Is the CD Relevant in the Age of Streaming Music?

Who is still buying CDs anymore?

Everybody knows that you either drop the needle into a vinyl groove or stream albums online via your laptop or smartphone.

Oh, wait… what about audiophiles? Let’s not forget about this wafer-thin slice of the global music-listening pie. Yes, they are still listening to CDs (I’m one of them) on expensive players and perhaps they have green marker on the edges of every silver disc they own (don’t ask).

But, I mean no one else is. Right?

Wrong.

I go to a mate’s house for a beer and to listen to music, he picks an LP out of thousands and throws it on the platter – there’s no DAC in sight, but there’s a CD Player in his hi-fi stack and hundreds, if not almost a thousand CDs that are in heavy rotation along with vinyl.

Another friend has no LPs, but hundreds upon hundreds of CDs, a budget player and receiver feeding some small bookshelf speakers. He’s happy as a clam. Makes a face when I mention there’s no dedicated DAC. “DACK…?” he says quizzically.

As audiophiles, or a music-first gear fetishist in my case, it’s easy to get caught up in our own little worlds of high-fidelity matrydom whose altar we prostrate ourselves upon. We get so caught up in bleeding-edge audio technology, vintage amplification, stylus profiles, bit and sample rates, dielectric cables, active crossovers and transducer frequency response curves that it’s easy for us to wonder aloud if the CD really is dying out.

But many of us still see CDs as totally viable. I think a big part of that is decades and billions of dollars of shared investment in the medium. Would we care as much if we didn’t already have so many CDs? Who can forget how CDs were purged like flip phones in the 2000s when Napster hit. That seemed to be the start of the thinking that CDs were legacy whose time had come. Perhaps because we’re more medium agnostic as audiophiles that makes our belief that the CD (or the SACD) is still a viable format rather an archaic one.

Does the mainstream agree?

A mother or father with a few dozen (or more) CDs from the 80s and 90s doesn’t care about turntables, step-up-transformers, dedicated transports or 32-bit/768kHz-capable DACs. They just like to be able to play their Radiohead and Bruce Springsteen CDs on an Onkyo mini-system in the kitchen while having a glass of wine after picking up the kids from school. Same goes for the history professor who has a ton of classical CDs collected over decades he plays back on the NAD player bought in the late ‘80s. These are people who still need to have their music in their lives but have no idea what music zones, Roon Ready Endpoints, or aptX wireless connectivity are, nor do they care to. It’s just not a priority. So, while music still is a priority, not so much the delivery method.

What about hard numbers though? Actual sales of CDs? What do they say about the CD’s relevance?

According to Nielsen, who tracks these figures down to several decimal points of accuracy, U.S. CD sales at the midpoint of 2018 totaled 34.8 million – down 19.7 per cent over 2017 at the same time – with downloaded albums coming in at 28.6 million – down from 36.3 million, which translates to a 21.4 per cent drop from 2017. So, from a numbers standpoint, CD still has the edge over all those downloads – just. But that’s only part of the story. The bigger picture from Neilsen reveals a pattern of labels ignoring CDs in favor of downloads. Particuarly in the hip-hop and R&B genres with more than 25 albums debuting in the U.S. Top 10 in 2018 on the Billboard 200 without an accompanying CD for sale in bricks and mortar shops. Is it long before the rest of the genres adopt a similar approach and completely eschew the CD? Will that help finally take the CD out of the mainstream and reduce it to a legacy medium? And as far as streaming audio goes, Neilsen's numbers show them dwarfing downloaded albums and CD sales combined with a 2018 total for on-demand song streams pegged at 268.28 million.

So, while the cool kids may be hitting the jazz bins at their out-of-the-way local record shop for early Blue Note pressings that somehow slipped past the clerks armed with Discogs, the quiet audiophile is skimming through the new and used CD racks,(and also hitting ‘BUY’ for high-resolution downloads from their online vendor of choice when they’re not streaming TIDAL or Qobuz and comparing MQA to 24-bit/192kHz FLAC files). And the parents or prof who might still grab the odd silver disc? They’re probably buying them on sale at London Drugs or Best Buy as they go through the checkout. The teens or young people armed with a smartphone, Spotify, Apple Music and a pair of Beats? No CDs there, but at least those casual CD sales from the prof or mom and dad are counting if you’re looking at Nielsen’s numbers – somebody is buying them. Let's also not forget that used CD sales are not part of Nielsen's numbers, and how big is that slice of the sales pie?

Which takes us back to the original question of whether the CD is still relevant in a world of vinyl LP collectors and high-res streaming accolytes; I say yes it is. I don’t think it matters whether someone is listening to CDs on an aging NAD player, a black Onkyo on the counter, or a $10K transport mounted on an isolation platform, at least they’re listening. I’m pretty sure each person is happy with what happens when they punch the play button: Music pours forth and puts a smile on their face… and who can argue with the relevance of that?

COMMENTS
Ali's picture

And it could be a good idea, although cliche but still interesting, to compare cd to its equivalent streaming and see what would happen in terms of sound quality. Cheers mate.

stevedollar's picture

.... they pull me back in. As a recent convert to TIDAL/Qobuz, I have found streaming to be revolutionary, vastly expanding my already pretty expansive listening habits. Helps to have gear that's made for it, of course, but even so ... I'm still buying CDs. Not a ton, and far less than vinyl, but recently decided to pick up a nice transport rather to play those (and about 700 CDs and CD-Rs I have) rather than convert it all, painstakingly, to files. (I also download a lot of music, but I'm fine with playing it off a laptop, thru a hi-end DAC). Seems silly to throw out the baby with the bathwater every time there's a format shift.

spyder1's picture

I cringe when I hear stories from members of the Ipod generation, about ripping their CD collection to Itunes lossy AAC, then tossing their CD collection in the trash.

barno's picture

nice Rafe.....

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...I loved the London Drugs reference! Also, the Onkyo mini-system/glass of wine/picking up kids reference almost made me snort my morning coffee! As a former vinyl stalker of over 4,000 LP's, the current warden of over 800 CD's and a regular abuser of Spotify's free streaming service, I say the more format changes the better! While gear victims and trend addicts ditch their "Oh so five minutes ago" full price purchases, I snag them at pennies on the dollar at garage sales, thrift stores and sometimes for free at curb sides, laneways or intercept them at institutions dumpstering their music collections carefully curated over decades. So, here's to format changes and audio gear "evolutions"; I'll just keep listening to others' cast offs, learn more about this stunning human achievment called music and save a boatload of money. (I know it's Canadian money, so it's more like a canoeload.)

DH's picture

Where many people still buy discs as they have no store that sells them nearby.

dysonapr's picture

Look at the number of expensive CD-transports coming into the market.

I'm going to suggest to the guy who built our soap-stone stove that this could be a new line for him. Think massive stone plinth that goes down to bedrock, with a single-disc mechanism let into the top. He'd be back-ordered for years.

stevew's picture

CDs are the format that allows me to rip them in FLAC to my music streamer/server. I live in an area where there are many used CD and album stores where I can buy used CDs on the cheap. For new music I want, Amazon provides the best price. I have recently bought some FLAC downloads from QOBUZ, and their FLAC is less expensive than TIDAL. TIDAL also charges a ridiculous premium over physical CD prices. CDs are still my medium of choice for my car (I have a 6-disc magazine player). To save space, I store CDs in slim plastic sleeves designed specifically for music CDs. I would never sell my CDs to a store for pennies on the dollar. I have plenty of great music so I don't need to pay for a streaming service. I do use Spotify Free to sample new music. Let's face it, most people are fine just using a basic streaming service like Spotify or Apple. Most 'normal' people have never heard of TIDAL or QOBUZ and if they did, they would think it's crazy to pay for CD-quality streaming. I do own a mid level 2-channel system (Rotel, Paradigm, Auralic), so CD quality rips (FLAC) are important. My 1990's CD player works, but is in storage. Auralic streamer software is fantastic, so I don't need to buy Roon, even though Roon has some great features like multi-room, iPhone endpoints, play queue mgmt, etc...

volvic's picture

I have over 5,000 CD's mostly purchased used, most if not all are classical, opera and the rest 15% jazz. The CD players are used but have given away to computer audio (MacBook Pro, Stello U4 connected to a Moon 300DAC). The sound puts CD players to shame. I believe there is no need for a streamer, at least the ones I have heard, with the music I know, have not prompted me to seek for one. Still, there is something to be said about the simplicity of pressing open, inserting a CD and pressing play. Last week I spent 60 mins trying to figure out why the computer audio wasn't working(they installed a new meter in the building and shut off the power, had to reboot the always on standby DAC). I purchased the lot of my CD's after 2001 when they all became cheaper, I still do. Streaming, Qobuz, Tidal and whatever else there is out there does not interest me, I have plenty of music to listen over and over again and will probably never get around to listening to some in my collection more than twice. For us Luddites CD's are still relevant. When I tire of the my CD's there is always another 4000 vinyl records to listen through my three vinyl rigs. Long live the physical format.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I first became aware of digital recording back in the 1970's. First, with the Odyssey reissue of Denon's recording of Jean Pierre Rampal [remember him?] playing Telemann fantasias for solo flute. Not such a big sonic challenge, and like the other, early, 14-bit experimental recordings of Denon from the 1970's, a sonic failure. Later there were the Telarc LPs, better in lots of ways, then LPs from Columbia [in the process of becoming "Sony"] and RCA. I could "hear" truncation, or so I thought. Didn't have a CD player until the late 1980s, didn't like the sound at all.

This is some 30 years later. Things have changed. I actively dislike the sound of LPs. I really like the sound of digital files played back on my DAP. My sense is that digital signals don't want to be anywhere near AC. A CD player doesn't sound as good, as whole and as complete as that same file stored to micro sd and played back on a battery powered DAP. The files on my DAP come from CDs ripped to Apple Lossless files, stored on a 400 gb micro sd chip.

Is the CD part of this process relevant? I suppose so, it's my source. But I can imagine getting those files from another source. If I want to hear my CDs at their best, I don't use the CD player, I use the DAP. I should note that my DAP is the remarkably cheap and remarkably good sounding Fiio M3K. It retails for $70, though memory in the form of micro sd chips will cost as least as much if one intends to max out storage. My 400 gb chip set me back $75. That chip holds the equivalent of 1800 albums in Apple Lossless files.

I got my first 'smart phone' a few weeks ago and signed up for Amazon's music for streaming. It's not unlimited but it does contain the Astree/Naive catalog, including a lot of titles where the CD version has been unobtanium for the last two decades. That's relevant. As regards sound quality, sounds like a step down from Apple Lossless files played on the Fiio M3K but not a huge one. Press that same file to vinyl, and the considerable negative aspects of LP sound impose themselves on the sound of the Digital file. Those used to LP sound, with its inherent deterioration as the stylus finds its way to the deadwax and the velocity of the groove slows down radically, will disagree. But as far as I'm concerned, LPs ceased being 'relevant' a long time ago. Maybe as nostalgia or for the cover art, but it's too much space for storage and too many potential problems to be of any use to me anymore.

I worked at Borders back when Britney Spears and N'Sync CDs would come out for $18 a pop and folks would buy millions of 'em as they appeared. Now those same titles are in the 25¢ bins at Rasputins. Does that make it sound like CDs are relevant? Cardi B's "Invasion of Privacy" was huge last year. The CD didn't appear in stores until the big wave for her passed. CDs were not a factor in her success. Does that make it sound like CDs are still relevant?

Most of my CDs are in storage. I'm not itching to get them out of storage.

AlexMetalFi's picture

You are comparing downloaded albums to CDs, not streams to CDs:

https://www.statista.com/chart/10185/music-consumption-in-the-us/

It's not even close. CD is dead. Beyond dead.

CDs aren't like vinyl and give a truly alternative playback experience. They are more like tape (I mean archival tape not cassettes), i.e. they are just a physical medium to house bits and folks want to cut out the "middle man".

Rafe Arnott's picture
I don't compare streaming in the article (amended now), my CD sales and downloaded albums numbers are accurate.
AlexMetalFi's picture

People consume music by streaming now. There is no denying that fact.

Again, the CD as a playback medium is dead.

Dead does not mean no one is using them - hardly. Dead means a steady and slow decline into oblivion. And all the numbers, even the ones you quoted, back that up.

Frankly, I don't even understand why anyone would even use CDs. I buy them when I can't find a lossless copy through official online channels, but only to immediately rip them and add them to my digital collection (like every modern audiophile should do).

CDs can break. They get scratched. They are a pain to store. And the artwork and liner notes are not nearly as interesting as say a large print medium format like vinyl.

You wants bits - buy the bits. Stop reading them off silvery plastic coasters. It's silly now.

Lonchera's picture

I hope by the time I get a new vehicle, there will be an “option.” Dream on...

Lonchera's picture

Rebuying my catalogs is not something I want to do. Still have the LP's. Still have the shiny objects. PONO was a failed experiment for me...

ednaz's picture

I often hear something on Radio Paradise and go, wow, they're really good, I want that in my library. And then I'd go to HDTracks... nope. Then a few other digital audio sites that sell 16/44 files, and most of the time, nope. But then I go to Amazon, and find they've got the CD. That's how almost EVERY CD I currently have ended up on my shelves. (My friends send me a copy of their new releases sometimes, which accounts for the other CDs.) A lot of times the artists aren't on Apple Music or Google Music or anywhere else in lossy form.

First thing I do when the disc arrives is rip to my digital library (which cascades to four levels of backups). Then it goes on a shelf near the back door. My SUV audio system's highest resolution is DVD-Audio (dead format) followed by CDs. If I've got a lot of driving, I grab a handful of the CDs there for the trip.

I used to have over 2000 CDs, kept them around long after I'd gone to listening exclusively through my digital music server. (I still am not sure why...) When we moved, I took them all to a place that bought the interesting ones and promised to recycle the cases of those they didn't buy. (That's how I know how many I had.) I got 50 cents each for most of the ones they bought, although I did have a few rarities and box sets where I got a couple bucks per disk. About a third of them, they didn't buy.

Since subscribing to Qobuz, I've discovered (at least so far) that they've had every artist I couldn't find anywhere else other than on CD. They may be the end of my CD buying.

SpinMark3313's picture

...for me and for many friends as well.
Since picking up an Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC Plus and upgrading to Burson discrete opamps , CD's sound amazing - better than I thought possible and better than any streaming or files I've tried with my MacBook Pro.
Trips to Amoeba SF typically net several pieces of vinyl and many terrific CDs.
So, streamers, please keep streaming! I am enjoying discovering so much music through well priced new & used CDs. Trade in your used CD's - my buddies and I are buying :-)

Anton's picture

I still buy LP, CD, SACD and can happily keep it going forever.

We have Tidal and love that, too.

We mostly use Tidal for outdoor streaming to some portable battery powered speakers and it is fun!

Perhaps my inherent distrust of hard drives and the staying power of any given streaming service keeps me tethered to physical discs.

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