He stares out the window and sighs. His friends think he's obsessive. He wants them to be patient, to understand that he's struggling with an agonizing decision. He sighs again. Should he take that fateful step, he wonders, break with his past, shatter tradition? Should he buy a compact disc player?
Okay, so this isn't exactly life- threatening. Call it upscale angst, yuppie mugwumpery. But if you've got a disposable income and enjoy listening to music, then worrying about how and when and whether to finally make the leap from LP to CD is worth at least a few thoughts. (Prerecorded cassettes may top the charts in sales, but audiophiles agree they're no match for the sonic quality of either LPs or CDs.)
Compact discs have been touted as the present and future of recorded music, the greatest advance in sound reproduction since Edison's wax cylinders. Millions of people are tossing their LPs and turntables on the dust heap of history, buying CD players (2.9 million last year alone) and stacking their jewel boxes of silvery discs ever higher. But there's a lunatic fringe of audiophiles who still listen to vacuum-tube hi-fi systems (a warmer sound than transistors', they insist), lament the passing of the 78 rpm record and buy exotic turntables that cost as much as a good used car. These are the same people who say consumers are being hustled, that compact discs don't really deliver all they promise.
Laugh at the audio nerds if you choose, but they may have a point. The record-buying public was promised the moon when CDs first rolled onto the market in 1982-'83. They were touted as virtually indestructible and maintenance- free. Even better, we were promised that CD music reproduction was incredibly lifelike, so ethereally pure that listening to LPs or prerecorded cassettes was going to hurt our ears. But now that the hype has subsided, we can take a closer look and, like my ambivalent friend staring out the window, examine the facts.
You probably know by now that the 4 3/4-inch-diameter discs aren't tough enough to be used as coasters or microfrisbees. The lacquer layer over the disc's aluminum coating is only 70 millionths of a millimeter thick -- hardly an armor plate. Light dust won't create the ticks and pops you hear on a dirty LP, but CDs have their share of problems: Excessive dust, warping or microscopic scratches that refract and scatter the laser's scanning light can cause mistracking or distortion. Deep scratches can obliterate chunks of music.
That's why the lowly LP, for all its fragility and maddening need for cleanliness, still has its advantages. Longevity, for one. Most of us have a collection of beloved records that spent too many nights spinning on a dorm turntable or were simply played to exhaustion. Yet we can still enjoy these old LPs, listening through the noise and hiss. Scratches and dust degrade a record's audio quality, but they don't create data loss -- blank spots -- as they can on a damaged CD. Even on an old and worn LP, the music is still there. In fact, sometimes simply changing to a different stylus can improve the sound of old LPs, as can scrupulous cleaning and vacuuming or treating them with a record restorer.
But you can't restore lost data on a wounded CD. Long-playing records have demonstrated archival permanence when properly maintained, but no one really knows how long the CD's acrylic sealant or other components will last. Even now, audiophiles hint darkly of "laser rot" and wonder if, for all their convenience, compact discs will still sound as good decades from now.
Not that new CDs always sound as fantastic as advertising often leads consumers to believe. Manufacturing compact discs is an exacting process, and new discs afflicted with pinholes or dust do find their way to stores. Yet even given a pristine disc, the music can still sound lousy -- plagued by hiss, poor microphone placement and distortion -- if good studio and recording techniques were absent.
At a practical living room level, it really doesn't matter that compact discs are a technological giant step. We listen to music, not technology, so whether a performance was recorded on CD or LP matters less than whether we're pleased by what we hear. But the mythology is that given a good performance coupled with optimum recording techniques, a CD will always sound better than an LP. This may be so if you own an average stereo system -- what some audio experts disparagingly call "mass-fi." Sarcastic, but true.
Even given adequate electronics, the average home audio system usually suffers from poor speaker placement, a misaligned turntable with a worn stylus, scratched and dusty LPs and a cassette deck one step up from a boom box. Add a CD player to this, and surprise! The music sounds wonderful. That's because most people have never heard truly good audio in their homes. They're used to hearing music reproduced one- dimensionally, a muddled mass of sound. When they drop in that first CD and hear music with a sense of transparency, each instrument floating in its own acoustic space, it's a revelation. CDs played on mediocre equipment do sound better than LPs, but listening to an excellent turntable playing "archaic" LPs through a superior system can provide essentially the same experience.
Another myth is that all CD players sound equally terrific, that you can't hear the difference between a $200 machine and one five times costlier. This was true in the primordial era of compact discs (five years ago), but we've seen several generations of players since then, each sounding better than its ancestor. So if you have a better-than-average stereo setup and you plug in a mediocre CD player, you're probably going to be disappointed.
Conversely, if you have low-fi, going CD may increase your listening pleasure, but, considering the high cost of compact discs, you're going to pay dearly for it. (A superior CD player costs roughly $500 and up -- the same as a first-rate turntable.) No matter what your tastes in music are, you probably won't find everything you want on compact disc. Many obscure musicians and classic performances may never be transferred to CDs.
None of this means you shouldn't convert to compact disc. CDs require far less maintenance than LPs and can offer hours of pleasure. Yet just a few years have shown us that they're not the ne plus ultra of recorded music. LPs are still available, still cheaper and still sound great. And right around the corner is DAT -- digital audio tape. These tiny cassettes, which sound every bit as good as CDs, are far more portable and promise -- here we go again -- to revolutionize the recording industry. So before you dash off to buy a CD player, you may want to spend some time staring out the window. And sighing. ::