Deep Dive

    Considering CD’s 40th Birthday

    Issue 175

    I did not want the Compact Disc’s 40th anniversary to slip by without making a few observations. After all, I covered the format during its peak for Replication News, the CD’s primary trade magazine at the time, at the time, when I was hired in late 1997, and for Medialine until that publication’s demise in 2006.

    Acknowledging my love-hate relationship with the CD, I still regularly buy them since they’re so cheap and easy to come by in thrift stores and online sources these days.

    In the spring of 1986, when it was considered a state-of-the-art technology, I remember showing off the silver little disc to my students in the popular music course I was co-teaching. The undergraduates didn’t seem much interested, even though they were only about six years younger than me. They were still getting used to MTV, which was the subject of my Master’s project at the time. In one of my bolder classroom moments, I predicted that in a few years’ time they all would be listening to and buying CDs.

    Of course, I was not wrong.

    Sony introduced the CD first in Japan in February 1982, the beginning of a worldwide revolution that reinvented the record industry, which had been lobbied for several years to go along with the new technology. In fact, the CD’s roots can be said to harken back to 1937 when the idea of pulse code modulation (PCM) was conceived of as a means of audio reproduction. Error detection and correction research emerged in 1950. Then the laser came out of a lab in 1960. In 1967, broadcaster NHK presented a 12-bit digital audio recorder using a 30 kHz sampling rate.

     

    The familiar Compact Disc logo. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Sony and Philips/public domain.

    The familiar Compact Disc logo. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Sony and Philips/public domain.

     

    Two years later, Dutch physicist Klaas Compaan shared his concept for the CD. In 1970, Philips Research created a glass-master prototype that initially was designed for its 12-inch Video Long Play laser player, demonstrated to the press in 1972. Philips’ scientists realized that the laser could also read audio signals, and they stepped up their efforts to shrink down the disc size for a consumer product that could store an hour of music.

    Meanwhile, around the same time in the US, MCA purchased patents and ended up collaborating with Philips on what eventually became the LaserDisc, which launched in the US in 1978.

    The talk at the 1977 Tokyo Audio Show was the digital audio disc prototypes presented by Sony, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi, while 35 manufacturers came to the Digital Audio Convention in Tokyo the next year when Philips proposed that the disc be made out of polycarbonate. In 1979, the first CD player prototypes circulated in Europe and Japan. Later that year, Philips and Sony agreed on a sampling rate of 44.1kHz and 16-bit audio.

    One of the reasons the CD succeeded – as did DVD-Video for that matter – was that Sony and Philips, partners in the format’s R&D, checked their egos at the door. They took the best elements of their research to make a better product and create the “Red Book” CD audio standard in 1981. It was a rare moment in the entertainment industry.

     

    Medialine cover noting 20 years of the Compact Disc, October 2002.

    Medialine cover noting 20 years of the Compact Disc, October 2002.

     

    Beta vs. VHS vs. Hollywood?

    In the mid-1970s, consumer electronics manufacturers Matsushita (Panasonic and Technics) and JVC battled Sony successfully over then-competing home video formats. Actually, the bigger adversary was Hollywood, which fought tooth and nail that the ability of consumers to record off television and play movies in their homes constituted copyright infringement (i.e., intellectual property theft).

    The Motion Picture Association of America eventually had to eat crow when the US Supreme Court narrowly agreed 5-4 with the CE folks in the landmark 1984 Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc. a/k/a “the Betamax case.” The irony of the ruling by the time it was handed down by the high court: VHS was firmly entrenched as the home video standard, not Sony’s Beta. At stake were the decades of royalties for everything from the blank media to the use of the VHS logo.

    Home video’s ancillary revenue stream turned out to be a windfall for the movie studios, and saved them from box-office bombs. The best book on this subject is Fast Forward: Hollywood, The Japanese, and the VCR Wars (W.W. Norton & Company, 1987) by James Gardner. The videocassette recorder soon became an indispensable status symbol in households, then simply became ubiquitous.

    File under too much, too soon: the aforementioned LaserDisc, introduced as DiscoVision by MCA and later sold by Pioneer and other companies, tanked by 1981. In the next decade, the powers that be were jockeying to revolutionize home entertainment again with DVD-Video, which thankfully took notice of CD’s success, using the same-sized optical disc read by a laser, but more importantly, enjoyed cooperation among multinational corporate parties.

    Next-Gen Audio Didn’t Learn from the DVD Lesson

    The reason why DVD-Video became the fastest-growing consumer electronics product in history was the unprecedented level of cooperation that existed not only among the Hollywood studios and CE manufacturers but also the computer industry. Sadly, the record industry did not follow this rationale when it stumbled badly to introduce a high-resolution audio format, and instead brought forth the competing formats of DVD-Audio vs. Super Audio CD. No doubt each format’s proponents had an eye on replacing the CD, which was an interesting goal, since DVD-Video had ushered in surround sound in living rooms and home theaters.

    But consumers were confused. 20 years ago, even audiophiles didn’t go along with the hype and were weary of the format wars. A Stereophile online poll at the time found that 52 percent of respondents resisted buying either format because they didn’t want to make a choice.

     

    Well, one format made it for the long haul. Medialine cover, January 2003.

    Well, one format made it for the long haul. Medialine cover, January 2003.

     

    By 2002, CD sales had peaked, with rapid annual declines ahead. Napster and other bit-torrent file sharing had become the zeitgeist, and the blank disc became the best-selling CD of the year. The Recording Industry of America (RIAA) was too busy worrying about Digital Audio Tape (DAT) to realize that computers with built-in optical disc drives would be their downfall. The genie was out of the bottle.

    At the October 2004 Audio Engineering Society (AES) convention in San Francisco, Robin Hurley, then senior vice president of A&R for Warner Strategic Marketing, admitted DVD-Audio had been a disaster.

    In fact, Hurley said he wouldn’t be surprised if the labels just let whatever stock was on retail shelves sell out. An AES co-panelist added that he had just been on a “reconnaissance mission” to the local Virgin Megastore (now I’m really dating myself, aren’t I?) two blocks away, “and it appeared DVD-Audio was taken off the floor.”

    Hurley’s sobering analysis added, “One of the things the industry hasn’t come to grips with is a unified advertising campaign. The biggest thing that hurts us is that there are two formats out there. That really has made executives at the highest level wince and pause before putting big money in it. That wasn’t the case with movies on DVD.”

    True, Super Audio CDs are still being made but it’s a niche market, not the replacement for the CD originally envisioned. And interestingly, Blu-ray might have won out over HD-DVD – another confusing format war and a story to be told – but standard DVD-Video discs are still also being produced.

    Common sense in the business world – and life for that matter – tells you not to repeat the same mistakes. Hopefully such a philosophy will carry over to future audio formats, even as vinyl continues its astounding resurgence.

     

    Copper contributor Larry Jaffee is author of the book Record Store Day: The Most Improbable Comeback of the 21st Century, and is co-founder/conference director of industry trade organization Making Vinyl. More information is available at www.larryjaffee.com.

    Header image: the Sony CDP-101, the first commercially-available CD player. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Atreyu.

    12 comments on “Considering CD’s 40th Birthday”

    1. After just one listen in my mid 20’s I had to have a CD Player, I think in early 1983 as the CDP-101 was a bit late to the UK but might have been late 1982. Within a year or few I stopped listening to my LPs – ‘my’ listening pleasure was always marred by surface noise, clips pops and rumble. With the resurgence of LPs I still hear the sound limitations of LPs, like dynamic range, compressed frequencies depending on where on the LP the track is etc.., but each to their own.

      I moved on to own several CD then early SACD players – and still really like the sound of ‘some’ of my CDs and SACDs, some are from PS Audio. I listen to more DSD files now, again some from PS Audio, and hoping this will become more widely adopted.

      Oh, I still have my first CD Player, the little squat SONY CDP-101…
      … must be 10+ years since using it, just couldn’t seem to part with it.

      I guess I should donate it to a good cause, any ideas?

    2. All crimes require a motive. The main crime of alternative formats is to make money. More seriously, look at the motives for this format stuff to make sense of it.

      PCM was being used commercially for recording and mastering in the mid-1970s, the first machines were made by Denon, so it obviously followed to design a PCM playback system. Phillips and Sony collaborated because they had already both developed digital audio systems independently but not considered them commercially viable. Phillips were also looking for a winner after Laserdisc. They agreed on the Red Book specification as they appreciated only a single system would be viable (independently they had developed different DAC architecture) because consumers were only going to buy one machine.16/44 PCM was considered sufficient for uncompromised sound quality and a 120mm disc could fit 74 minutes of music.

      SACD was adopted by Phillips for consumer use as it had the capacity to store multi-channel PCM. Using it for DSD playback was only ever a sideshow. It largely failed as 5.1 largely failed.

      Ultimately few consumers even know what format they are using. My kids don’t and they listen to loads of music. Half the time I don’t. The main single consumer outlay is hardware and that has driven formats, such as MP3 and AAC. Trying to drive hardware sales with new miracle formats had not worked (DVD-A, MQA, DSD etc). It is remarkable how well consumers have been served by 16/44 PCM for 40 years and some of us could happily use it as their single digital format.

      Suggesting any of these minority formats have a future is a bit like saying dinosaurs are going to make a comeback because there are a few alligators swimming around in Florida.

      1. Just because you and children are ignorant of audio formats doesn’t mean anyone who cares about how their music sounds is.

        If you want to listen to the latest Taylor Swift album that is already so brick wall compressed that a waveform looks like a filled-in rectangle in a child’s coloring book, you won’t care; for those who purchase $125 45 RPM LPs because they still sound better than most digital it’s a quite different proposition.

        I still purchase CDs because I have an excellent CD player, but otherwise I tend to purchase LPs as in most cases they simply sound better.

        1. I suspect you may not have listened to the latest Taylor Swift album – it is superb – she’s a great songwriter, it’s very retro and brilliantly produced.

          It is also released on Dolby Atmos, a newish format that has a pretty good chance of success as it is backed by Apple and Amazon, works on a lot of existing hardware, and is designed for both music and film/video. As well as a 2-channel system, I have a 6-speaker spatial system in my music room (I can use it separately or with the 2-channel system). Atmos may work where 5.1 failed thanks to wireless speakers. My wireless spatial speakers (they are each a complete streaming system) operate at 24/192 PCM.

          I am not ignorant of formats, what this article addresses is that Sony and Phillips came up with the Red Book specification in 1980 and since its introduction 40 years ago it has stood the test of time – even if a few audiophiles think it is broken.

          As far as my kids are concerned, they know a huge amount about music. My elder son more the 1930s to 1990s, he did 3 years of blues and classic rock student radio, he and his girlfriend have a 1,000+ vinyl collection, but with limited funds often sell more valuable LPs to fund new purchases. How many people can afford $125 for an LP? They have hand-me-down hifi. Their biggest investment is in good quality headphones. As far as they are concerned, there are two formats – lossless and lossy. My elder son uses Amazon lossless at his home, the other uses lossy Spotify.

          Most people these days listen using wireless headphones that use lossy Bluetooth. It is a testament to Sony and Phillips that lossless Bluetooth equivalent to 16/44 PCM is the holy grail of wireless listening. I’ve used aptX HD and it’s very good, but lossy. Qualcom are pretty much there with Snapdragon and aptX Lossless. People will need to buy new hardware or wait until their next phone upgrade is Snapdragon enabled. Just as the article explains, to move forward you need large scale industry co-operation on format and hardware.

          I listen to vinyl and digital PCM (I don’t care what specification, but I’m fine with 16/44), streamed or from a server store. I haven’t used a CD player since 2009.

          1. Certainly lossless vs. lossy is important, but “lossless” means little if the music has already been “loudness war” compressed and limited severely as virtually all modern music, especially pop and country, has been.

            Most people do listen on poor headphones and earbuds, and there’s the crime. Those people don’t know what they are missing, but worse modern record producers craft their product knowing that, and release product that just plain sounds bad knowing that. That puts us in a unique situation where those recordings will sound no better on a $500,000 system than a $500 one. Unlike today where you can play a 1963 LP and hear things that were captured even those who made the record weren’t aware were there because their playback equipment of the time couldn’t reveal it, they only knew what they heard in the studio.

            That’s the difference – for most recordings of the past, a better system would reveal more of what was captured on the original recording; today most recordings are made on a “good enough” basis whether for “loudness war” reasons or because a producer wants it to “sound loud in my car.”

            16/44.1 can sound good – but it has its limits as was known even then as most digital recordings were made at sampling rates of 16/48 or higher by those who cared, a trend that continues today with recordings made at up to DSD256.

            In the end, I don’t stream and only purchase physical media, whether LP or CD, because I never want to be reliant on a streaming provider deciding to switch to a new “remastered” version behind my back.

            That’s my choice, and others have theirs.

            It’s all ephemeral anyway as within a few decades it’s likely I and all my physical media will be decomposing in the ground.

            1. If you only use physical media, which puts you in a very small minority, how come you know so much about “modern music” and “modern producers”? Much is not available as physical media. Have you listened to Taylor Swift’s album “Midnights”? Sam Fender? Burna Boy’s latest release “Love, Damini”, which we were listening to on Saturday? What do you know of any other producers and engineers who have worked with Burna Boy or, frankly, anyone own the last 10 years? https://soundbetter.com/s/burna-boy
              “Love, Damini” was mastered by Gerhard Westphalen, who is also an acoustic engineer, studio designer and re-engineers his own recording equipment with very impressive credits in music and film. So don’t tell me these people don’t know or don’t care.
              http://www.gerhardwestphalen.com/designs
              Burna Boy, who I first saw on Jools Holland, graduated in Music Technology from the University of Sussex, which is the top place to study in the UK, so he also probably knows a load more about recording than the likes of Paul McGowan.

              As I was discussing elsewhere, DSD was used by Linn Records from 1999 to 2007 (no one did more DSD recording as far as I am aware) because of the limitations of PCM recording, which you correctly point out, but once 24/192 became available for recording and playback they ditched DSD. In the classical recording world, where quality has always been of great importance, 24/96 and 24/192 have established themselves as the standards.

              Even for the 1% of classical that is recorded in DSD, often it is not available on SACD so you have to stream it, for example the latest release from Channel Classics.
              https://www.nativedsd.com/product/44722-haydn-symphonies-no-6-7-8/
              I can only assume this is because so few people want physical media or because there is only one place left making SACD.

              I listen to lots of vinyl, probably over 50% of my home listening. But I shall be listening to 16/44 for a long time yet, hopefully another 40 years. I’ve used Qobuz since 2014, they were a small specialist Classical and Jazz service in France and the UK in those days, only 16/44 because of internet speeds, they don’t mess with files.

              1. How many pressing plants is Taylor keeping fully booked by making Midnights available in multiple different editions on vinyl? It’s also available on CD.

                I grant you there are single producers out there that care, but look at the majority of the product that comes out from major labels, and recording studios in Los Angles as well as Nashville. I have friends in radio who have access to new releases as they are made available to them and out of the hundreds of singles released to radio each month perhaps one is not brick wall compressed and limited.

                As far as DSD / SACD, again you’re using the case of single labels, but for example, everything Octave Records makes available is available on physical SACD, as well as Mobile Fidelity, and IMHO the best SACD label ever, the UK’s Dutton Vocation.

                I was never able to find a stated policy on Qobuz’ web site about remasters, but the “mainstream” streamers – Apple, Spotify, Pandora, Tidal – will all replace a title with a remastered one if the label tells them to.

                1. It seems you don’t have any personal experience of listening to a lot of the music being produced these days because you don’t have the ability to listen to it on your audio system.

                  I don’t know what comes out of Nashville, although I was listening to the wonderful Roseanne Cash the other day. I reckon all producers and engineers care, if they didn’t people wouldn’t use them.

                  Octave does DSD because of Paul’s relationship with Gus Skinas. He worked on Sonoma for Sony and carries the torch. He is not a recording engineer and built a studio for non-paying artists. That’s the opposite of the norm, which is labels created by A&Rs and engineers who usually hire studio space for paying artists. I mention Linn Records as I have a lot of their recordings. They were big on DSD and, besides Channel Classics and Alia Vox, are the only label I can think of that used DSD for original recordings back when DSD was a relevant.

                  I’ve never owned a SACD player, so have never played an SACD. I’ve never bought from MOFI as I’m not interested in reissues of stuff I already have for 5 times the price. I’ve never heard of Dutton Vocation.

                  Recording quality is probably consistently better now because the technology is more complex, capable of much better quality, and the engineers are almost certain to have academic training and qualifications as well as work experience to use it properly. I could go to a local studio 2 miles away, hire a skilled engineer, record and get them to master it, create a record label on Bandcamp and be making money next week. It’s great for everyone, except the traditional labels. A friend of mine is head of licensing at a well known music company that owns about 20 labels and it is much more artist-orientated and the artists now have much more control over content and its quality. Plus the headphones kids use these days are miles better quality than radio and dansettes from the old days.

                  Streaming services will offer what the label or distributor provides them with. You can’t blame the streaming companies for that.

                  1. Autocorrect – it’s Dutton Vocalion.

                    If I wanted to listen to music from indie artists that are only available via Bandcamp or their own websites, perhaps I’d be more into downloading, but for the most part, I’m not.

                    There is potential for recording to be better than ever, but again most recording is done directly into ProTools and then squashed of all life by trying to win the Loudness Wars.

                    Streaming services will offer what the record company gives them, which is precisely why I don’t do it; imagine if you gave the record companies permission to come into your home and replace all your great sounding albums with their new brick walled and limited “remastered” versions whenever they liked.

                    On most streaming services you don’t even get a choice; that great sounding track you played last week is now the new horrible version and there’s no way to go back.

                    1. Steven not to be confused with Steven and BillK, I have been collecting music since the early 1960’s and purchasing albums has always consumed a sizable portion of my disposable income. All my CDs have been ripped to hard drive and a small sample of my vinyl collection has been needle dropped and tagged (maybe 500 albums or so). In addition, I have SACDs, DVD Audios and a small collection on tape. I also subscribe to both Qobuz and Tidal.
                      For convenience, I use Roon often. But I actually like cleaning an album, cleaning the stylus, cleaning the platter and playing the full side of an album while contemplating cover art and liner notes, so vinyl gets used often. One of my CD players is a Mark Levinson 31 and I really like seeing that lid open slowly, inserting the disc, placing the puck on the CD and hitting play. The tactile parts of both the Levinson and my turntables are part of the pleasure of listening.
                      And in all these formats I have very good recordings, average recordings and poor recordings. With some artists, such as for example Art Lande (whom I pick only to make a point and because Paul has mentioned him in his blogs) I have pretty much his entire catalog dating back to analog recorded in the early 70s (label 1750 Arch Street), his work on ECM before he and Manfred Eicher split ways, to self published, to independent lables in the Denver area, to a DSD recording by Cookie Marenco, pretty much as good a recording as possible. Much of this collection is available on my hard drive and the later recordings are available on both Qobuz and Tidal. Yet, when I want to listen to Art Lande, I never, absolutely never consider format. I think about which album I want to listen to and then select the vinyl, CD, or streaming platform.
                      So to me as a music lover first, audiophile second, I find the discussions of DSD vs CD, vs High Res to not be all that important. I do think Michael Fremer has helped save vinyl and I am grateful for that because it means I can purchase very high quality replacement tone arms and styli when needed

    3. For someone who doesn’t stream, you seem to think you know a lot about it. On every count you are wrong.

      Bandcamp, Soundcloud and the like are not just for “indie” artists. You will find most of Octave’s performers there, as it is a great way for unsigned artists to get heard and make money.

      Most recordings are not squashed, I listen mostly to classical and jazz and it never happens. On Qobuz you get the same file as you would purchase on download or a CD, and if there are several different versions you get them all. Qobuz also provides 5.1 versions. If you have Amazon HD you can also stream the Atmos version. The only restrictions are based on your subscription level.

      Qobuz has successful partnerships in the UK with Gramophone and Jazzwise magazines, because their subscribers, including me, want very high quality sound. We get it. That said, few subscribers pay the premium for high definition formats.

      At the end of the day the article is I think right, 16/44 won because it was so well devised and planned, and other lossless formats including lossy MQA are what here we call farting in the wind.

      1. Hi Steven,
        Interesting conversation. I’m a 16/44 person as well. Perhaps I’m the last survivor who still burn’s playlists, something that’s really difficult if not impossible on sacd and the like. It’s flexible and that suits me.
        Also, not every worthy battle is a nail…………some are better left sticking up. I’m sure you get my meaning!

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