Main Menu

white arrow Roger Ebert
white arrow Food
white arrow Restaurants

Enter keywords
to search

Books Music logo

  Sun-Times Showcase

CDs brace for sonic boom

January 20, 1999


Compact discs are not aging gracefully.

The CD, more than 15 years old, is getting a face-lift of sorts from new technologies that are regenerating interest in its digital bits, even as these same advancements threaten to relegate the CD as we know it to a lower-fidelity afterthought.

Today, the CD's claims of ``perfect sound forever'' seem like little more than a cynical boondoggle, foisted upon a public disenchanted with skipping LPs and ready for new home audio gadgetry.

Audiophiles nattered about CD sound, calling it harsh, flat, and sterile. Ordinary folks complained about the expense, the landfill clutter of ``long boxes'' and the potential for CDs to deteriorate prematurely. Long boxes and the ``laser rot'' threat have gone away, but many still wonder why the price of mainstream CDs isn't falling.

Two CD changes loom on the horizon. One comes from Sony and Philips, inventors of the format. The other is a happy aftershock of the home-video upstart DVD. Two other up-and-coming formats, meanwhile, promise to change the way you get music in your home.

* SuperAudio, from Sony/Philips, had its first public demonstration in June on its way to a mid-1999 market debut. SuperAudio discs look just like regular CDs but are in fact a two-layer sandwich.

The first layer carries the standard CD sampling rate of 44.1 kilohertz. The second layer unlocks more accurate 96kHz Super Audio capabilities--more than double the rate at which the CD player reads the audio data encoded on the disc, leading to better sound. This dual-density feature allows them to be played on existing CD players, meaning retailers don't have to stock two of every title.

* A more immediate glimpse of the digital future is contained in the guts of every DVD player sold. This newcomer to home video boasts an audio CD playback system that offers 24-bit, 96kHz performance.

The higher sampling rate not only shines on the few 24/96 discs that exist, but it also lifts conventional 44.1 discs to new heights. The audio performance of DVD players varies as much as that of CD players, but when the mojo is working, the 24/96 advantage is clearly audible.

* The MiniDisc format has been around for years but has only recently shown legs. When Sony originally marketed MD, it was as a home playback media. But people already had CDs and were perfectly happy with them, so player/recorders languished on the shelves. Now, MD is being pitched as a supremely flexible digital home recording medium, and sales are taking off. Giving a further assist are packages that bundle a full-size MD player/recorder with a portable.

MiniDisc uses a data compression system called ATRAC to squeeze 74 minutes of audio onto a 2 3/4-inch disc. You can move or delete individual tracks, or erase the entire disc. MDs can be reused, and recording is simpler than using a cassette deck.

MDs offer fidelity that is shockingly close to CD, though on the warm and fuzzy side. This is a recent development attributable to Sony's most recent ATRAC chip, version 4.0. Previous incarnations of MD were decidedly not ready for prime time. Blank discs can be found for around $2, and the portable has to almost be hit with a hammer to skip.

* Recordable CDs are the most recent gee-whiz development. Players now are available from Philips, Marantz and Pioneer, with the average unit priced around $600.

The recorders allow you to ``burn'' your own CDs at home, with none of the format interchangeability woes presented when recording on MD or cassette. There is CD-R, which allows a disc to be recorded only once but with unlimited playback, and CD-RW, which is reusable and priced accordingly.

Blank CD-R discs are about $2 each. But if you make a mistake during the burning process with CD-Rs, you must toss the disc or live with it.

CD-RW discs are substantially more expensive. Data-grade CD-RW discs are about $10, with audio-grade going for about the cost of a new CD, $16-18. The difference between data and audio grades is all but imperceptible.

Some of this cost is new technology. But a bunch of it is also a tax arranged by the recording industry that builds in payments lost to artists because of home taping.

Another problem with CD-RW is compatibility. A CD-RW made on one machine might not play on another machine, making that road mix you recorded for the car useless. CD-Rs, however, are universally compatible.

Back to Showcase Archive

Read Travel News, Book Tickets Online

[News] [Sports] [Business] [Showcase] [Classifieds] [Columnists] [Main Menu]