With the CD medium nearing its 30th birthday, I’ve been thinking about what formats and tactics much of the recording industry is using to pull us away from it.
When originally introduced, I don’t think the industry expected that less than 15 years later, it would be possible for users to digitally extract the audio data from the media and compress, tag, and file it on computers. Because there’s no security in the format, the CD is a great compromise of potential audio quality, durability, and accessibility. The only things that hold it back are its resolution (which isn’t as limiting as some in the industry make it seem) and the fact that it’s a stereo format. Since multi-channel, higher-resolution, secured formats like SACD and DVD-Audio haven’t taken off in the market, I think it’s fair to say most users are happy with what the CD delivers. I think if either of those newer formats didn’t include copy protection, more users would embrace them. Especially SACD, which can include a CD-compatible layer.
But the industry shows contempt for the CD and its users. Originally introduced at a higher price point than LPs and cassettes, presumably due to higher quality and to subsidize investment in new manufacturing capabilities, their average price has never decreased. Many of the CD’s of the 80’s were mastered with the ideal of preserving the dynamic range of the original recordings, but over the years, the loudness war has made the audio quality of most popular music a joke.
They’ve tried to kill the jewel case with the Digipak and its ilk for years. The only way that cases with less plastic can be sold as a sustainability issue is if it’s assumed that CD cases are throwaway items. I don’t know anyone that ever bought a CD with the intention of throwing it or its case in the garbage.
Listening to the excellent Home Theater Geeks podcast the other day, guest Steve Guttenberg (no, not the actor) made the point that the industry is building up a catalog of high-resolution masters of up to 24-bit, 192kHz quality. I think they’re hedging their bets on possible successors to the CD. Think about it: in many cases, they’re not even trying to use the full resolution of the CD format. Brick-wall limiting shaves significant chunks of available dynamic range off the content. Many users have migrated from home, speaker-based listening to mobile car- and headphone-listening, which makes the dynamic range issue less noticable. Those are noisy environments. Instead of leaving the dynamic range intact on the recording and letting playback devices handle dynamic range compression (DRC), such as what is available on DVD players, TVs, and set-top boxes, the industry chooses to dumb down the product for the greatest audience.
I think this is all a play to upsell the next disc-based and digital-file formats. Higher quality will be available and may actually be realized, but at a higher price point. Blu-Ray discs with high-res stereo and multi-channel audio along with videos are going to be sold at a premium, probably at least 25% more expensive than the comparable CD. This will help drive up the cost of digital-file versions of the higher-definition content that will most likely use some form of DRM. Even though the industry might have convinced consumers that it caved in when it allowed the sale of unprotected MP3, it didn’t. MP3s aren’t of equal audio quality to CDs, but they’re priced similarly. The industry has the opportunity to make a lot more money selling single digital tracks as well: those offer less profit in physical form. Consider the case of a multi-channel lossless file of the future, with DRM, purchased from a service that restricts the applications or hardware it can play back on. It may be cheaper than its physical counterpart, but the lack of playback flexibility will cripple the benefits of not having to worry about the media.
Apple and music labels are reportedly in discussions to raise the audio quality of of the songs they sell to 24-bit. The move could see digital downloads that surpass CD quality, which is recorded at 16 bits at a sample rate of 44.1kHz. It would also provide Apple and the music labels with an opportunity to ‘upgrade’ people’s music collections, raising extra revenue in the process. The big question is whether anyone would even notice the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit files on a portable player, especially with the low-quality earbuds supplied by Apple and other manufacturers.
The recording industry can’t even use 16 bits effectively, and they want to make consumers think that 8 more bits is automatically better in quality. I can just see the ads now: “New 24-bit iTunes HD; it’s 8 louder!”
Louder is not better. Demand better quality CDs. Take a seat and listen on speakers or nice headphones every once in a while. There’s still music out there that sounds great; purchase it and perhaps the industry will realize there are still people who demand a quality product, not just one with higher resolution. A brickwall-limited recording won’t sound any better with 8 more bits.
Update (2012-Mar-10): Chris Montgomery (Monty @ Xiph.org) posted a fine essay about this that blows mine away. Go read his take! Monty is a personal hero of mine, having developed the Ogg Vorbis codec.