Everyone is buying vinyl, but it isn't (and shouldn't be) the end for CDs

CD player
(Image credit: Future)

We’ve heard many sad stories of music fans who sold or gave away their dust-collecting vinyl collection in the 90s and noughties. Many people – most people – believed that the world had resolutely moved away from analogue and onto new digital pastures, only to now be kicking themselves for not having held onto their records in order to fully enjoy the recent and ongoing vinyl resurgence.

It’s something – a lesson vicariously learned, perhaps – that crossed my mind recently when deciding whether to hang on to my CDs or take them to the local charity shop ahead of a big move. The thought perished from my mind almost as quickly as it came. (Sorry, mum, those boxes of CDs are yours to look after for a while yet.)

Earlier this year, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) published a report stating that shipments of CDs in the US rose by 47 per cent in 2021 compared to the previous year (from 31.6 million to 46.6 million), with revenue rising from $483.2 million to $584.2 million. It’s the first time CD sales have increased in over 15 years. 

Now, this is still a long way from CD’s heyday at the turn of the millennium, when almost a billion discs were shipped in the US alone. And last year's revenue from CD sales was - amazingly - just 40 per cent of the revenue generated by vinyl records. Heck, according to music data from Luminate, Harry Styles’ Harry’s House album recently sold 219,000 vinyl records (compared to 130,000 CDs and a paltry 28,000 digital downloads) in its first week of release! Vinyl's popularity shows no signs of waning.

But nevertheless, CDs are also now on an upward trend. Is this the beginning of a fully-fledged comeback? Will CD popularity come back around, in the same vein as vinyl, with the production of CD-playing hi-fi products, Sony Discmans and more? Perhaps not quite. CD playback perhaps doesn't have quite the long-lost exotica and anti-digital art attachment to it that has helped spur the vinyl resurgence.

We can say that CDs are now part of an upward trend, and fashion, for physical music ownership. And we think, for good reason.

Firstly, CDs are yours, which gives them a nod over music streaming, if not vinyl or downloads. And not only are they yours to play in a CD player, hi-fi system or in your car (because you can’t play vinyl in your car unless it’s a 1956 Chrysler with a ‘Highway Hi-Fi add-on (opens in new tab)), they can also be easily ripped and stored as digital files – files that, again, you own. Vinyl can be ripped too if you have a record player with a USB output, but the ripped files (even 24-bit ones) do tend to sound less clean and crisp than (16-bit) CD rips in my experience. You can rip discs onto your computer and the files are always there. With streaming services, however, a song can just disappear due to a change in licensing agreements (just like films on video services). Annoying.

What certainly does set CDs apart from vinyl, is price. CDs are comparatively cheap. Music streaming services may have made music consumption essentially boundless for the first time, but the ubiquity of new and second-hand CDs in charity shops and online makes them the cheapest way to own older releases these days. Even more so, they’re the most affordable form of physical media for new releases, with a new chart release often costing twice as much on vinyl as on CD.

They're also much easier to store than vinyl. Even if you didn’t go down the route of ripping your CDs to your laptop or a NAS drive and hiding the cases away except for special occasions, the fact is CDs are called ‘compact discs’ for a reason. I have three times as many CDs as vinyl albums and yet they took up one less box to transport. And as many of you will know, that size difference is far more pertinent when it comes to household storage. While CDs don't care for scratches any more than records do, at least their plastic casing is dead-easy and cheap to replace if they crack or break in storage or handling. 

And let's hear it for the CD booklet, which is a clear advantage over streaming (where your ‘added extras’ usually begin with simple metadata and end with an artist bio) and typically better than the material in vinyl sleeves too – unless you buy a special edition record, in which case the size of vinyl and vinyl sleeves can admittedly lend itself to some pretty cool, substantial booklet accessories.

Now, here’s where CD chalks up another big fat point against streaming or downloads: gapless playback – that is, an album flowing without being broken up by silences on either side of ‘tracks’ – is not a given on streaming platforms. And if you, like me, are a fan of live albums sounding like live albums (or operas or instrumental pieces sounding as intended), this could be the biggest sticking point in this article. Some services do support gapless – Spotify does, Qobuz can, and Roon supports it well, for example – but it’s far from a given on streaming platforms and streamers, and the implementation on those that do have it isn’t always seamless anyway. With CD (and vinyl), it’s just there.

Only five or six years ago, the debate over whether streaming, vinyl or CD delivers a technically better sound would’ve been a win in the disc’s favour, but now that more and more streaming services are offering lossless and, better still, hi-res quality, the winner is once again up for debate. That said, even if you plump for a high-quality streaming tier, the sound quality of streaming still depends on the quality of your internet connection – and of course requires internet in the first place (though you can download albums for offline playback these days). CD playback quality doesn’t depend on such external factors; its quality is simply more consistent.

As for how CDs measure up to the sound quality of vinyl, well, the two formats sound… different, and ultimately the argument is a subjective one. Generally speaking (as there are obviously good and bad examples of productions recorded onto both formats), vinyl tends to sound distinctively warm and full and… can I say ‘alive’? While CD has a more consistent, crisp, clean and accurate presentation, as vinyl inherently doesn’t deal as well with extreme highs or lows, or large dynamic ranges.

All told, I believe there is still a lot to love today about the shiny compact disc. CDs can perhaps be seen as the middleman between vinyl and streaming, offering a mix of convenience, quality and affordability. We think there should be plenty of life in CDs yet. And if you already have a large CD collection – even one that’s currently out of service – I’d think twice before getting rid of it. Just think of the CD renaissance that could be in full flow by 2031...

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Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her eight years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.

  • Geoff-W
    "And not only are they yours to play in a CD player, hi-fi system or in your car..."
    Not many modern cars have CD players anymore. They are more into USB sticks or streaming off your phone.
    Reply
  • Tommyo
    Also, older vinyl is often degraded from use- especially if played on inexpensive turntables. New vinyl is expensive, and needs relatively expensive gear to appreciate the sound (and avoid PD- premature degradation lol). My choice is SACD (although I was fortunate enough to buy an OPPO the last year of production).
    Reply
  • manicm
    Geoff-W said:
    "And not only are they yours to play in a CD player, hi-fi system or in your car..."
    Not many modern cars have CD players anymore. They are more into USB sticks or streaming off your phone.

    But that's the point - you can simply rip your CDs and copy to USB stick, especially if your car does not have a modern infotainment system.

    This may not seem obvious - but CD remains the most versatile digital medium.
    Reply
  • Friesiansam
    manicm said:
    This may not seem obvious - but CD remains the most versatile digital medium
    Have to agree with that and, I buy all my music on CD?
    Reply
  • the Splund
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    Forget about the vinyl revival, there are plenty of reasons why you should be playing and buying compact discs.

    Here's why CDs are the better, cheaper alternative to vinyl records : Read more
    Still got all my old vinyl, it's boxed up and in the garage with my CDs - the CDs are ripped to lossless files but serve as a backup. My faithful Rega 2 (re-belted, re-oiled, levelled and isolated), Rega Bias (correctly tracked and weighted) and Cambridge Audio 640P are still ready to play the black plastic stuff at the drop of a hat (or needle) but TBH they just don't sound as good as my FiiO X5iii into the same sytem. I admit it's a meager vinyl setup, but I have no idea how people with lesser vinyl setups can possibly think vinyl is better - they must have crap digital sources (much like how CD won over LPs in the 90s).
    Reply
  • Wolf
    the Splund said:
    Still got all my old vinyl, it's boxed up and in the garage with my CDs - the CDs are ripped to lossless files but serve as a backup. My faithful Rega 2 (re-belted, re-oiled, levelled and isolated), Rega Bias (correctly tracked and weighted) and Cambridge Audio 640P are still ready to play the black plastic stuff at the drop of a hat (or needle) but TBH they just don't sound as good as my FiiO X5iii into the same sytem. I admit it's a meager vinyl setup, but I have no idea how people with lesser vinyl setups can possibly think vinyl is better - they must have crap digital sources (much like how CD won over LPs in the 90s).
    I still remember the annoyance back in the 80's/90's, having bought a new vinyl, first time playing and you got a bad pressing with a nice crackling or hissing sound at every turn :-(
    First thing I did, was always record/copy the vinyl to my tape deck (Sony Esprit), to avoid wear and tear on the vinyl's.
    I regard vinyl's these days more as a fashion statement. To me, CD's are superior in sound, way more durable and easy to rip to Flac for streaming.
    Reply
  • Simon C
    I suspect a large number of listeners who are espousing the virtues of vinyl playback may have taken the plunge due to the "hip" factor and relative underground coolness of this playback format. Many doing so are not fully aware of the labour needed to align a cartridge properly onto the tonearm, set up your anti skate and dial in the right tracking weight on their new fangled turntables. Do they realise that the styli on cartridges wear out and require replacement or re-tipping? Also different cartridge and turntable combinations need to be considered. And then, there's your choice of phono stages. It is, not plug and play unlike a current day CD player, which has come a long way since the first ones were heard during the 80s! These people will eventually turn to physical CDs when they discover the convenience and relative low maintenance of the format compared to listening to vinyl which requires more commitment which some of us actually enjoy as a process. Exciting times ahead for physical formats! Last I saw, some of these chaps were whispering about analogue cassette tapes...
    Reply
  • 12th Monkey
    Simon C said:
    These people will eventually turn to physical CDs when they discover the convenience and relative low maintenance of the format compared to listening to vinyl
    I doubt that - they'll stream. As they probably do a lot of the time anyway.
    Reply
  • Mr. C Nation
    A friend who spent 30 years as an engineer in the major recording studios of London - Sony Hit Factory, Virgin etc had an expression for the type of person who believes that superseded tech such as vinyl is superior to correctly recorded and masted digital - "The Golden Ears Brigade".

    These people can apparently hear or see the improvement that results from spending wads of money on HDMI leads, for example, ignoring the fact that a 1 or a 0 in at one end and coming out the other cannot be improved upon. These people will spend similarly absurd amounts of money on devices which they believe improve the performance of their systems by altering the characteristics of the mains supply to their devices.

    Vinyl is a fad, encouraged by manufacturers who need to move product, especially if they have a legacy range of t/tables, cartridges and tone arms, and encouraged by magazines and websites which need to retain audience for the companies which advertise thru' them.

    The one benefit of 12" vinyl over CD - and streaming, of course - is the 12" square sleeve, which became a 20th C classic art medium. I watched a YT vid of a woman demonstrating how to hang a picture on a stud wall. The picture was a nicely framed Miles Davis 12" album cover. My copy of his 'Tutu' is CD. I will have to do a hi-res copy of the stunning cover photograph of Miles and enlarge it to make it worth framing.
    Reply
  • Wolf
    Simon C said:
    I suspect a large number of listeners who are espousing the virtues of vinyl playback may have taken the plunge due to the "hip" factor and relative underground coolness of this playback format. Many doing so are not fully aware of the labour needed to align a cartridge properly onto the tonearm, set up your anti skate and dial in the right tracking weight on their new fangled turntables. Do they realise that the styli on cartridges wear out and require replacement or re-tipping? Also different cartridge and turntable combinations need to be considered. And then, there's your choice of phono stages. It is, not plug and play unlike a current day CD player, which has come a long way since the first ones were heard during the 80s! These people will eventually turn to physical CDs when they discover the convenience and relative low maintenance of the format compared to listening to vinyl which requires more commitment which some of us actually enjoy as a process. Exciting times ahead for physical formats! Last I saw, some of these chaps were whispering about analogue cassette tapes...
    Mr. C Nation said:
    A friend who spent 30 years as an engineer in the major recording studios of London - Sony Hit Factory, Virgin etc had an expression for the type of person who believes that superseded tech such as vinyl is superior to correctly recorded and masted digital - "The Golden Ears Brigade".

    These people can apparently hear or see the improvement that results from spending wads of money on HDMI leads, for example, ignoring the fact that a 1 or a 0 in at one end and coming out the other cannot be improved upon. These people will spend similarly absurd amounts of money on devices which they believe improve the performance of their systems by altering the characteristics of the mains supply to their devices.

    Vinyl is a fad, encouraged by manufacturers who need to move product, especially if they have a legacy range of t/tables, cartridges and tone arms, and encouraged by magazines and websites which need to retain audience for the companies which advertise thru' them.

    The one benefit of 12" vinyl over CD - and streaming, of course - is the 12" square sleeve, which became a 20th C classic art medium. I watched a YT vid of a woman demonstrating how to hang a picture on a stud wall. The picture was a nicely framed Miles Davis 12" album cover. My copy of his 'Tutu' is CD. I will have to do a hi-res copy of the stunning cover photograph of Miles and enlarge it to make it worth framing.
    You have a digital "The Golden Ears Brigade" version as well :-).
    I remember back in the late 80's/early 90's an article back home in Germany well respected Hi-Fi magazine,
    where they did claim, they could HEAR a clear difference and improved clarity on golden CD's compared to the standard silver CD's.
    And don't get me even started with the magic cables....
    Reply