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Why I Bought a CD Player December 31, 2009

Posted by Andre Vellino in Attention, Information, Open Source.

My trusted 1992 NAD CD player decoded its last bits a few months ago. I wanted to replace it with something – the question was: what?

In the 21st century, one would think that the obvious answer to this question is a networked media player like the Sonos Digital Music System or the Logitech Squeezebox Duet. Music is digital now – why not store it on a server and play it back on a special purpose computer?  After all, isn’t that what even an old fashioned CD player is already?

I ended up choosing another CD player (a Marantz CD5300 to be exact) instead of a networked player. I was influenced in part by my spouse’s preference for handling tangible things (CDs). I agree with her that there’s something about taking a disc and playing it that makes the listener less “remote” from the music / composer / performer  than searching / navigating / browsing a collection of files. As well, I think selecting a disc requires a greater degree of purposeful intention for listening attentively than the selection of a play-list on an iPod-like device.  Moreover, an “album” isn’t just a random collection of songs or tracks – it is, itself, a composition of sorts. This is all the more obvious with classical music, where the unit-to-be-listened-to isn’t the movement but the Concerto or the Symphony.

One reason I considered the networked player at all is that I wanted to get rid of the clutter of a CD collection.  But the problem with ripping CDs to disk is dealing with the meta-data.  Services like the free freedb or even the commercial Gracenote are great for finding the (likely) metadata (title / composer / performer) that corresponds to your disc, but often the information offered by these services is incorrect or inconsistently specified.  There are also many redundant entries.  My experience is that the physical clutter and organization problem just gets replaced by a digital clutter and organization problem.

There are, also, the issues of quality of sound and predictability of format. Say what you will, but there is a perceptible difference between a 320kb/s MP3 encoding and the WAV data from which it was extracted. My benchmark is simple: does the MP3 encoding of the second movement of Schostakovich’s 10th symphony still send a chill up my spine? – it doesn’t.

One may retort: why don’t you use a format like FLAC, which offers 2x compression with no loss of information? One reason is – the WAV format on compact discs has been around for 30 years, FLAC only 10. And, truth be told, I have the nagging suspicion that music monopoly machines like iTunes will relegate Open Source formats like FLAC and the excellent (lossy) compression fomat OGG to oblivion.

There, I’m out of the closet as a retro-techno-laggard who doesn’t believe that WAV is an improvement over analog vinyl nor that compression formats are an improvement over16bit PCM encoding. I do listen to music in FLAC and OGG on one of the few portable players that supports them (the wonderful and inexpensive Sansa Clip), but I’m still keeping my CDs for the sake of posterity.


1. Maarten van Emden - January 31, 2010

Yes, CDs are compositions of a sort. But they get stuffed with fillers at the end. I’m doing a fair amount of fiddling to make sure that the thing shuts up after the symphony has completed.

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