Saturday, March 3, 2012

How Vinyl and iPods Ganged Up to Kill the Audio CD

NPR reported that CD sales tanked in 2010, particularly among younger buyers. The trend has continued until now and suggests that vinyl and iPods are sinking the audio CD into the so-called "fidelity belly," where mediocre products go to die.

[Image: Race to Obsolesence, David Lane.]

In his book Trade-Off, journalist Kevin Maney wote that a truly successful product provides either the richest user experience (fidelity) or the greatest convenience. Less successful products fall into what he labeled the fidelity belly, "the no-man's-land of consumer experience," characterized by commercial apathy, insufficient fidelity and insufficient convenience. (See diagram below right.)

Apple succeeds in the consumer computer market by providing the richest pre-sales experience in its retail stores. Dell and HP succeed by providing an ultra-convenient pre-sales experience online. Who is in the belly? Everyone else.

Sinking into the fidelity belly is essentially the fast track to obsolescence. Staying out of the belly is never assured, because customer expectations for fidelity and convenience constantly evolve.

While it may seem that the audio CD thrived for more than 20 years because of high fidelity, what it really offered over its fraternal twin on vinyl was convenience better robustness, more portability, multi-disc changers, in-vehicle players, random/repeat play, remote control.

In the last decade the iPod arrived to match all the conveniences of the CD, adding small (and ever smaller) player size, ubiquitous portability, invisible storage, and greater (and ever greater) capacity. Nothing can match the convenience of weightless digital audio, now available in a variety of formats at both lower and higher resolution than CD quality (choice is convenient, too).

On several online forums catering to vinyl aficianados, I posed the question, "what is it about playing an LP that appeals to you?" After all, the fundamentals of record playback haven't significantly changed in 100 years. It isn't necessarily sound quality (except among self-described audiophiles). Almost unanimously, the response came back that the real appeal of vinyl stems from interaction with an LP as a satisfying physical object large format album art, liner notes, even having to flip sides. Respondents were quite eloquent about it.

When was the last time you ever heard anyone wax rhapsodic about interacting with a CD? Has anyone ever considered a CD collectible for its nostalgia value or status as an art object? The audience for vinyl will keep it out of the belly by uniquely defining fidelity for themselves, establishing a multi-sense standard no other physical medium is likely to meet.

Thus the CD has been forced back along the convenience axis by dematerialized digital audio, forced down along the fidelity axis by vinyl, and ultimately swallowed up in the fidelity belly. It is now or will be soon become obsolete. (What to do with obsolete CDs? Here is one idea.) At least one study concluded that less than 10%  of listeners will be buying physical media in 2-4 years; that population will likely consist almost entirely of vinyl buyers, not CD buyers.

Way out in fidelity/convenience space is Maney's "fidelity mirage," a product that can deliver both super-high convenience and super-high fidelity. It is virtually impossible to do this in the commercial marketplace. Companies that attempt to reach the mirage usually fail and sink back into the belly.

But consider a high-resolution digital transfer of an LP, taken on the owner's own equipment, calibrated to his exact specifications, and restored in software to the best possible sound quality. The dematerialized result delivers super-high convenience, the original physical object retains its super-high fidelity. Is the fidelity mirage real?

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #24           

Title: Social Studies
Artist: Carla Bley
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1981

Carla Bley (b. 1936) has composed and performed in a wide range of styles over her long career, including free jazz, jazz opera, political jazz with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, and one of most beautiful Christmas records ever. But the music that resonates most with me comes from the large ensemble with the ever-shifting lineup known as The Carla Bley Band. Social Studies is a fine example of their work. But, of all my Carla Bley LPs, I really chose to highlight this one here for its cover art still life of endangered physical media.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.


  1. As a physical media buyer, would you consider purchasing a package consisting of LP-quality artwork and liner notes, accompanied only by a license key to download high-resolution uncompressed audio? Please leave a comment.

    1. Im all for Highest resolution followed by ease of use.A licence key would not bother me as I am repling to this on software activated by Licence key.

      I think Audio for purchase currently is a Dinosaur,and regardless of Media-so low fi.

      I am a Music Lover.

  2. Hell no. I'm not interested in anything that separates the physical purchase from the music. What happens once your download servers go down? Is there going to be value in the artwork and liner notes in ten years the same way there is in my LP's?

    No thanks.

  3. It is easy to predict the death of CD just like ti was easy to predict the death of LP in 1985 - and the thesis of the quoted author fits this prediction pretty well which is nicely convenient.

    While good points made on the MP3 vs CD vs Vinyl ... in many ways the ultimate in convenience is radio yet that appears to be on the decline as well.

    And the best sound reproduction is high resolution digital files (24bit, 96+kHz uncompressed) ... yet neither fit the thesis of the blog post.

    I suspect that there are other forces at work here - rather than the convenience/quality spectrum - because the two currently on the winning track (MP3 and Vinyl) aren't optimal if you lookk at the solutions available.

    Perhaps Vinyl is good because it sounds better than MP3 and has a "retro cache"

  4. The CD wasn't introduced to compete with vinyl for fidelity. It actually competed with and defeated the cassette for convenience (portability, use in vehicles, etc.). Now it's being defeated on convenience by compressed digital.

    High resolution lossless digital audio (in which I am a believer) faces two challenges. Let's break down the name.

    The target market for high resolution, an older demographic, is not crossing over for two reason. One, they tend to buy less music, relying more on a sizeable personal collection. Second, they seek fidelity and a sizeable percentage believe absolutely that anything analog is better then everything digital.

    The target market for lossless digital, a younger demographic, isn't crossing over for two reasons. One, compressed digital is all a substantial part of the population has ever known and they think it sounds just fine. Second, they seek convenience and lossless digital is no more convenient to carry around or stream through the cloud than compressed.

  5. A slightly condensed version of this article was re-printed in the May 22, 2012 edition of Music Think Tank (

  6. Vinyl will die way before cds ever will, hardly any vinyl pressing plants exist anymore and many many more cds are produced yearly then records.

  7. That's not true. There are over two dozen pressing plants in the U.S. alone: Bill Smith, RTI, Palomino, Archer, Trutone, A&R...

  8. 'A CD is just a barrier between your music and your iPod.