Drastic Plastic: Why CDs are still the best listening format for music

Asking a music fan what format they favour can be tricky. We have so much invested in our chosen music medium (emotionally and financially) that we must believe that we have made the ‘right’ choice. For me vinyl LPs were always something of a trial, and I remain a full on convert to CD. In the spirit of live and let live however, I understand that not everyone feels this way…

Back in the late 70s and early 80s there was a very strange shop in Bristol called Citizen Leisure. The ground floor sold camping gear, and upstairs was a record shop. This sold cheap imported versions of recent releases and classic albums from Greece, Portugal, and Spain. At £1.99 or so each they were great value, but that came at the expense of quality. There must have been a similar shop in writer Giles Smith’s hometown. He described the discs I used to buy in his book ‘Lost in Music’, calling them “pressed by being lightly rubbed against a proper copy”.

And that’s where I started to fall out of love with vinyl. To be honest the stuff you paid £3 and £4 for in HMV and Woolworths wasn’t much better. With income limited to the proceeds of paper rounds and car washing each purchase had to be a careful choice. Getting home to find clicks, pops, and a muddy indistinct sound after parting with 2 weeks money was frustrating to say the least. I ditched my vinyl in a house move about 1995, but still have a box of punk and new wave singles that I couldn’t bear to part with. Looking at my copy of the Ramones ‘Rockaway Beach’ you can see the graininess of the plastic. I can remember the revelation of hearing it on CD for the first time when suddenly there was bass, and I fell in love with it all over again.

Oddly I wasn’t an early adopter of CD, having committed to cassettes, and despite watching £5 worth of album get eaten by my cheap car tape player on a regular basis. Working in a Hi-Fi shop had put me off. The only demonstration ‘pop’ album we had was Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in Arms’ with its bright shiny mix, that just felt a bit fake somehow. When I did make the move, I was all in and found the sonic experience to be so much better than vinyl. Playing my new CD of ‘Aja’ against my 1977 vinyl copy there was just so much more to the sound. Steely Dan’s reputation for clarity and precision came into focus at last for me.

So, the vinyl revival has always baffled me. Why do we want to buy into a format that is, in my view, inferior sound wise. I don’t buy the ‘warmth’ argument. That’s just another way of saying the top and bottom of the sound has been blurred. Vinyl is better made now, a friend sent me a copy of his album pressed on heavy 180g plastic. It looks great, and sounds fine, but it’s just such a laborious process playing a record. Now I know that CD was a con meant to make me buy Bill Nelson’s ‘Sound on Sound’ album for a third, and with the recent superb super deluxe edition a fourth time, but for me CD just has so many advantages.

The early suggestions that you could cover them in jam, lightly toast them and still expect perfection were clearly rubbish, but they are more robust than LPs ever were. Ease of storage, length of playing time, portability, and above all sound that didn’t deteriorate with playing. CD bronzing, or ‘disc rot’ seems to have been a phenomenon of one Philips pressing plant in Blackburn. Having had over 10,000 discs through my shop in the last 3 years I have seen no more than 20 or 30 affected discs, and they all still played.

Fashion and nostalgia are clearly aspects of the interest in vinyl. The serious music fan’s love of the format never really went away, so the fact that the collectors’ market is now big enough to sustain new vinyl is a good thing. The size of artwork and sleeve notes are other big attractors for vinyl of course. What’s not to love about a 12” piece of Blue Note cover art. Now Spinning is one of the best of the Facebook music collecting communities and includes any physical format in its remit. It manages to cover any genre of music on CD, vinyl, or cassette and leaves excessive championing of any particular format at the door. I have a theory about why the vinyl revival resonates for younger music fans. Music doesn’t matter in the way it did in the 60s, 70s or even the 80s. There’s no crowding round Top of the Pops or meeting friends at the record shop to pore over the latest releases. The availability of a blizzard of videos, gaming, streaming film, and TV content just makes music that bit less special. So having something that harks back to the time when it was special, even in a slightly misty-eyed way makes the younger serious music fan feel part of the pack with us oldies who were there for the halcyon days.

Whatever your format of choice this is a great time for new and reissued music on physical media. Whether it’s the latest multi disc reissue from your local shop, or a CD bought from the band at a gig, they remain one of the best ways to support artists financially.

One of the multi format releases of the year is of course Jason Isbell’s ‘Weathervane‘. CD, black vinyl, and red vinyl, proof that there is space for every format…

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About Tim Martin 247 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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Martin Johnson

Tim, I’m with you on this. Clicks, pops, and skips just never did it for me. Mind you, as say, the main thing is for listeners to continue to support physical music whatever their preferred media is.

Paul Kerr

I think you are far too harsh on poor old vinyl here Tim. I agree that CD is a much easier and more reliable way to listen to music but a well pressed and well looked after LP sounds as good as a CD on a decent music system. Yes, I remember returning taking albums to the store back in the days due to a scratch or jump but then I’ve received some CDs which also skip and jump. There is, admittedly, a degree of musical snobbery amongst vinyl collectors which can at times verge on the hysterical. However, IMHO you can’t beat the experience (and ritual) of listening to an LP and enjoying its packaging. I’ve got Isbell’s Weathervane on vinyl, no pops, clicks or static and it is a thing of joy.

Fred Arnold

I’ve been through every music format, from vinyl (78s when I was a kid), cartridge, cassette, mini disc (still got my mini and full size models – never did understand why these didn’t take off, the sound is wonderful) and CDs. There’s no doubt CDs are the most practical and I think the CD sound has been improved from the first days of digital sound. But having just invested in an automatic high end turntable, I am very much enjoying the vinyl revolution with the 180g format – virtually no hiss, no clicks etc.and it turns itself off! Unfortunately the space required for vinyl is not ‘wife-friendly’ so CDs it is. And I won’t have streamed music as my main listening source. Spotify is only useful for finding out if an album is worth buying

Alan Peatfield

….. and another thing, just who are the idiots who pay £30+ for a vinyl?! Wait a month or two and – if you know which sites to go to – buy your fill of Americana CD’s for a fiver or so. Sorted.
Fred is right about Spotify – I use it to find out whether to buy a CD or not (or more accurately, individual tracks.)

Paul Kerr

While vinyl might seem pricey these days it’s actually cheaper (given inflation) than it was in the ’70s. There’s also the element of contributing to an artist’s income. Most of the vinyl I buy these days is either at a live gig merch table or through contributing to a kickstarter or similar fundraising effort. It’s all very well to wait and buy CDs cheap but then how much of your fiver goes to the artist?

Martin Gayford

I grew up with vinyl in the 80s and moved to CD in the mid 90s. I kept some of my record collection but sold quite a bit to buy CDs. Then, in the early 00s, I noticed my local record shop had bought in a big collection of vinyl – which seemed almost like a novelty – and were selling original LPs for £2-3 and I remembered how much I love records again. Many were genuinely NM and I managed to buy back a good deal of my old vinyl titles In immaculate condition for less than they cost in the first place. Then there was the emergence of mini LP CDs from Japan as well as enormous CD sets (such as Dylan’s Live 1966 box) which make CDs desirable again.

My collection is now about 1/3 CD to 2/3 records and I enjoy both equally. I only keep LPs that play flawlessly (okay, almost!) and CDs that are enough of a desirable object and in both formats, my favourite edition for sound (which, in either format, is not necessarily the latest, first or ‘deluxe’ pressings). Over the last 15 years, I’ve bought some records from retired record shop owners in the States that would never have been available to me in London in the 80s and I now know what a clean first USA pressing from the 60s sounds like compared with a 180 gram reissue or the latest remastered CD. The key for me is which format best suits a particular release – or what you want from it and a really high quality album or box set is still a wonderful thing whether its on CD or vinyl.

Dale Nelson

Nice to see a well-reasoned thumbs-up for CDs. For me the CD era came as a big relief; LPs were so easily damaged by someone as clumsy as me. To this day I can play two or three recordings and “expect” to hear a tiny jump or other bit of damage that I used to hear from a record. I started buying CDs in the 1990s, and they still play well now.

We used to listen to WILL — a classical music station in Urbana. We remember how a little bit of a big deal was made about playing recordings “from the WILL compact disc library.”

Richard Parkinson

I am another CD-ite. For the past 12 years or so I’ve listened to them via DVD or BluRay player with a 6 speaker set up. While you don’t get full 5.1, the bass does tend to come through the woofer while the rest of the speakers spread the sound around the room. I still buy occasional vinyl; usually because that is the only format available. I sometimes think though that the artist may make more ££ by selling downloads via Bandcamp.