OK, so when it comes to reminiscing over dead formats, it’s fair to say I’ve got previous. But my latest format obsession is more practical than nostalgic – and I think I might be on to something.
As a format, I’ve always maintained VHS wasn’t very good. It did establish ‘home video’ and open the door for incrementally better options like DVD, Blu-ray and 1080p/4K streaming, but low resolution video and audio, poor shelf life and a crippling 4:3 aspect ratio mean it is best left in the past. And anyone who says otherwise (or suggests ‘VHS is the new vinyl’) is an idiot.
When it comes to music though, the story is quite different. The digital revolution gave us the convenience of the compressed mp3 file, but at a clear qualitative cost. Streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music have built on that convenience to a point where they’ve virtually replaced most physical collections. But no format – physical or digital – has actually improved on what came before.
We’ve come to accept vinyl is here to stay and, as someone who collected VHS tapes after it was necessary but before it was cool, I understand the appeal. I have collector friends who wax lyrical about the experience of picking out a record, pulling the disc from its paper sleeve and hearing the warm crackle as the needle hits the groove. And I totally get it.
It’s just, having had the chance to think about it, I don’t think it’s the format for me.
It never was.
1987-2005: The formative format years
Again, I’ve no right to accuse anyone of being overly nostalgic. I literally wrote the book. And to draw comparisons with said book, I don’t doubt one of the reasons I find myself collecting CDs again is because it’s how I discovered and fell in love with music – just like VHS did for me with film.
I don’t have nostalgia for vinyl, because I was 5 years old when compact disc arrived in the UK in 1982 and it was slowly pushed, along with cassettes, off the record store shelves. However it wasn’t until five years later, when I was about 10, that I actually heard my first CD. And it was a game changer.
During one weekly visit to my uncle’s house, my cousin excitedly introduced me to the family’s latest purchase – a brand new Phillips Compact Disc player. He sat me down, popped a set of headphones on my head and said “listen to this“, before hitting play on some disc called ‘Appetite for Destruction’.
It wasn’t just the first time I’d heard a CD, it was the first time I’d heard Guns N’ Roses. They quickly became my favourite band (and remain so today), igniting an interest in music for years to come. A few years later, when I finally got my own CD player, the first discs I bought were the band’s Use Your Illusion I & II… with the former replacing a vinyl copy I’m sure was never played again.
Over the years, I amassed quite a collection of CDs. I explored rock, metal, hip-hop, indie, grunge, britpop, pop and everything in between. I carefully curated my collection and arranged everything alphabetically from Abba to Zappa. It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of that collection to me and how big a part of my life it was. Then the iPod happened.
2005-2015: Living life on random
Like many of us, I got used to listening to music differently in the early 2000s. By the time Apple was instructing us to live life on shuffle in 2005, my carefully curated library of CDs, had already been gathering dust for a while. After all, I had that entire collection (and more) on an iPod Classic that was in my pocket.
With that iPod permanently on random, any new album could take days, weeks, or months to surface. Even when I did, it would be one track at a time, wedged between whatever else my device decided to play. Life was random and I was embracing it. And those dusty CDs that were now under the bed? I gave them away.
In hindsight, maybe that was a rash decision. Ok, it definitely was. Thing is, I’m a thrower, not a hoarder. So having not used my CDs for years, giving them to someone who would just made sense. And while I didn’t miss the CDs themselves, some time around 2015, I realised I was missing albums. It’s not to say I hadn’t listened to any in that time, I’d just become used to consuming music more randomly, more passively.
I started downloading two or three ‘classic’ albums each week (via Spotify) that I’d never given my full attention, immersing myself in them on my daily commute. I discovered a tonne of records that are now among my all-time favourites, but I also fell back in love with the LP as a concept again. That slice of an artist’s career, frozen in time and carefully curated to take you on a specific, predetermined journey.
2015-2020: The digital detox
The pandemic has shifted so many things in our lives, but one thing that’s changed is I spend a lot less time commuting. That’s great for the work-life balance, but it does mean how I listen to music has changed.
During the lockdown, I got into the habit of spending time sitting and listening to an album, giving it my full attention, just like I did before the iPod entered my life. I was streaming from Spotify to a Bose SoundLink Bluetooth speaker I’d had since 2016. It still sounded great, but the time had come to think about some new kit.
The way I saw it, I had a few different options. A networked streamer would give me the ability to play digital music files of any given size through an integrated amp, as well as access to Spotify. But what it wouldn’t do is give me something physical, to help me to get away from that casual, passive attitude to music that came with digital.
I wanted to be able to look at a collection of albums, select the one I wanted, then physically go and put it on. I wanted to give the music the time it deserved, rather than have it be just another app on my smartphone. And for that, there were only two options to consider.
2021: Vinyl versus CD… fight!
I knew I wanted a decent set of speakers and an amp, so the only question was, what was I going to run through that? I’d thought about vinyl before, but suddenly I found myself thinking about CDs. Was there an argument for that format to be made?
When it comes to the qualitative battle between the two, CDs offer more accurate stereo channel separation, a better signal-to-noise ratio and are less susceptible to interference from physical obstacles (like dust). CDs are more durable, take up less space, are cheaper to collect and don’t need you to flip them over halfway through a record. In short, they’re an obvious successor to vinyl. Who knew.
And look, I’ve got no interest in picking a fight with vinyl heads about which is ‘better’, there are plenty of articles out there that debate the issue. But the one thing I’ve noticed is the argument for CD quality is measurable, while the argument for vinyl just feels more subjective. As I understand it, vinyl ‘sounds warmer’ (though I’d argue this depends on your set-up) and CDs don’t do the ‘crackle’ (not that I can understand why I would want them to).
But for all the above reasons, the fact is CDs are better for me. I accept that I won’t earn any cool points for it, but if I get the joy of building a brand new music collection from scratch that’s affordable, works in my life and offers me the quality I want, well, I’ll take the hit thanks.
The future… on Compact Disc
After a lot of research (watching YouTube reviews), I finally settled on a Marantz CR412 hi fi system, which incorporates an amp and CD player (apparently a speciality of the manufacturer), but also has integrated Bluetooth and a DAB radio. I coupled this with a set of Q Acoustics 3010i speakers and the sound is absolutely sweet.
In addition to having a great CD setup, I’ve still got the digital option for music I don’t own (yet) and playlists for when we have people over. And, having Bluetooth also means I can use the system with Apple TV and a projector I also bought this year, so now I’ve got my own little home cinema setup. It’s been money well spent.
And the CDs? Well I’m enjoying slowly but surely (and very cheaply) building a collection again. I inherited some unwanted discs from a friend with taste (cheers Marc) and have been picking up brand new releases, unexplored classics or catalogue ‘must haves’ whenever I fancy treating myself.
Charity shops (as they were with Adventures in VHS) have become a healthy hunting ground once again, and thanks to Fopp in Manchester, I’m getting my fix of fresh discs too. I must admit feeling compelled to ‘replace’ everything I once owned, which I’m sure I’ll do eventually, but for the moment I just take each disc as it comes.
You can say I’ve gone backwards if you want to. But I swear, I feel like I’ve seen the future.