Last year, compact discs (CDs) were just a novelty. But now that the new format is catching on quicker than anyone expected, more than a million CD players could be spinning in American homes by the end of the year, with maybe double that number by the middle of next year. Without a doubt, the future of recorded music lies with those shiny platters, but for the consumer the question remains, “Is now the time to invest in CD?”
First of all, what’s the attraction? Simply put, CD is the best-sounding format for musical reproduction, far better than LPs or cassettes. A total lack of surface noise frees every subtle nuance of the music to stand out against a background of utter silence. The CD’s vast dynamic range gives all types of music an extra wallop in the bass. And because the musical information–encoded as millions of microscopic pits beneath a clear plastic cover–is read by a laser, the discs don’t wear out. Nothing like it has ever been heard on ordinary LPs and such powerful sounds would knock a phonograph needle right out of its groove. The conventional phono stylus scrapes along, forever fighting a losing battle against Newton’s Laws of Motion. When the music really gets going, the stylus just can’t keep up with it, so the top and bottom of the dynamic range have to be compressed on records.
Even cassettes can’t match the full sound spectrum of the CD. There just aren’t enough magnetic particles per square inch of tape surface to hold the full thrust of a loud passage. No such problems exist on CDs. Because the format is not mechanical, there’s no record groove to be tracked and no magnetic pattern to be sensed. The sound is translated into numbers in the recording process and read by a laser. There’s no weight and no inertia, so you can have all the sonic force you want, complete with all the sonic details.
Skeptics would assume that there’s a catch to anything this good–and they’re right. The CD lives up to its promise only if the recording engineers do their job right, the pressing plant doesn’t goof, and the playback equipment brings out all the sound contained on the disc. When the first CDs hit the market about two years ago, recording engineers were still feeling their way around the new medium. Often they failed to realize that since digital equipment ”hears” the music differently from conventional recording gear, it requires different mike placement and mixing. Before this was widely understood in the record business, some CDs sounded strident and steely. But engineers are learning fast, and their batting average has improved.
The quality of CD pressings is looking up, too. It takes at least 5 billion digital bits to spell out an hour of music on a CD–all the data has to be crammed very close together on those little discs. For a while, as much as 70 percent of the total factory output of CDs wound up in the reject bin. But quality control has been stepped up on all labels (though an occasional dud still slips by.) Defective CDs don’t harm playback equipment, but sometimes the sound can get pretty weird. More often, the system simply goes silent when the digital bits don’t line up right on the record.
The CD catalog is growing so rapidly that at last count more than 5,000 titles were available worldwide. Since there’s no guarantee you’ll find the record you want in your neighborhood store, look to big-city, big-volume retailers for the best selection and price. Discounts are rare because demand still outstrips production, but occasionally you’ll find a CD that lists between 12 t0 15 dollars selling for eight or nine dollars.
The first batch of CDs was mostly classical music, partly because classical artists adapted themselves sooner to the new recording and production techniques. But pop artists are catching up fast, and current releases are spread out evenly over all types of music. Surprisingly, some of the newest items in the CD catalog are oldies, like Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis compilations. Such reissues are dubbed from older analog recordings, but engineers clean up the sound so that the transfers sound much better than the originals.
Compact disc players are also getting better and cheaper as the competition among manufacturers heats up. For example, Sony’s ultracompact D-5 lists for $299.95, and many shops sell it for about $250. When you consider that only two years ago most CD players sold for $800 to $1,500, that’s quite a drop. The D-5 is hardly bigger than the disc itself. It literally fits into the palm of your hand, and it serves a double purpose: you can hook it up to your home system, or with earphones and an optional rechargeable battery, you can take it with you.
Even smaller–in fact, the smallest of them all–is the new Technics SL-XD7. Measuring a mere five square inches, with a thickness of hardly more than one inch, and finished in chrome, it looks like a silver cigarette case. But despite its tiny size, the SL-XD7 offers elaborate programming, allowing up to 15 tracks on CD to be preselected to play in any sequence you like. At a list price of $299.95, it is one of the cheapest players available and will appeal to listeners who want to add the new format to their stereo systems but are tight on space and short on cash. An optional battery pack costs another $50.
Among standard-size CD players, a clear standout is Yamaha’s CD-X2. This model concentrates on essentials. By dispensing with frills that few listeners ever use, Yamaha holds the price at $299 and offers superb sound. This player has ”random access,” which means that any of up to nine tracks can be played in a preselected sequence. What’s more, the unit has a built-in amplifier and volume control for earphones, so you can listen to CDs in privacy while leaving the rest of your stereo system turned off.
Now that just about every major hi-fi firm has entered the CD race, it’s not surprising that most of the new models are basically imitations of one another. But considering the uniformly high standard of performance, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Outstanding for good value among the many newcomers are the Pioneer PD-5010 ($299.95), the Panasonic SL-P3610 ($374.95), the Sansui PC-V100 ($350) and the Technics SL-P1 ($400). There are many higher-priced models, but it’s difficult to discern any difference in the sound. The higher-priced models have a few more conveniences, and some boast of more sophisticated circuits for ”error correction.” This allows the player to compensate for imperfections in the recording, correcting defects in the digital data stream by quick computer calculations so that the listener is never aware of the imperfection.
Once crucial to proper CD sound reproduction, fancy error-correction circuits are becoming less important as the quality of the discs gets better. Several leading companies–such as Sony, Kenwood, Alpine and Pioneer–have introduced car CD players. None are cheap, and prices range from 500 to 700 dollars for the player alone, to which you have to add the cost of an amplifier and speakers.
The price will probably fall once the novelty of the car CD has worn off, but it won’t happen quickly. For the next few years, cassettes and LPs will continue to be the leading music formats.
But experts are predicting that their reign will last for only three or four more years. Price tags for CD players already compare favorably with medium-priced turntables, and quality discs are readily available. Adding the CD option to your stereo system is a sound investment.