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Why I went back to buying CDs (and you should too)

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
7 min read
CD case lot
Photo by Mick Haupt / Unsplash

I blame David Lee Roth.

A few years ago, the final studio album from Van Halen disappeared from streaming services. No one knew why.

Even Wolfgang Van Halen didn’t know why at first. Then, in an interview much later he said, “I hope people who like it have a physical version of it.”

That’s never a good sign.

A few months ago, David Lee Roth released a video explaining that he’s the problem. He refuses to renew the streaming rights.

What happened here isn’t unique. Media that was once considered stable and pervasive is now gone.

I checked on my ripped copy of that last studio album from 12 years ago to make sure it was still there and intact. It was…kind of (more on that later).

Just to be safe, I bought a physical CD of the album anyway. The deluxe version was already inflated to $30 (it’s up to $37 as I post this).

But I don’t just blame Dave.

An Extreme Edit

Audio means a lot to me. I love movies and books, but albums have always been where I’ve gone for the most solace in my life. So, when my audio library is messed with, I don’t take it lightly.

Last summer, I went to see Extreme in concert and loved it.

After that concert, I re-listened to the Extreme catalog. But when I got to their third album, I noticed something new in the song “Cupid’s Dead.” Trumpets! I had 30 years of experience with that song. There had never been horns in it. But here they were, being annoying as hell and obscuring Nuno’s incredible riffs. Why?!

The album had been edited, remixed, and remastered. But it wasn’t labeled as such. My music app couldn’t tell the difference between the new version and the version I actually wanted to listen to from my ripped CDs. On my phone, the ripped version isn’t even accessible.

What the hell is going on?

I got on my laptop and dug into my file directory looking for the files from my ripped CD. Found ‘em. No horns. Good.

The song had been ghost edited. The app was confused. The original file had been relegated to a digital dungeon. I hadn’t lost the original file, which has happened to some gaming and movie enthusiasts, but I had lost the ability to reliably play the original.

The integrity of my audio library had been corrupted, at least in small ways. Horns were easy to spot, but how many other songs or albums had been messed with, without my knowledge?

It turns out, way more than I had thought.

A New Hope

Lucky for me, physical media is making a comeback, including innovations in the hardware that plays physical media.

I brought physical media back into my life not to replace streaming, but to keep streaming in its place.

I heard an audiophile once say that he treated streaming music services (even lossless streaming) like radio. It’s great for discovering new music and artists, and to play at parties, but it’s not for serious listening. I think that’s a perfect analogy.

I still stream lossless music (or play from files) whenever it’s more convenient. But when it comes to serious listening, I’ve gone back to physical media — CDs specifically. Here’s why:

  1. The music I want exists and it’s available. That seems like a pretty basic demand, but it’s where streaming music often drops the ball. Look at what got me into this mess: the final studio album from greatest hard rock band of all time is not available to stream. The CD of that album will easily last my lifetime and I never need to think about rights issues or lead singer tantrums.
  2. The music on the CD is different. This is an uncomfortable truth. We can debate which formats sound better, but they all sound different. When you rely on a streaming service to determine which version you are listening to, don’t be surprised when you get edited, remixed, and remastered garbage. Also, expect the latest, garbage version to be the only available on any of the digital services (the contracts are easier and cheaper that way). Each CD is from a specific version of the master, just like vinyl and streaming, which could be better or worse than other versions out there. But it is different.
  3. Track order is an art. Every good album is like a book with every song being a chapter. The artists and their producers stress over the order of tracks because it’s how the story unfolds. Even the transitions from song to song are given a lot of thought. On streaming, track order gets changed all the time and transitions are considered an extra. “Oh, you wanted to listen to this album with ‘gapless’ playback?” Yes! That should not be an extra feature. That’s a huge part of the experience. Stop trying to make “gapless” a feature. Having the original disc preserves the full story and lets it unfold as the artist released it.
  4. CDs have the best sound quality. At least they have the best potential for sound quality in physical media. They don’t always use that potential. But, for the music I love most, CDs often have the same or greater dynamic range compared to vinyl, without the degradation over time that vinyl experiences (like wear, distortion, clicks, and pops). Consult the dynamic range database to find out which formats of your favorite albums are likely to be of the highest quality. NOTE: I consider dynamic range in music media to be like taking a person’s temperature. It won’t tell you specifically what is right or wrong with that person, but it’s a useful starting-point indicator of health.
  5. I don’t like being watched. No one is spying on me to track behavior with physical media, including myself. No one is reaching into my physical audio library to change or take away my music either, which is easy on most streaming platforms.
  6. Notifications are not music. It’s OK to receive audio notifications when out-and-about, but if I’m blasting my favorite songs over speakers at home, I don’t want constant interruptions from notifications. Un-online my serious music listening, please!
  7. It’s the cheapest physical media you’re going to find…for now. I bought a CD of the album 5150 in 1990 for $18.99 (that’s over $31.00 today, adjusted for inflation). I just bought the same CD, in mint condition, at a thrift shop for $1.99. Adjusted for inflation again, that would be $0.84 in 1990. That’s an insane deal to own a physical, audiophile-quality version of an album that will last my entire life. As for new CDs? I see them for around $11-$13. Compare that to new vinyl (often more than twice that price). And compared to vinyl listening setups, CD listeners can have the best gear for a fraction of the price. I think this is as cheap as physical media will ever be. The surge in vinyl prices and collectibility will come to CDs. You’ve already seen it in my example in the beginning. But it isn’t widespread yet. Take advantage of that.
  8. Apps are no longer built to support your albums. The album is an enthusiast’s medium. Developers of music apps are not the same kind of music enthusiast. They’re younger. They’ve likely never ripped a CD. Remember when I said my CD-ripped copy of the last Van Halen studio album was still in tact? It was, but the app thought there were 45 tracks on the album (there’s only 12). The features made for album lovers like me are dying and the reliability is gone. We should not be surprised when our apps fail us because we have (relatively) strange needs to the mind of a modern developer.
  9. It’s physical art. Just like with vinyl, there’s extra physical art (visual and touch) in an CD album. I don’t need to get woo-woo about it. It’s literally added art. It’s also a surface for autographs, if you’re into that kind of thing. The physicality creates the scarcity, and scarcity is valued.
  10. CDs are the most durable physical music medium. The jewel case was well-thought-out, with replaceable parts. Even if your favorite artist cheaps-out with digipaks, the disc itself is a lot harder to damage than a vinyl disc or a cassette. CDs can take a beating.
  11. You listen more than you look. Ask a producer who’s been around a while. Looking at audio waves changed the relationship of professionals in the studio to the music they were recording. Being able to listen without the distraction of ever-changing video interfaces — whether that’s Pro Tools in the studio or Spotify on a phone — gives you an entirely different point-of-view on the music. A good percentage of the greatest albums ever made were recorded by ear. We could learn something from that as listeners.
  12. It’s the best backup. CDs have consistently outlived every other form of media storage I’ve ever owned. That’s no guarantee for the future, but it’s good enough for my expected lifetime, which is all I need.
  13. It’s transferrable. I can share, giveaway, and sell the music I buy without being considered a criminal. Imagine that!
  14. It’s fun. I could eliminate all other reasons from this list and I would still be OK with buying CDs just for the fun of it. It’s why I would never discourage anyone getting into an all-vinyl hobby either. Since I’ve started buying CDs again, I’ve listened to way more music than I have since my 20s. I’ve also learned about good audio equipment: what it is, where to find it cheap, and how to restore it. I’ve found the best-mastered versions of my favorite albums in bargain bins, while lower-quality “remasters” sell for 10 times as much. I’ve met new people, listened to new artists, and had new sonic experiences. What more could you ask for in a hobby?

Don’t take it from me, though. I’ve only been back on this train for a few months. Here’s a few audio experts on the topic: