Recording of the Week 25 Years of the Compact Disc
On August 17 1982, row upon row of palm-sized plates with a rainbow sheen began rolling off an assembly line near Hanover, Germany. Now instantly recognisable as the Compact Disc, the format reached its 25th Anniversary earlier this year.
Developed jointly by Philips and Sony, they were marketed as having 'superior sound quality (compared to vinyl) and scratch free durability'. Now while the second of these is definitely true, CD sound quality is not superior to vinyl, and is actually worse. Without getting too technical about it, this is because the groove carved into a vinyl record exactly mirrors the original sound's waveform whereas with a CD this waveform is broken down into lots of tiny snapshots which are then allocated specific values.
So if you remember a richer sound from your vinyl records than you get from current CDs then you would be quite correct. The big problem with vinyl of course was that it started to decay from the very first time you played it, whereas CDs sound exactly the same on the hundredth playing as they did on the first. This, combined with their portability, general durability and the fact that you don't have to flip them over half way through a symphony (or movement if it is Mahler!) meant that the CD was quickly adopted as the standard format.
By 1986, CD players were outselling record players, and by 1988 CDs outsold records. The 1990s was a huge boom time for CDs with portable players becoming very affordable and people renewing their entire LP collections in the new format. Philips estimates that over 200 billion CDs have been sold worldwide over the past 25 years.
So, where next for the CD? What about the new formats and what about its biggest rival to date - downloading?
Well, the reason why CDs have remained so strong for so long is because they are so good, and for this reason new technology is finding it hard to establish itself. In 2000, two rival formats were launched - SACD and DVD-Audio. Both offered considerably better sound reproduction than CDs and also the possibility of surround sound (where you have speakers behind you as well as in front). It is a pity that neither one has really established itself as for the classical music lover the higher fidelity audio reproduction is a huge advantage, (even without any extra speakers). Out of the two formats SACD has done the best, but the player itself has always remained relatively expensive and since the major labels have now essentially abandoned the format it seems likely that it will gradually fade away.
Downloads have proved very popular in the pop singles market, but they still account for less than 3% in the classical market, and the rate of growth is slowing. Up until recently the sound quality of downloads has been poor. This is starting to be addressed, but the fact that they often aren't any cheaper than CDs and you rarely get a booklet has I think limited their appeal to the classical music lover. Add in to the equation the fact that many people do not find the technology straightforward, and you have to properly back it all up incase you lose it all, and I think there are many reasons why CDs will flourish for a long time yet. In fact, I wouldn't be particularly surprised if they're still doing well in another 25 years!