The chorus is now tuning up -- not without nostalgia and regrets -- to sing a requiem for the long-playing, vinyl classical record. Its time has come -- or, rather, its time has gone. There were and still are a lot of good things to be said about the old recording technology. And as the LP advances toward oblivion, one has a right to become sentimental -- like old-timers who reminisce about the days of the horse and buggy.
"If analog disc is fading, it is a twilight of the gods," according to one involved observer. That remark is from a recent equipment review in Stereophile, the most congenial, literate and rational of the specialized magazines devoted to the "high end" of the audio industry. "Tonearms, cartridges, and turntables get steadily better," the reviewer says. "The overall quality of the best analog disc systems today is far better than it was two years ago."
All quite true, but not very helpful. Take a trip over to the Excalibur audio salon in Alexandria -- one of the highest high-end shops in the United States -- and you can hear $10,000 worth of amplifiers pumping signals into $40,000 worth of speakers. The sounds that emerge are in some ways better than what you hear at a real concert.
The spectacular noises may come either from a still standard LP record or from one of the glamorous new compact discs (CDs). And if you search a bit, it is not hard to find some LPs that sound better, on this fantastically advanced equipment, than some CDs.
In spite of such excellence, the years if not the days of the LP record are obviously numbered. Before very long, you will have trouble buying a new vinyl LP at your favorite shop. There may be a dusty bin somewhere, perhaps labeled "collector's corner," in which LPs are jumbled together with 78-rpm albums and eight-track tapes -- curiosities of a bygone era; casualties in the inexorable process (which is not always a straight-line progress) of mass-market technological development. If you have the right kind of equipment, you can take home a 50-year-old 78 recording and make it sound better than it has ever sounded before.
That makes it not one whit less obsolete.
The CD is destined to replace the LP as a standard format for recorded music much sooner than anyone had expected. It has already taken a substantial share of the market (one-third in some stores, even more in others) in spite of a serious shortage of material. Compact disc players were the Christmas gift of choice for many Americans last year, as videotape recorders were the year before. And demand continues to rise. "CD players are outselling LP turntables in all our stores," reports Mike Zazanis of Audio Associates. "The CD was originally aimed at the specialized audiophile market, but it caught on very quickly with the general public."
It might have caught on even more quickly if the industry had known how popular the new product would be. The CD was introduced to the world before there were enough factories to fill consumer demand. The result is a supply-and-demand situation that has kept the prices of CDs higher than LPs, though already far below the original $20 list price. The cost picture is complicated by the fluctuating exchange rates between the United States and Japan, where most CDs originate. But it doesn't seem to matter; at any price, record distributors are scrambling to supply program material for all those CD machines.
"The sales are incredible," reports Maurice Rogers of Tower Records. "We now order much larger quantities of CDs than LPs. And if a change in the exchange rate pushes prices up, people just keep on buying." John Olsson of Olsson's Books and Records confirms that the sales of classical compact discs are booming, even with a price differential. If price parity is ever achieved (something that industry observers keep predicting), that will probably be the last nail in the LP's coffin.
Meanwhile, some large record companies are beginning to unload the vinyl backlogs in their warehouses -- perhaps fearing that they will become obsolete before their scheduled time. Sensational discounts are now being offered to record dealers and passed on to their customers; the twilight of the LP will be a good time for die-hards to stock up for the long, lean years ahead. One store in New York put its entire LP stock on sale a few weeks ago at $2.50 per record, clearing its shelves so that it can now deal entirely in CDs. Several small, audiophile-oriented record companies have already stopped issuing LPs and concentrate on CDs. It may take a while for this trend to reach the major companies, but the process has begun.
Why is the LP giving way so rapidly to the CD? In most aspects of sound reproduction, it is not because of any clear superiority in the new format. We are comparing a technology in its primitive stages with a technology that has been through more than a century of constant development and refinement since Thomas Edison first demonstrated his "talking machine" in November 1877. It is not surprising that LPs sound so good -- particularly the first few times they are played. It may be more surprising that the CD, so early in its life span, has a competitive level of sound quality.
In fact, when either system is functioning at its highest potential, the limiting factor in the sound you can get is not the recording format. It is the equipment being used: the choice and placement of microphones at the recording end of the process; the quality of loudspeakers and perhaps amplifiers for the playback.
If the changeover is happening faster than anticipated, it is not because the CD has fulfilled all expectations. The CD is not magic, as some fans seem to think. It is technology and, in the forms that have reached the consumer market, it is compromise technology -- a result of shrewd marketing decisions on the balance of price and quality that classical-music lovers are willing to accept. The compromises were many and multifaceted, going far beyond such items as the sampling rate and signal-processing systems that most audio specialists talk about.
It was arbitrarily decided, for example, that the standard format would be a tiny disc, less than five inches in diameter, with a digital signal encoded on only one side. True, this little package can contain up to an hour and a quarter of music. But there was no reason, beyond marketing policies, why it was not developed as a two-sided disc that could contain a whole opera. Or a 12-inch, two-sided disc, on which all of Beethoven's symphonies and/or string quartets -- perhaps even Wagner's "Ring" Cycle -- might easily be stored. Digital technology could just as easily have developed such formats, not unlike the 12-inch video LaserDiscs, which are produced and scanned with essentially the same techniques. Clearly, the CD was designed not to be the best system the state of the art would allow; it was designed to be something that large numbers of people would buy -- and not to contain more music than most people would want to buy in one bundle.
But this strategy, by itself, would not be enough to make the CD the spectacular success it clearly is. The CD is superior to the LP in a number of ways that are important to the mainstream consumer of recorded classical music:
It substitutes one hi-fi component, the CD player, for three: the turntable, tone arm and cartridge, each of which can easily cost more than the single CD unit.
defbox Its sound is not always or in every way spectacularly better than that of a well-made LP, but it has some unique qualities that the average listener will treasure. It is clean sound, with no trace of the turntable rumble, surface noise or tape hiss that are recurring problems in the LP format. Among the several hundred CDs I have played, one had unexplained thumps occurring sporadically in the bass; another showed tracking problems on one player, which disappeared on a second machine. But compared to most LPs, the sound you can normally expect from a CD has marvelous clarity; all you hear is the music.
The digital honeymoon is over in the specialized audio publications; it now emerges that these discs may not last forever, that they will not sound as good after being baked for 30 minutes in a 500-degree oven, that the sound can deteriorate or disappear if they are sufficiently smeared with used motor oil or peanut butter. But still, with normal care, the CD has considerably more durability than the LP, particularly the wafer-thin, easily warped LP that has become the norm in recent years as the cost of vinyl mounted.
How long the sound of an LP remains pristine depends on the frequency with which you use it (vinyl likes to rest between assignments), the quality of equipment on which it is used, the peripheral care (cleaning, etc.) lavished on it, and the conditions under which it is stored. These considerations may have some relevance in the treatment of CDs, but they are much less critical. LPs generate sound through friction -- the scraping of a stylus in a contoured groove -- while CDs "read" musical information with a laser beam scanning a digital code imprinted on the disc. The scanning process seems curiously abstract, but it is obviously gentler and less prone to wear out the recording.
A CD will play up to 75 minutes of music without interruption. Or, with a remote control unit (almost standard equipment), you can have instant access to any segment of the program from across the room. This instant access is one reason why disc systems retain a strong share of the recording market; it can be annoying to fast-wind through 40 minutes of tape cassette to reach the five minutes you want to hear at the end of a side. An LP also offers instant access across its flat surface, but you have to physically pick up the tone arm, find the passage you want by visual scanning (usually with some trial and error) and put the stylus down in the correct groove. With a CD system, you simply punch in the reference number of the passage you want to hear, and the player finds it for you. CDs can also be speeded up for a quick scan of the music. Unlike the LP, in which the pitch of the music changes when the speed of playback is changed, music fast-scanned on a CD retains its normal pitch and simply goes faster.
Also destined to survive, for the foreseeable future, is the tape cassette, which allows people to put their own programs in their own order. Among other services, the cassette may supply long-term storage for bygone recordings that don't make it to CD. If this kind of transfer is not done by the record companies, it can and will be done by interested individuals.
Opposition to compact discs, though frequently framed in technical terms, seems sometimes based on other considerations, not all equally rational. An extreme example appeared last year in a letter to the editor published in the Absolute Sound, which has been the leader of the opposition to CDs -- with occasional mild disagreement from some of its 20,000 paying customers. One customer agreed heartily. "The Devil attacks through undermining the emotions (e.g., through undermining music)," she wrote. "The potential harm to music is enormous. It's my understanding as I write this that Digital is his big weapon. If we are God's people (we emotional people), then we must resist it . . . Please see this letter as a strong argument to go to the church and ask them to take sides with you against Digital."
The tone was less theological and the rhetoric more scientific in an article published last year in Fanfare magazine. The author, Prof. Judith Reilly of Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Mass., argued (with charts and diagrams to support her thesis) that LP turntables were being damaged by playing records made from digital masters. She claimed that "spikes" in the signals generated by these records were causing microscopic cracks in turntable bearings and spindles, which in turn caused speed fluctuations. So far, even among opponents of digital recording, nobody has managed to duplicate the results she reports, to demonstrate the existence of the spikes on LP records or to explain how, if they existed, they could cause cracks in metal.
Two significant sources of opposition to CDs are money and inertia. Music-lovers and audiophiles have made a tremendous investment, emotional and financial, in LP technology. Some of us have grown up with particular recordings; they have comforted us in times of sorrow and enhanced our moments of joy. And these records -- millions of them, already on people's shelves -- cannot be played on this new, noncompatible system. In that respect, the arrival of the CD differs significantly from the development of the LP and the later development of stereo. When the LP supplanted the 78 in the late 1940s and early '50s -- and again when stereo discs arrived a few years later -- it happened with a "both-and" approach; the equipment used to play the new records could also be used to play the old ones.
The CD, like the audio cassette, is a completely different system. It confronts the music-lover with an "either-or" choice that can generate acute discomfort.
It may be, finally, that a significant part of the opposition to the CD comes from audiophiliacs -- a special subgroup of audiophiles who push an essentially healthy interest over into borderline pathology. A relatively benign form of audiophilia is pursued by tweakers -- people who enjoy fussing with brushes and fluids for cleaning records and styluses; mats and other devices to eliminate or reduce turntable rumble; solid-gold cables to enrich the tonal quality of microelectric currents; stylus pressure gauges; the precise alignment of cartridges for optimum tracking angle; radioactive pistols to eliminate static electricity from the disc surfaces; and a host of other gadgets.
The fact that such fussing was often relevant for playing LP records is one of the strongest arguments for the CD, which will eliminate the need for most of them. But those who have become addicted to such fussing will have to find something else to do with their hands while they listen to music. Or, in some cases, to 17 kHz.
A more pernicious group of audiophiliacs is the keener-eared-than-thou audio snobs who enjoy sneering at what they call "mid-fi" systems. Some (by no means all) of them have been complaining about distortions in CD sound up above the normal range of human hearing. These complaints usually scorn laboratory measurements -- not nearly subtle enough -- and focus on subjective experiences that cannot be shared by ordinary music-lovers, whose hearing is less acute than their dogs'. Such complaints have to be taken (if at all) on faith, perhaps with a touch of pity for those who are unable to enjoy what others find thoroughly enjoyable.
sk,1 Nobody should invest in digital equipment or any other expensive hi-fi paraphernalia, of course, without first listening. Ultimately, your own ear is the only standard for judging what you can enjoy or accept. Some people prefer the sound of analog recording, as some prefer amplifiers with tubes rather than solid-state circuitry. But recently most people, given the choice, have been choosing digital sound.