360°Sound is hoping to convince you to reconsider CD. So we tracked down Paul Rigby, known as “The Audiophile Man,” to help us make the case for compact disc digital audio. In this second installment, Paul talks about box sets and the warm fuzzy feeling you get owning CDs. He also offers some gear advice… for free. (see below)
360°Sound: Every music lover should have a CD playback deck in their rig. Primarily because there is so much great-sounding music to listen to in the format. What are some other advantages of CD?
Let me give you an example. You’re an artist or band with an archive, like King Crimson. I’ve got six, seven, eight massive box sets — like 20-25 CDs of King Crimson. Labels will focus on an album or a time period; they’ll fill up this box with so much music. In a physical manner, you can only do that with CDs. You’ve got the physicality, the value, the ‘I own this music’ feeling of physical media. This to me is incredibly important, because physical media means freedom. I have music. I control my music. I can listen to this whenever I want to.
You don’t have to worry about who’s rights rolled off from your streaming platform.
Exactly! It’s like the Netflix thing. You can only access the movies they have a deal for.
It’s all about the lawyers then; it’s not about the creators.
And the money. And if that deal runs out, you can no longer access it. Sorry. Just, tough. Quite apart from all the deep catalog you can’t access.
It’s similar with genre music. Island music. Latin music. We’ve found with jukebox that certain forms of ethnic music that people would like to have on a jukebox aren’t available on digital platforms. You’re sort of at the mercy of the algorithms; they’re going to offer what’s most popular. You’re going to get a preponderance of classic rock, dance pop…
You’re only being given what’s at the top of the curve. The top of the curve is where the real money is. Anything that’s not at the top of the curve can just take a hike.
So, CD gives the best value presentation and box sets. The box sets are where the deep-catalog stuff is. You may not get individual volumes of this, this and this, because [the label] feels, and maybe the band feel, that they won’t get the sales for an individually packaged, obscure little CD of an album that appeared in 1972. Not enough people will buy it they feel, so they won’t sell it individually. But they might sell it in this presentational box set, because it adds to the content and the value, and we can charge $100 dollars for it.
It’s a great way to spoil yourself, with a presentational box set. It’s also a great way to get rarities. Because often companies are scared. They won’t put it on streaming, because there’s this feeling that people don’t listen to whole albums on streaming. Streaming is a bit like vultures picking at a dead zebra. They pick a bit of meat here, and then over by the rib cage, and then they go and they leave 99.9% of everything else. They just pick this, pick that – go.
It seems recently that labels are beginning to approach big reissue projects in terms of CD. What are you seeing?
I’ll give you an example, and it cost me an arm and a leg. Journalists buying anything is shock and horror, isn’t it? I bought this from Warner Music; they released the entire Woodstock recording, everything they had – the entire thing. It had never been published because of lawyers. Individual bands said, ‘You’re not releasing that.” So, any [previous] Woodstock box set was limited by rights issues. But because all the rights were running out, there was literally months to go. Warner Music contacted everybody and said, ‘You’re either in this box set and we pay you, or if the rights run out we’re going to do it anyway and you’re not going to get a bean.’ So they all said, ‘We’ll go for it. We’re fully behind you, Warner. We love what you do. We’re great fans.’ (chuckles) So Warner produced this box set, which I have. It comes in a wooden box with a big canvas strap. You can put it over your shoulder and carry it like a rucksack almost. Inside is the entire Woodstock experience; all the music, apart from one or two tracks that they had some technical issues with. It’s all there. It cost me at the time £600, and it was only done on CD. I don’t think it was on digital [streaming], it certainly wasn’t on vinyl. I think there was a four-record set of highlights on vinyl. The whole thing — only available on CD. That package was basically sold to order. You ordered it, and if there were 3,004 ordered there were 3,004 pressed. So what happened was, as soon as that was done, now they’re worth like £2,500 each, something stupid like that.
That’s a great example of the value-add proposition of physical media.
This is prime, gold-plated, highly-valued pieces of product, if you want to be corporate about it. And it’s based on CD! It’s not based on streaming – the current golden boy. It wasn’t even based on vinyl, because vinyl is too heavy. You would’ve had to have had so many pieces of vinyl — I think there’s something like 30 CDs. It would have been expensive and hence not economical. So what did they pick? They picked CD. CD was the chosen one. In fact, it was the only possible format. Streaming would have meant they couldn’t produce this beautiful presentation box. There would have been no point in doing the book. They include a Blu-ray version of a very well known Woodstock film, as well. It had to be physical. It was a choice item and CD was perfect; it couldn’t be anything else.
You’re getting this now with presentational media. It’s happening a lot, I’m finding. Also with compact boxes. I don’t know if it’s a reflection on people stocking them, or they think that end users don’t want something large like a piece of vinyl in a box. A compact box of multiple CDs is attractive.
Tears for Fears have had several box sets in a nice chunky, chubby box format. It goes through each of their albums, and each album has rarities and outtakes. It’s a perfect thing for them. It’s a great alternative, as well. Even though you have big David Bowie vinyl box sets, some people can’t store it. It’s just too much space.
We haven’t talked much about gear. What are your general recommendations for CD playback decks?
One of the issues I’ve always had with hifi is noise. What I mean by that is high frequency noise and vibration. All of this noise that you can’t hear. It’s not like an ambulance, or a hydraulic drill, or a baby crying; it’s not that sort of noise. But this stuff masks detail, and it can also add an edge to music. It can add a sort of brightness to the high frequency of the mid-range and treble. Newer CD players and DACs are designed to lower the noise floor, frankly. So, I would look at new CD players. Vintage is great. Vintage is nice. Vintage has that inherent nostalgia. But with CD, I would actually go new. Vintage CD players look great; they look absolutely cool. But they’re not the best sound.
So, I would go new. And more than that, I would go for a separate transport and a DAC. It depends on you and your likes, what grabs you or moves you. You can fall in love with hardware, and you think, “I have to have that.” But a separate transport and DAC, because you’re lowering the noise floor. You’re allowing detail to reach the ear. You’re no longer putting a barrier between fine detail — I’m talking about reverb tails, air and space around a plucked string of an acoustic guitar, tiny fragile stuff but when you add it all up it means something. You add all those tens of hundreds of tiny bits of filigree that is veiled, you lose a little bit of soul. The newer CD players, especially a separate transport with a separate DAC, introduces soul to a CD player.
So, with the improved pressing abilities of the labels now, you’ve got it from the software side as well as from the hardware side. Those are the major reasons to reconsider CD: the software’s improved enormously, and the hardware similarly so. I’ll leave it there.
Paul Rigby has been a technology journalist for over 35 years. He writes for British magazines Hifi World and Record Collector, and has also written for and edited a variety of other music publications in the UK. He has become a touchstone for music and gear reviews and recommendations via his website, theaudiophileman.com, and his YouTube channel.