Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Save Your CD's!

Place: Burger King
Lunch: Western Whopper, BK Big Fish, chocolate milk shake

The Western Whopper is the greatest thing to ever grace a Burger King menu. The second greatest thing is BK's tacos. But the stores around here don't sell them. Sucks to be me.

As previously noted, I was sorry to see Tower Records go (although I hear the guy who bought the trademark is going to actually open a store again soon.) But now there's more stories about major music store chains closing stores due to sagging CD sales. For example...The Virgin Megastore at the Gateway is on the way out.

The blame is put on people not buying CD's anymore...they're buying downloaded songs from iTunes and other online sources. They NEVER mention competition with more attractive pricing like online retailers or big box discounters like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, but why would they admit to their own wrongdoing?

In any case, there's no doubt that CD sales are falling through the floor.

Personally, I don't get it.

I have an iPod. I like it. I use it. I have my entire CD library loaded into iTunes. But it has its limitations.

If you're unfamiliar with how portable audio devices work, you install a program like iTunes on your PC (or Mac). Then you either purchase songs from the program's corresponding online retail store and download them to your hard drive, or you import the music from your compact discs into the program. Your songs are encoded into an MP3 or MP4 (AAC) lossy format at a bitrate of your choosing. With iTunes, you can go anywhere from 16 kbps to 320 kbps. The lower the bitrate you use the worse the sound quality, but the less disc space used, therefore the more music you can install. The higher the bitrate, the better the sound quality, but the bigger the file size. You can even copy the files as raw WAV files and they'll work...but your 5,000 song iPod will suddenly become a 500-song iPod. The "happy medium" compression level the industry has accepted is 128 kbps, which is the bitrate most download stores use for the files they sell you.

Anyway, once you've purchased your music or uploaded your CD's, you hook your player up to your PC (or Mac) and copy the files.

Slick and simple.

Many people uploading CD's prefer to go with a higher bitrate. Critics suggest a "minimum" 192 kbps, and Apple has even started offering limited titles at 256 kbps for an extra charge.

I use 192 kbps. I find that's a decent bitrate for listening to music on my iPod, but it's not acceptable for creating CD's. I've tried it, and the songs on my car stereo (which is nothing's the factory unit and speakers) sounds like "music with a head cold". A noticeable amount of dynamic range is missing. There's no question that when you buy online, you're buying an inferior product.

CD's aren't perfect either. Purists have complained that the 16-bit technology was incapable of providing the fidelity of LP's since the format debuted. They say LP's sound "warmer". There's even been a next generation technolgy to replace CD's in the form of various DVD audio-related formats, but the marketplace has ignored them, probably because you can't rip the files to your library, and at least partly due to poor marketing. Plus, there's very few car stereos that can play them. As a result, the record companies are all but abandoning these formats. Why offer an improvement when everybody is favoring inferior formats?

I like CD's for a few reasons. I prefer having an available hard backup of my music. I prefer the sound quality for non-iPod sources. I prefer knowing that if my computer blows up tomorrow, I can start all over again easily. I prefer knowing that as bigger hard drives and better compression technology comes along, I can adapt by just uploading everything again instead of having to buy it all over again.

So the CD market continues to sag. People are even selling their CD's to used stores after they upload to their computer. They'd better hope their computer and their MP3 player don't crash on the same day, or they're REALLY doomed. That's an area where downloads can be advantageous...the better download stores have your purchasing history stored and will allow you to re-download the songs again.

Anyway, it's something to think about before you get rid of your CD collection.