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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 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?


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Reader Comments (8)

The fact remains that CD can sound as good as vinyl, no question. Being a digital medium it has been subject to the loudness wars and fidelity has suffered. Given high fidelity 24 bit source material cd mastered correctly it can sound as good as vinyl without the HF erasure that happens all too quickly with vinyl play back.

The 'cd sounds bad vs vinyl' camp are basing their opinion on an old model of dubious early cd manufacturing technology, mastering engineers getting to grips with digital and low quality digital to analogue conversion from budget CD players.

I can see that trend back and I think it has more to do with the economy versus the buyer, rather than the other way around.

I think the decline in the economy has created a nostalgic desire to move back into something that provides comfort. It just so happens there's a whole generation of us who've never actually heard a record play and when we did we went...oh my!!!!

So - I think this will move in waves or cycles if you will. People resort to renascence when times are tough - the cool thing is, if you look at history, all the best music comes from impoverished and deplorable social conditions.

"Has anyone ever considered a CD collectible for its nostalgia value or status as an art object? "

Me. And I'm not alone. For just one example, do a search on "target CDs".

May 22 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Don't bother with the facts about 2010.....

"That is, 79 percent of their entertainment purchases by value - across all media types - are of the tangible variety. "For every dollar kids (ages 2-14) spend on entertainment content, $0.79 goes to physical format content and $0.21 goes towards digital format content," the report authors shared with Digital Music News."

or here

btw NARM/ Neilson 2010 wrap up of music showed that DigitalTracks where in negative territory

May 22 | Unregistered CommenterNelson

We have a CD manufacturing business and although orders are not that lively as they were in the nineties - early 2000s, we still get plenty. Many bands still want to make CDs? Why? Maybe it's because it legitimizes them- it gives the impression that they mean business and they're in it for the long haul- unlike the safe MP3s.

May 23 | Unregistered CommenterMarion

Honestly I love CDs. It might just be because I grew up with them but the process you talk about with vinyl is one that I get with CDs. I love the artwork and sleeve notes, and the sound of the lens moving back into place once the CD's finished. Hell I even love the sight of a large stack of CD cases that looks like it's going to fall over and make a loud crash any second. MP3s are convenient, and really great for unsigned artists, but I'd still take CDs over MP3s any day.

May 23 | Unregistered CommenterThomas

I can't, for the life of me, imagine vinyl ever having been a source of "high" fidelity. My experience with it has always been scratches, skips, and other nonsense. I for one, was glad to see it go and don't expect to ever return to it. Yeah.

May 25 | Unregistered CommenterJwarv

Audio and Video players are very crucial to play any music in Audio or video format. My favorite Video player are KM Player and Tiger Player. In Audio Player, I like Comet Player and Windows Media Player. But, to copy any song or film a hard drive is always needed. That is called a disc drive. CD and DVD are the categories of such hard drives. I like the CD of SONY and Moserbaer.. iPads are popular for listing music, but for me a CD or DVD will be better.

September 11 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Hinds

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