Put the Compact Disc Out of Its Misery

The new CDs: Neither compact nor disks. Discuss.

This spring, the compact disc celebrates the 20th anniversary of its arrival in stores, which puts the once-revolutionary music format two decades behind Moore’s Law. The IBM PC, introduced about a year and a half earlier, has been revved up a thousandfold in performance since 1983. But the CD has whiled away the time, coasting on its Reagan-era breakthroughs in digital recording and storage. The two technologies, the PC and the CD, merged not long after their debuts—try to buy a computer without a disc player. But the relationship has become a dysfunctional one. The computer long ago outgrew its stagnant partner.

To the new generation of music artists and engineers, “CD-quality sound” is an ironic joke. In recording studios, today’s musicians produce their works digitally at resolutions far beyond the grainy old CD standard. To make the sounds listenable on antiquarian CD players, the final mix is retrofitted to compact disc specs by stripping it of billions of bits’ worth of musical detail and dynamics. It’s like filming a movie in IMAX and then broadcasting it only to black-and-white TV sets.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The modern recording studio is built around computers, Macs or PCs. Beefed up with high-performance analog-to-digital converters and super-sized disk drives, they digitize music up to 192,000 times per second, storing it as 24-bit data samples. That “192/24” standard captures more than a thousand times as much detail as the CD’s “44.1/16” resolution. Moreover, this music data is just another computer file, an icon on a desktop. Double-click it, and it plays. It would play on your home computer, too, if you could get your hands on it. All you would need to enjoy studio-quality sound at home are high-end speakers or an amplifier with digital connections to your computer. That’s the “digital hub” scenario touted by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and others. Plug everything into a home network, load up the computer with tunes, and press play from anywhere in the house. A three-minute pop song in 192/24 format fills about 200 megabytes of hard-disk space, which means Dell’s latest 200-gigabyte drive could hold nearly a thousand of them.

But instead of gearing up for digital home hubs, record companies have rolled out two more shiny-disc formats: DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD. Both sound great, but you’re forgiven if you haven’t heard of them. Following the radical makeover of consumer electronics in the past two decades, these discs have wandered in like Rip Van Winkle, unaware how behind the times they are.

In sound quality, at least, each disc brings the listening experience up to modern standards. DVD-A, developed by an audio industry working group, pumps up the old CD format 500 to 1,000 times in data density to match that now used in studios. SACD, on the other hand, is based on a new form of digital recording developed by Sony and Philips that converts sound waves into bits (and back again) more smoothly. Both bring studio data to the listener, bit for bit, and include extra surround-sound channels for home-theater systems. Properly engineered, their improvement over CD sound is striking. Can the average person hear the difference? Instantly. As Fred Kaplan noted this past summer in Slate, it’s enough to make you buy new speakers.

Yet both kinds of discs, despite being developed in the ‘Net-head late ‘90s, are odd throwbacks to the pre-PC era. Most obviously, they’re the same size as the original CD. Can you name any other digital device that hasn’t shrunk in 20 years? The players for them are bulky, closer in size to Sony’s first CD decks than to Apple’s iPod, which holds 400 albums rather than just one.

Flip one of the players over, and you’ll find another retro sight: analog output jacks. To prevent buyers from running off bit-for-bit copies of the new discs, gear-makers have agreed not to put digital ports on either DVD-A or SACD players. Yet old-fashioned analog connections erode pristine digital sound and are prone to interference from televisions, lights, and computers—the objects they’ll be placed next to in modern homes.

The real deal-breaker is that a stand-alone player is the only kind available. By manufacturers’ consensus, there won’t be any network ports on the players, nor will there be any DVD-A or SACD drives available for computers. Some makers are promising a digital link from the player to a home-theater console, but it’ll be deliberately incompatible with any of the jacks on a computer. In bringing the CD up to date with the PC, the music industry is also trying to split the two technologies asunder again.

It’s no wonder that gearheads who buy the latest, greatest everything have ignored DVD-A and SACD in favor of MP3 players and CD burners. Computer-friendly music formats let you archive hundreds of albums on a laptop, create custom playlists that draw from your entire collection, and download them to portable players smaller than a single CD jewel box. Today’s fans want their music in a form that fits the pocket-sized, personalized, interconnected world of their computers, cameras, phones, and PDAs. Asking digital consumers to give that power back in exchange for a better-sounding disc is like offering them a phonograph needle.