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Editorial: Rediscovering CDs in the Age of Music Downloads

Posted by Jim Tanous on May 23, 2013
Music CD Editorial

The method by which I collect music has changed considerably over the years. At a very young age, I recorded my favorite radio stations to blank cassettes, then dubbed the songs I wanted to mix tapes. When I started to earn some money, I would buy cassettes, then CDs. Then of course came Napster and, so as not to incriminate myself, let’s just say I found that service “very interesting” during my cash-strapped college days.

Once the novelty of Napster wore off a bit, I returned to purchasing CDs and built up quite a collection. The iTunes Music Store had debuted by this point but, while I used iTunes to manage my music, I rarely purchased tracks from the iTunes Store because I found the 128 kbps encoding quality to be noticeably poor. When Apple introduced “iTunes Plus,” the company’s DRM-free 256 kbps alternative, in 2007, I gave iTunes another look and ended up shifting the majority of my music purchases to the company for several years.

In many cases, used albums from Amazon Can be had for less than $5 each, including shipping.

But as time went on and I slowly upgraded my audio equipment, I eventually desired a return to a higher quality audio source. iTunes Plus tracks sounded fine, to be sure, but there were still certain albums where I could distinguish between the compressed AAC file and the original audio CD. So I re-ripped my existing CD collection with Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC) and decided to begin purchasing CDs again.

Not everything needed to be purchased on CD and ripped losslessly, of course. Music I listen to only on occasion could remain encoded at iTunes Plus bitrates. Also, some of the new “Mastered for iTunes” content sounded pretty good. But for my favorite albums, along with some older albums I still hadn’t acquired, I determined that purchasing CDs was the best course of action.

So, I logged in to my Amazon account and, over the course of several months, purchased many of my favorite albums that heretofore only existed as lossy digital tracks. Nearly all of these albums, along with new albums I discovered during this period, could be purchased used. I decided to take the chance with a used CD purchase and started picking up many titles. As I examined my budget at the end of the month, I discovered that I had saved quite a bit of money!

In many cases, used albums from Amazon could be had for less than $5 each, including shipping. That price got me the full album, the option to rip the tracks losslessly to iTunes, and an inherent physical media backup of the music, all for roughly half of what iTunes normally charges for an album.

While I suppose that I knew about this all along, it wasn’t until I put this process into practice that it really sunk in. In fact, even for brand new albums, the Amazon (or other physical media store) price is rarely more than the iTunes price, and is often significantly less.

Rediscovering CDs The Killers Hot Fuss

Some examples: the excellent 2004 album “Hot Fuss” by The Killers is currently $9.99 on iTunes. The same album as a used physical CD is $4.00 including shipping on Amazon. A more recent release, “Random Access Memories” by Daft Punk, is $11.99 on iTunes but only $9.97 from Amazon. Here, the price difference is less, but you get so much more, including lossless quality and free physical backup.

Over the past few months, I’ve been unable to find any title I was interested in that cost more to buy in physical form compared to digital on iTunes. The same goes for other music platforms, including Amazon’s own MP3 Store. But there are still benefits to buying from iTunes, however.

First, and possibly most important, the music purchased via iTunes is delivered instantly. Second, it comes “pre-ripped” so to speak; the purchaser doesn’t have to take the time to rip it, enter the correct metadata, assign album art, and so on. Third, buying from iTunes gives money to the artist (and publisher). Purchasing a used CD doesn’t, an important consideration if you’re interested in supporting your favorite bands, especially independents. Fourth, purchasing digitally allows the buyer to pick up individual tracks (at least in most cases, as publishers sometimes label tracks as “album only”) and not the whole album. Finally, many new computers don’t include optical drives, making digital purchases the easiest way to acquire content.

External Optical DriveAt the end of the day, however, I found that most of the benefits provided by iTunes could be easily outweighed. Only on the rarest of occasions do I need to obtain a particular album or track right now. I can usually wait two or three days to get the CD in the mail. Ripping a CD is fairly quick and easy. The significant savings from buying most used CDs make it a better deal than buying just two or three tracks from a digital album. As for money, I want to support my favorite bands, but with the cost savings I could buy the used CD, mail the band $5 directly (which is more than they likely make on a retail CD purchase), and still come out at or below the iTunes cost. Finally, external optical drives are readily available and cheap. Even if you buy one only for music CD ripping, you’ll make up the cost in savings with just three or four albums compared to iTunes purchases.

Add the lossless quality and the physical backup to the list above and, for me, the choice is easy. Perhaps if iTunes eventually switches to lossless quality (a strong possibility) or works with publishers to significantly lower prices (get your skis ready for the winter vacation in Hell), iTunes and other online stores will become the best place to acquire music. Until then, however, buying and ripping used (or even new) CDs is the way to go.

One thought on “Editorial: Rediscovering CDs in the Age of Music Downloads”

immovableobject says:
I agree wholeheartedly with the author of this article. One thing that is a problem for avid CD collectors is finding space for thousands of discs (particularly those in jewel boxes). And if you want easy and rapid access to the booklets, even more so.

There is no question in my mind that decades from now, CDs will cease to be manufactured, and many existing CDs will have been disposed of as worthless trash, their audio having been ripped or otherwise available digitally. Any discs that remain will become valuable artifacts for collectors, a legacy to leave for your great grandchildren. Just as phonograph records have increased in value, so will CDs. Even today, some rare CD’s fetch upwards of $100.

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SuperMatt says:
I recently bought a Slappa CD case and threw away all my jewel boxes. It was a great decision, in my mind. I don’t work for Slappa or anything like that – I just think their cases are a great way to store the CDs and keep the booklets. I saved a lot of space, not to mention all the dust…
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TekRevue says:
Thanks for mentioning Slappa, SuperMatt. I had not heard of them prior to your comment, but it looks like they have a nice selection of storage cases.
immovableobject says:
The Slappa envelope pages look like a nice solution if you only want to save the disc and booklet. But to preserve the full value for future resale, you really need to save the wider jewel box back card or cardboard digi-pak as well.
TekRevue says:
Thanks, immovableobject. Indeed, another factor that drove me back to CDs that I didn’t mention in the article was the birth of my first son. I wanted him to have access to a library of lossless audio that he could explore when he’s older. It’s also important to know that I *own* the music and that a future licensing disagreement between Apple and a publisher won’t take away my ability to share my favorite music with my son.
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