NPR reported that CD sales tanked in 2010, particularly among younger buyers. The trend suggests that vinyl and iPods are sinking the audio CD into the so-called “fidelity belly,” where mediocre products go to die.
In his book Trade-Off, journalist Kevin Maney wrote 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.
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, and 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 dematerialized 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?