not always tethered to an internet connection or a monthly service. It’s similar to when the only streaming service was AM/FM radio except then the only funding source was through advertisements that interrupted the listening experience and included all of the other ills that go with marketing.

  2. I still like my music on CD. I end converting it for my various playback devices BUT I prefer to have a tangible product to own. Not some nebulous piece of data in the cloud that I have to prove that I own.

    I don’t want everything to be delivered via the internet. I see that as a bad thing.

      1. That too. Lucas would have loved to have Star Wars as a cloud only product. He could have made the changes, nixed the holiday special, and you would have had no way to see the originals.

  3. In the UK the iMac (the colourful fish tank Macs) shipped with the modem set to look for a US dial tone. Apple’s fix was to make a file available on an FTP site, that no one could connect to without a another machine to make the connection. They then started sending out Floppies with the fix to all the customers that contacted them. The iMac famously did NOT have a floppy drive. Finally and many months since the iMacs had been released Apple started sending CDs with the tiny fix file needed to change the built in modem from US dial tone to UK. I am pretty sure the fix file was just a few hundred bytes so perfect for a 640mb CD.

    1. ahhh… where were the days when you could type-in a piece of code yourself. When you switched on the device and could start programming… somehow progress seems to make the easy things less easy…
      Did you ever think about the fact that if you hear an interesting song or news item on the radio or on your TV, that you can instantly record it. Nowadays that’s impossible, radios have no recording function (tape) and VCRs are also obsolete, no replacement…

  4. The great thing is that good stuff shows up on the used CD market.

    For a long time at garage and book sales, the CDs were either generic collections like samba, or last week’s big hit. But I bought 85 CDs last year, except for three all used. Most were at book sales, one has them at fifty cents each, and that’s where I got a pair of Buffy Sainte-Marie collections, but a bunch of others. A few were five dollars at a used book store, though more were a dollar at the same store. Some of this is still duplicates of what I have on record, some of it is albums I never had before but wanted. One can even find Grateful Dead albums this way.

    I guess this reflects the shift to streaming. And “older generation” deciding they can live without CDs, so suddenly there is good stuff.

    CDs are so much more convenient, not just size but easy to skip tracks, and no need to get up and turn them over. Sold as “high fidelity”, they soon became just a practical music method. I suspect most playing them on boomboxes were not thinking of how expensive CDs were at the beginning, or the context that propelled them into the scene. They were just convenient.

    Michael

    1. Yup, I just received all four mainstream studio CD releases by “Zero 7” (a great Trip-Hop band) in the mail. All but one were like a buck and a half plus a couple bucks shipping on Amazon and/or Ebay. I rip them to FLAC and 320Kbps MP3 (my car plays those MP3’s from SD card). Now I’ve got great quality archives on the cheap. You would be lucky to find this content on the brain dead “Streaming” services in the first place, plus the quality sucks in comparison. And finally, I pay ONCE – not for the rest of my life.

      1. I Love Zero 7, I own Simple Things and When It Falls. On my streaming service however, all 4 albums are available, along with a handful of EPs, deluxe versions and remixes. I’m sure my music tastes aren’t all that obscure but I rarely come across anything I can’t stream, whether it be the latest release from my favorite band or the funky ragtime duo I chanced into at the crappy little bar down the street.

  5. An impressive level of nostalgia for a bit of aluminised plastic – I still recall hearing a CD for the first time at a friend’s house while we skived off PhysEd. Tesla Girls by OMD, which places it as late ’84. Then being able to go to the infamous Watford Electronics and buy a mighty dual-speed Panasonic CDROM drive, Gravis Ultrasound card and 7th Guest with my first ‘real’ paycheque in Dec ’93…

    Those were the days.

  6. For me the CD died after I’ve got the first one with a so called “copy protection” – that was in reality a playing protection. (the only device able to read this disc was my cd burner)
    With the exception of second hand this was the last CD I ever bought. And about that time emusic started…

    …and today: Still got more than 500 CDs – in a box somewhere in the attic.

    1. Sorry but if that’s what made you give up on CDs, you give up pretty easily. Proper audio CDs were never copy-protected and nothing that Sony or anyone else could have added to the format would change that. And there is no lossy compression so audio CD basically gives you the purest copy of the master tape.

      All you need is a good player, a good hifi system, and good speakers. Oh and a well mastered piece of music. Which is a problem because nowadays the master tapes that record companies make for CD’s sound like crap, with so much limiting and dynamic compression that you literally get tired of listening. The only reason vinyl is popular again is that record companies figured out that they can make more money on vinyl, if they can fool people into thinking that vinyl is better. Which is only a matter of making a crappy master for the CD and a quality master for the vinyl release.

      1. Several labels fuzzed the standard (corrupt TOC, etc) until they came upon changes that would allow audio CDs to be played in a consumer audio CD player, but not be read by a computer’s CD-ROM and thus ripped. Later generations of CD-ROMs were able to provide more low level access and newer ripping programs were written to take advantage of that in order to bypass the “protection”. But yes, Audio CD copy protection was definitely a thing.

        1. I see that totally differently: The “copy protection” attempts were merely based on weaknesses and flaws in existing software (meaning popular CD grabbing applications as well as operating systems). It was unavoidable that those attempts would only piss off consumers with little knowledge (or in the case of the Sony root kit: not just piss off but also bully). Anyone who could type “cd-r faq” in Google could find ways around all (I repeat: ALL) audio CD copy protection methods, for the simple reason that CD wasn’t designed with copy protection in mind. All audio players had to be capable of playing all CDs, so if your CD player happens to be a computer, your computer has access to all the audio on the CD and you can technically do whatever you want with it. The CD standard doesn’t care whether you make a legal backup for your own use, copy a track to legally use on your own compilation CD for the car, or illegally upload it to the internet or share it with others in another way. And if you use a good operating system (i.e. an OS that was written for users, not for the distributor, which is becoming rare these days) and a program that does a good job of audio grabbing, you will be able to grab all audio (and all subchannel data such as CD-text) from every single audio disc that can be played on an audio CD player.

          1. Reminds me of those mixed discs that played audio in the car while the rest played on the PC. Funny thing is that Lightscribe™ is also dead along with the CD.

          2. Lightscribe was never going to work if it was going to stay black-and-white only. I would have bought one (*) if it could have been done in color (or even holograms!) but my Epson R220 printer could print color pictures on CD-r’s just fine.

            (*) I think I actually own several drives that can do Lightscribe but I never used it obviously.

          3. Jac Goudsmit light scribe is interesting for other things, I bought one to experiment with spin coating and cure of fine tracks, photo-mask, pcb type applications.

      2. I attended some hearing test – I was able to hear differences at 128kbps mp3 in a few cases but never at higher bitrates. So, if available I buy flac, but 320kbps mp3s are also perfectly fine for me.

        1. You’ll probably find that it was the encoding rather than the bitrate – I find ‘joint stereo’ compression to be unpleasant, but encoding retaining the stereo tracks fine at the same bitrate. I’m also aware of others with the same experience.

    2. “The Red Book CD-DA audio specification does not include any copy protection mechanism other than a simple anti-copy flag. Starting in early 2002, attempts were made by record companies to market “copy-protected” non-standard compact discs. Philips stated that such discs were not permitted to bear the trademarked Compact Disc Digital Audio logo because they violate the Red Book specification.”

  7. As the “Early Adopter”, I bought the first CD burner I was able to find. released by HP, with the driver software dated one week earlier.
    Blank discs were way too expensive, @ $2.00 each. Some were higher priced.
    “The Good Old Days”.
    Today, they are not selling DVDs in places like “Best Buy” and others.
    The CD is dead, long live the stream..

    1. The HP4020i was one of the first CD burners that fit in an optical drive slot. They were made by Philips and had a mechanical problem: a spring would get in the way of the laser mechanism sometimes which meant that your CD-R became a toaster. This did a lot of damage to Philips’ reputation.

      Philips made two CD recorders before the CDD 2000 / HP 4020i: the CDD 521 and the CDD 522. They were big machines (as big as an audio CD player) and expensive too (not to mention you needed a computer with a SCSI bus) and though they weren’t perfect, they worked well… As long as you had a computer that could deliver data fast enough to prevent a buffer underrun. And in the early days when CD-r discs were $15 to $20 each, a coaster could really ruin your day.

      Good times! :)

      1. we had one of the early phillips writers at work. They were at least as big as a home CD player and scsi. They had very little or no buffering in them. We kept that on it’s own bus and still occasionally managed to turn out a coaster with it. Also back in those days besides the $15 to $20 blanks was the $1500 to $2000 mastering software. It was not drag and drop in those days either. It was interesting when the recorders that fit in PC’s first came out, you would pay more for the software than you would for the writer. It took a while for the world to realize they would not sell any writers without inexpensive or free software. Now the thought of paying for software to master a CD is nutty. It was an expensive proposition back in the day.

        I still have boxes of CD’s. I can not recall the last time I played one. My music collection is all FLAC and on multiple hdd’s. I play the flac files in the house and rip them down to mp3’s for the car. I really can not tell the difference in my cars and it is nice in the old one to be able to fit 100 songs on a cd. My newer car has a usb slot and it will play off of a 32 gb stick. I don’t have that many mp3 files in my driving music collection yet. If anything I find myself removing stuff, not adding more.

      1. It will be possible to preserve CDs as accurately as possible as of the upcoming rev5 of the Domesday Duplicator project’s utility, “ld-decode”. The current version is rev4, but rev5 will add EFM decoding. In principle, at that point there will be nothing stopping anyone from hooking a Domesday Duplicator up to a Laserdisc player that supports CDs and using that setup to capture raw analog RF off the laser pickup.

  8. One of the reasons it still lives is exactly because it’s cheap. What other medium does one feel comfortable just giving away to perfect strangers with no expectation of ever getting it back? It’s even more secure than giving them a link to your online library.

  9. Heck. Even DVD is beginning to get scarce around here.
    A few days ago, I picked up a new Memorex brand portable drive for $15 on closeout.
    Cool, I can even muck about with DVD RAM disc now!
    …oh wait a sec, those went onto the clearance table several years ago.

  10. 40 years old… I remember putting a CD-ROM and sound card into an IBM clone of an early PC/XT with a 386. It was a “Multimedia” kit that included a sound card that had an IDE bus because the hard drives of the day were MFM. The kit was from Diamond Multimedia…. ahhh memories… As for not trusting cloud services well that’s just silly but then again I work for a company that does cloud intergrations so I might be partial.

  11. my last still working cd drive finally decided to stop working and got scrapped for parts. around the same time i chucked my massive inventory of blank cds. i still have my massive backlog of 90s games. i wanted to virtualize those and get rid of the media, but its easier to just get an image of those discs from less than reputable sources on the net.

  12. I can hear millions of CDs and CD players go “I’m not dead yet! I think I’ll go for a walk!”

    I think that photo is from an early press release by Philips (I seem to remember seeing a color version). The player was code named “Pinkeltje” which is the name of a character from a Dutch book series who was as big as your pinky finger. “Pinkeltje” was never a real player, it was just a mechanism and a display and some buttons. All the electronics were in a big box that it would sit on top of. If you Google for Pinkeltje you may find some more pictures.

    Fun fact: Philips wanted to make the CD 10cm or 11.5cm (not 12cm) in diameter, with both sides playable. Compact Cassettes are 10cm wide and 11.5cm diagonal so they figured that way CD player for cars and CD storage systems could be around the same size as cassettes. “Pinkeltje” was designed for the smaller size discs.

    Philips/Polgram even started building a factory in Germany that could produce these discs. When Sony (which didn’t own any record companies at the time — yet) somehow got wind of that, they insisted that the cd be 12cm. The story that Sony insisted that Beethoven’s 9th symphony was 74 minutes and needed to fit, is only partially true.

  13. I wasn’t quite an early adopter – bought my first player in 1986 when the price dropped under $200 (don’t remember what brand, got rid of it over a decade ago), but I’d owned CDs as early as ’84, as companies such as Telarc would give them away at the Chicago Consumer Electronics Show. I was a pioneer user of CD burners though, as the FDA would accept electronic versions of the 500,000+ pages of a drug marketing application in the late 90s. Those early devices had about a 1:1 odds of a successful burn, and the first blanks ran closer to $20 a pop than $2.

  14. “Meanwhile the CD-ROM followed a similar path to affordability, and no mid-1990s beige-box PC was complete without a CD-ROM drive and a multimedia encyclopedia. ”

    Myst™ + FMV games in general.

  15. In 20 years, hipster doofuses will discover the long forgotten joy of CDs.

    I’ll stick with my 2 minute wax cylinders, recorded and played back without any electronic interventions. THAT’s real analog!

    1. Chamber orchestras and sheet music for the win. Now get off my lawn!

      But seriously, +1 for the remark about the future rediscovery of CDs. I hope all mastering engineers that limit and compress the living daylights out of today’s music are committed to keeping the original multi-track tapes (files?) Of all their work so they can one day return the world of hifi to sanity.

      1. Use of mp3 as intermediate files didn’t do anything but make the end product sound like crap.
        nothing like hearing an interview of a “band” telling how the members “phoned it in”
        by recording (mp3s. And bragging about a laptop being convenient.) Then sending their parts to the studio for mixing.
        Sometimes you could hear a flipped phase in the middle of the vocals.
        Once again proving the old axiom of “Garbage in, Garbage out”.

        I’ve even heard Mouse clicks, etc, recorded in a couple of songs.
        You’d think the first thing anyone does to a recording computer would be to delete the event noises.

        And let’s not forget the damage done by the “loudness war”.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war

        Internet Streaming of files didn’t kill my disc purchasing. It was simply the commercial discs that sounded so poorly made eventually curtailed my purchases.

  16. I haven’t bought a CD in years. But one place they shine is in the car. You can make a MP3 CD with 100 songs. The next time I start my car it picks up where it left off. I don’t listen to the radio anymore, too many commercials.

    1. I used to do that.

      Now I have a grandfathered in unlimited wireless data plan + a few well-trained Pandora stations on shuffle and my phone plugged in via the aux-in (soon to upgrade to bluetooth).

      I like this a lot better. There is more variety and I even learn about new music I didn’t know but like.

  17. Are we talking about CD-ROMS too or just audio CDs?

    I still find that new computer accessories, if they require drivers or software at all usually come with it on a CD.

    I also find that a lot of BIOSs that claim they can boot from a USB-stick have bugs that prevent them from actually doing so but a CD-R always works. This may be because I still have some pretty old PCs around though. But since seemingly everyone I knew gave me all their unused CDRs and DVDRs on the day that each decided that “CDs are dead” I have a 10 lifetime supply. That’s another good reason to burn OS updates and crap like that to a CD-R rather than go buy a USB stick.

  18. I was never much into LPs for music because of the care required to keep them sounding good. The first time I heard a CD I remember thinking, “I don’t care what this costs, I have to have it.”

  19. I still enjoy playing my old vinyl , tape and cds on a retro Denon system I’ve recently set up . My kids have only ever been exposed to mp3s and computers playing videos so when they hear my system they are completely blown away by the sound – even off the cassettes from the 1980’s.

  20. Don’t forget all those AOL floppy disks and CD’s that were mailed out to people who didn’t ask for them, now probably in
    landfills. Now if there were a way to recycle all that old stuff, it would be a good thing.
    I still have my VB6 Enterprise install CDs, but I haven’t used VB6 in well over a decade.
    40 years? Man, I feel old :)

  21. I recall reading that the maximum capacity (in minutes) of an audio CD was determined by an influential industry executive who wanted to make sure his favourite recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony would fit on a single disc. Not sure how apocryphal this is.

    1. This is absolutely true, it was the director of Philips Eindhoven.
      A little bit more unknown is the origin of the format of the hole in the CD, it is exactly the size of an old Dutch 10ct coin.
      Philips initially wanted the CD digital format to be 12 bit but Sony that sponsored the new format insisted on 16 bit.

    2. Neither true nor false (Snopes).
      The real reason of the 74 minutes was probably that Sony got wind of the fact that Philips was building a factory to produce 11.5cm CD’s in Germany and wanted to do everything to undo their head start.

  22. The LP is not dead. The LP came back and there is actually a customer base for it. Customers actually like holding the album sleeve in their hands and you can see it on the Jimmy Kimmel show.

    The CD is not dead. I like having a tangible product and I can scan the CD at different bitrates than the music companies are going to give me.

    I see online storage as a bad thing. Who holds the keys and who can spy on your information? If someone else holds your data, they control you. If I hold my data, I control my data. When I control my data, I am proactive. When other people hold your data, you are reactive to whatever they do to you.

    I grew up during the computer revolution and the old wisdom was to always keep a backup. The CD is my backup.

  23. It’s funny how computing in the 60s and 70s was all about getting your computing needs and data off of mainframes and on a computer you own at home. In the 2000s and 10s it all about putting it BACK on somebody else’s mainframe computer and calling it “The Cloud”.

    I’ll stick with my physical media if you don’t mind. Harder for somebody else to decide that I can’t have it anymore and take it away.

  24. In ’78 or ’79 I read a little article about the Philips experimental unnamed disc. They described how it worked in bits. My open mind said right away “that ain’t enough bits”! I counted additional bits on my fingers placing them on the library table at Purdue till i felt happy. I was at 24 bits. The CD was not HiFi period. I knew it would be a wait of 20 years or more till this came. At the time I believed in the Nyquist limit, because of it the top third of a CD is ‘pixilated’. Meanwhile cheap speakers from china and mp3’s wiped out most progress for another 10 years for me and forever for most.

    Audacity has a mode called wasapi that with windows allows recording any stream, since ‘they’ have taken away ‘stereo mix etc.’. In Linux there is Jack. It lets you do anything.

    The disc should have been about the size of a 45 record with a finger sized hole for clean handling. With the Ninth as a minimum limit, the nosepiece of a Volkswagen radio with it’s flanking pair of knobs set the maximum on size and thus doomed it to less than what was good.

    Remember all that hype about scratchless and won’t skip? Everybody was sold on that. The first CD roms had caddy protection. Something like that should have been done too.

    1. Taken a hearing test lately? Anyone oldre than 12yo are lucky to hear anything at the “top third” of a CD’s frequency range at normal listening volumes.

      16 bits is enough for a dynamic range of 96 dB while the human ear can distinguish sounds at (not adjacent frequencies) 118 dB difference (at the same time. 140 dB if played separately) – but that’s only true in an otherwise completely silent anechoic chamber. In normal room environments there’s about 40 dB of background noise which means that your recording media needs only about 50 dB of dynamic range to play to the point of hearing damage (Cassettes have 50 dB, Vinyls, 75 dB). The noise is masked by the noise of your listening space.

  25. My boss asked me to burn some CDs copying a kind of course in CD for educational purposes. I said of course I can, I think I have a portable DVD writer at home! But… Why do we have to burn CDs?? The data in de disk are a few power points, less than 30 megas!!
    He looked at me as if I was “Hackerma ” (from year 3200) :-D

  26. Still use JVC Taiyo Yuden CDs for my early CD based consoles and computers. Best brand of CD media still to this day. Shame they are so expensive these days. No de-lamination or degradation over time, unlike most other brands.

  27. Well I for one am keeping all my cds. I never sold my albums either. 20 years ago I read similar articles about records being a dead format. Yet here we are in 2019 and records are once more going from strength to strength. Cassettes tapes have also seen a glimmer of interest too. People want something physical. Proper artists what to give their fans something too. CDS at gigs are a great way (like tapes were) of getting music out to your fan base. The humble cd will rise from the Ashes and by then I’ll be in my early 70s and that’ll be my pension pot.

  28. I would like to add that the CD is not dead because car makers still have to catch up.

    Not everyone can afford unlimited data to stream their songs in their cars which is why we will have CDs for quite some time.

    A rep from Tmobile said that phones will be getting away from internal SD cards so anything greater than your internal phone memory will be stored on the web so if you don’t have unlimited data, you still will need a CD or some other way to play your music.

    I’m still driving a car from 2008 so I won’t be upgrading to bluetooth anytime soon and I’m not sure what the base models of cars will be offering. Our newer car has a library but you still have to record to it from CD.

    And one thing I like to do is buy used CDs from online retailers because I can get music that I don’t own very cheap.

    The other issue is price. Why should I pay more for songs to be converted to another format from iTunes when I can record the songs in the format myself for free?

    And because my CD collection is tangible, I can sell the CDs online if I want. Some of the music I own cannot be bought in CD form unless I sell it. My CDs have inserts with lyrics in them which is not what I can find online in all cases. The lyrics are copyrighted and online sites are depending on consumers to break the copyright law and enter the Lyrics for them. The CD insert is legal and dependable to be correct because it is from the artist directly.

  29. CDs in my collection (which continues to grow) and streaming services such as Spotify normally complement one another and are not rivals in any way. So nothing is dead, really.

  30. I still “BURN” CDs and make collections to enjoy in my car/office. I like the hobby that feels very similar to making mix tapes. I pray my CDR recorder holds up a little bit longer and I get to fill my empty discs. I have always edited store bought albums/CDs to make a personal product that only I may truly enjoy. I have always treasured the PERFECT SOUND from the CD, ever since I heard my favorite album on CD.

  31. “…yet almost overnight they switched at the start of the ’80s to a CD player and a home computer.”
    Almost overnight? Who wrote this article? This Jenny person needs to get her facts straight.
    CD players were not a popular item until the mid to mostly late 1980’s and home computers only in the mid to late 1990’s.

  32. There is something that streaming can’t provide:
    – “promotion only not for sale” material
    – limited editions
    – signed by band members
    – increased value in time
    All of that is provided by the biggest weakness/strength of physical copies: limited number/uniqueness.
    By now I know only one band that tried to provide similar luxury through digital copies – that is Prodigy with sigle “Memphis Bells”:
    “5,000 digital copies of “Memphis Bells” were sold over the Internet. Each copy was a combination of customer-chosen instrumental, rhythmic, and melodic options, of which 39,600 choices were available.”
    But original is no different than copy so… not unique at all.

  33. CDs are really only 35 years old. The players started to become available in the fall of 1984 but they were very expensive and most people were still listening to vinyl and FM radio.

  34. I was 17 when I bought my first CD player in 1988, a Marantz unit. They had been around for a couple of years in stores but were really expensive. Around this time much cheaper units were becoming available. It was amazing compared to the casettes we were used to, but it was also really bad at handling vibration. Not very good for a 17 year old that had moved out of home. I bought a Technics the year later, which had the distinction of having a linear drive. It was very fast to seek and, perhaps counter intuitively, it was much more robust at vibration. Later I had a series of portable CD players. The first ones were diabolical for skipping, I had to walk to work as if I was gliding. They got better until it wasn’t a problem. Remarkable to chart the progress of such a venerable tech. Interesting it still lives, unlike the digital compact casette stuff I moved on to (to record obviously).

  35. “the player can adjust the focus, disc speed, and linear position of the laser module to keep everything on the track and retrieving a clean data stream at the right data rate.”
    This is not correct. Disc speed is controlled with the filling level of a FIFO buffer after demodulation. The level minus a threshold is fed into a PID controller with limited output, which then controls the spindle speed.
    Want anti-skip? Use bigger FIFO.
    Why was anti-skip not available that early? Small fast RAM was too big and too expensive for consumer products. And someone had to have the Idea…

  36. I’ve had USB’s & External Hard Drive’s & smartphone’s all DIE on me or become CORRUPTED and just literally end up in landfill, at some point or another, taking my ENTIRE music collection with it….GONE in utter seconds! I don’t really want to rent music from ‘Spotify’ or put all my hope & faith into “the cloud” (which is actually just some server-farm in Silicon Valley that sits right in the middle of a huge earthquake zone!). Recently I dug out some old CD-R’s that I had burnt during the old ‘Napster’ days that I forgot I had, stuffed in a box in my garage where they had braved extreme cold winters and searing hot summers for nearly two decades. All of them played beautifully as if they hadn’t aged a day… what a durable media format! When the next ‘Solar Flare’ hits the earth and the electricity-grid shuts down for months on end and the Internet is no longer an option, I wonder how “cool & hip” streaming services & smartphones will really be?

    1. Well, you could do what I did.

      Rip all your CDs to FLAC, drop them on a 500GB SSD plugged into an Odroid HC-1, load Armbian on a Swissbit microSD card, install PLEX Media Server, turn on their DynDNS service, install the PLEX app on your phone… You get your own high quality music, streamed from your own server that pulls a whopping 4W loaded. Mine will run for literally days on a 12Ah UPS. Streaming will work remotely or on your own network pretty much seamlessly, and PLEX Media Server has a DLNA server you can turn on for older devices (I use it with my Chumby!!!). They push the PLEX Pass thing but you don’t really need it for streaming music unless you intend on sharing the server with friends.

      It’s not foolproof (I’ve been running into issues with the PLEX server hanging on media scans,) but it was cheap to build, cheap to run, and the music I’m streaming is so much higher quality than what Spotify streams.

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