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Music: Spinning Lies

Are CDs as obsolete as the US Constitution? According to Michael Hsu writing in the Wall Street Journal, we should be ripping the music and tossing the discs.

After blowing through several iterations of state-of-the-art music distribution, I believe it is impossible to find a "future-proof" system, despite his assertion. There may be digital formats that retain the full range of a CD, and storage space is inexpensive, but conversion is a big project.

According to Hsu, "At some point in your life, you probably set aside a long weekend to rip your entire CD collection to MP3." Maybe if you've got a measly two-hundred discs. That scenario never crossed this collector's mind.

Hsu says save time with the Acronova Nimbie, which can transfer 100 CDs at a time, for only $645, plus tax. Come on! you could buy more shelves for that money, save time and grief.  

But why do it oneself? CDs can be transferred with "archive-quality" onto DVDs or a hard drive. (Hsu forgets to mention that you need to back up either one, particularly the hard drive.) There are companies that do the conversions. (There are a couple of laserdiscs that I'd like transferred to DVDs, but commercial converters charge so much money.)

Once you've converted your CDs, you upload the files to a cloud service where, again, there is no guarantee they won't go out of business and swallow all your music. [Various saving devices quickly became obsolete  — 3" storage disks, 5¼" floppies — not to mention different music delivery systems]

After you perform this backup, you cannot sell or donate your CDs (legally), you must destroy them. Colour me skeptical.  

And then there's crazy source Neil Young. His new "Americana" album is available on CD and on vinyl, the latter for $42.38. Why? According to Young, "We live in the digital age and, unfortunately, it's degrading our music, not improving it."

Neil Young record Not sure if he was referring to the quality of the sound or of the music itself, but Jazz and orchestral musicians, who often have extensive training and are perfectionists, seem to have no problem with digital, even prefer it. When analogue was the only alternative, records were not the quality medium. That was reel-to-reel tape, sounding better and deteriorating several times slower.

Bear in mind that Young's are not standard vinyl albums. There are two discs of super-heavy, audiophile grade 180-gram vinyl pressed in Germany, sold in special packaging. What this equation omits is the cost of playing your $42 record.

When I had a turntable, the good ones were very expensive. The last employed a belt drive to reduce vibration and I believe it cost $300 on sale. That just spins the record. A stylus and cartridge can cost over $200, although you could pay about $100 on sale. Seems it would be a problem finding them today, even at retail price.

Then you need an amplifier, if it includes a pre-amp, and great speakers to maximize the sound quality. All that money to play the few records being issued today. Any old records will sound like shit, even the elderly so-called audiophile pressings, because they deteriorate. Every time you play one, you wear down the vinyl. So it's not just suggestibly better sound, it's better for the first few spins, until the pops and clicks begin.

Technology is moving far too fast to make any permanent moves. I always thought I'd have an audiophile playback studio when I grow up. That hasn't happened yet, but I get way better sound from compact discs than from any other format I've used.

When many listen to music on portable devices over cheap headphones, it makes no sense to invest in records or record players. If Neil Young says the CD sound is no good, I've got a solution. Don't buy his CD.

As for Michael Hsu, I've got a suggestion for where he can store his music.

June 2012

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