Several CD albums are pictured around a small portable CD player.
James Trew / Engadget

How to survive the inevitable CD revival

For better or worse, the compact disc could be making a comeback.

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James Trew
July 1, 2022 9:00 AM
In this article: gear, audio, entertainment, feature, music

In 1982, when the BBC’s prime-time technology show – Tomorrow’s Worlddid a segment on a new musical format called the “Compact Disc” the presenter skeptically asked "Whether there's a market for this, remains to be seen". We all know what happened next, but even in the early ‘80s the benefits of CDs should have been clear: high quality, non-degrading sound in a compact format. Oh, and you could even skip, shuffle and repeat tracks, which, in a pre-digital world, truly felt like the future

The Compact Disc turns 40 this year, and there are already signals the format is primed for a mini revival. For the first time in 17 years, CD sales actually went up - and by almost 50 percent, according to the RIAA’s sales database.

It’s still a long way from the format’s peak. In 2021, 46.6 million CDs were shipped in the US – compared to nearly a billion back in 2000. For context, that 46.6 million barely accounts for four percent of last year’s total music revenue. Vinyl albums, by contrast, sold fewer overall units (39.7M) but are more of a money spinner for artists (seven percent of total revenues).

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Not now

Some reports claim that the uptick in CD sales is mostly due to mega-artists like Adele and BTS releasing new albums (the former’s 30 accounted for two percent of total CD sales alone). But there are other potential – and more practical – contributing factors, too, including the pandemic.

“CD sales are growing again now that retail stores are reopening and artists are back on tour. And while CDs haven’t yet seen the same type of revival as vinyl, the CD format remains a steady revenue stream for independent artists.” Rob Bach, COO of CD Baby told Engadget. They should know, as one of their services is the production and distribution of CDs for indie bands.

Kevin Breuner, SVP of Artist Engagement and Education for the company, thinks there’s an increasing appetite for CDs as memorabilia, rather than just as a way of playing music. “Part of it is that streaming hasn’t replaced anything at the merch table … the appeal of a physical item like a CD is that it’s a piece of memorabilia in a live setting, something you can have signed by artists. Similarly, for artists, there’s nothing that can replace when a fan goes back to the merch table to buy a CD or a t-shirt; it’s always been that way.”

There’s also the fact that what once seemed restrictive to younger listeners – having to own a song if you wanted to hear it – now presents a different way of enjoying music. A good album isn’t merely a collection of songs, but a structured experience to be enjoyed from start to finish. You can, of course, do this with streaming, but a CD requires getting up to change, Spotify is usually just a click away.

CDs launched in Japan in October 1982. The format and hardware to play it on didn’t land in the US and Europe until the following year. Adoption was relatively swift and just two years later the first million-selling CD album - Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits – would cement the shiny disc's popularity. By the early ‘90s, assisted by increasingly smaller, affordable and even portable players, the CD was the de facto way to listen to music. And for good reason.

In this new digital world, the CD format was consistent in a way that analog never could be. What became known as the “Red Book” standard – two-channel 16-bit PCM at 44.1kHz – would be the prevailing specification from there on out. When someone used to say “it’s CD quality” one might assume that’s what they were referring to.

This standard is considered the minimum requirement to be called “lossless” by today's streaming services. Of course, how or what you record at 16-bit/44.1 is really what matters, but that’s a whole other story.

A woman holds compact discs containing religious hymns of Pope Benedict XVI in preparation for his arrival for a three-day visit to Lebanon, in a papal media office in Jounieh, north of Beirut September 4, 2012. Pope Benedict XVI will visit Lebanon from September 14-16. REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi          (LEBANON - Tags: RELIGION)
Jamal Saidi / reuters

More important than any of this, for the labels and artists at least, is that the arrival of the CD meant they could re-sell us our entire music collection in the new wonder format. The ‘90s were a good time to be in the music industry, at least until Sean and Shawn came along.

There were other benefits to this new digital medium, too. And not just the aforementioned ability to skip/program/shuffle tracks. With CDs, you could hide bonus tracks in new ways that would otherwise be visible on a vinyl record or instantly found by anyone that left a cassette tape running.

Even more exciting? Once PCs started being a more common feature in homes, artists and labels realized you could bundle in entirely different bonus media like videos and karaoke versions – as found on some versions of Americana by The Offspring, for example.

Before we show you some ways you can enjoy/rediscover the joys of compact discs, bear in mind the experience was far from flawless.

Despite being more durable than vinyl, it definitely is possible to scratch a CD. When a record has a scratch, it’s almost charming. With CDs, it’s more like walking slowly through hell as they dig up the streets. If your disc was damaged, it also might work in some players yet, frustratingly, not in others. Many an hour has been wasted cleaning and reseating a CD in the hope it would take.

Of course, many CD players took only one disc, so you’d frequently be swapping them out. If you knew someone who had every CD in the right jewel case, that was often a tell that this person doesn’t listen to their music enthusiastically or often enough (It’s possible they were just slightly organized, but where’s the fun in that). This “which disc is in which case” problem became even worse when someone decided CD singles – one song you wanted and some less good songs on one disc – were a good idea.

Not to mention the fragility of the cases they came in. Jewel case hinges would crack just by looking at them, while center hubs (the part that held the disc in place) would crumble no matter how well you handled things. Most often while moving house or the aforementioned enthusiastic listening with friends.

Unlike other formats, the CD is unique in that it played a part in its own demise. With the advent of CD burners, you could easily copy your friends’ album collection, print out album artwork and even print circular stickers with the CD art on them, too. This was how music was stolen for the short period when CD burners and blank discs were affordable and online piracy hadn’t taken hold. The CD was then effectively relegated to the role of external storage medium before quietly regressing into obscurity. Until now, of course.

With those small challenges in mind, if you’re ready and willing to give the humble Compact Disc another, uhm, spin, here are some recommendations, new and old, cheap and not-so, to dive into the world of the CD.

James Trew / Engadget
Image Credit: James Trew / Engadget

Where to find CDs

Maybe you already have a collection, if so, you’re good to go. But if you’re new around here, you’re going to want to grab a few albums to get you started. For current, mainstream music you’ll be able to find a selection at Target and Walmart. Jeff Bezos will of course also happily sell you a CD. Tower Records also recently returned as an online-only store which also has a good selection of CDs. For more of an indie-artist focus, there’s of course Bandcamp – or the good old-fashioned merch stall at a gig.

You can, of course, also navigate the secondhand market either locally (thrift stores, local record shops) or online at places like Discogs, eBay or even apps like Letgo.

What you may already own

An Xbox is shown that can double as a CD player.
Aaron Souppouris / Engadget

Maybe, you have a CD player unironically in your front room right now. We admire the dedication. Or perhaps you have an old one in storage somewhere? But if you’re young enough to have gone straight to streaming, it’s worth asking family and friends in case they have one gathering dust somewhere.

That said, you might even own a CD player without even knowing it. If you have an Xbox with a disc drive, congratulations, you’re already in the club. PlayStation fans, however, need either a PS1 (original), a PS2 or a PS3, as after that Sony decided the functionality for audio discs was no longer needed.

Cheap and easy

There was a brief period where the only CD player in the house might well have been in your PC. Primarily used for installing software or the drivers for a peripheral (yeah, we know, bad times) the CD-ROM drive was also good for playing music too.

Most PC cases these days aren’t really made with a CD-R drive in mind, and the last Mac to include a CD drive was the 2012 MacBook Pro. That model was discontinued in 2016, the same year Apple nixed the iPhone’s headphone jack - a rough year for many music listeners.

No worries, there’s a sort of dongle for that. You can pick up a USB CD-Drive for a little over the price of one album, such as this one for a reasonable $22. You’ll also get DVD and CD burning functionality thrown in, which surely will also be due their own revivals before long.

A new take on a classic

A modern portable CD player made by NINM labs.
James Trew / Engadget

For many, the advent of the portable CD player was a long time coming. But the format wasn’t entirely suited to being in motion. Not initially at least, with even the slightest of movements causing a disc to skip. Over time this was resolved as players were able to buffer more music to ride out those bumps.

NINM Labs’ “Long Time No See” portable CD player (approx $117) blends the best of the past with modern conveniences like Bluetooth and USB power. The transparent design gives off early-aughts Game Boy vibes, while a clever speaker “lid” accessory means you’re never without a way to listen to those discs. That said, there’s of course the aforementioned Bluetooth for connecting to speakers and headphones and even a good old fashioned headphone port.

What’s more, you can run the player directly from USB power or AA batteries. You can even charge said batteries while it’s connected over USB. And the whole thing is magnetic, too, so you can get creative with where you place it.

Taking things to a (much) higher level

A HiFi separates amp and CD player are pictured next to a speaker.
James Trew / Engadget

For the most authentic experience, it has to be HiFi separates. In the ‘90s a good HiFi was the quickest way to let someone know you were serious about music. No MegaBASS or often even an EQ for these dedicated listeners, just pure unadulterated sound. They may also be seen with magic pebbles or some CDs in the freezer.

Cambridge Audio has been around long enough to know what makes a great CD player. Its CXC “player” comes right in at $700. The CXC doesn’t even convert the CD to audio, it passes the digital signal directly to… something else, as long as it has either S/PDIF coaxial or TOSLINK in puts. You may as well complete the look with Cambridge Audio’s CXA61 amplifier ($1,100) with a DAC. It’s the perfect companion for the CXC both in terms of looks and connectivity. Of course, spending $1,800 on fancy HiFi gear doesn’t always mean you’re set. You still need some speakers, so you might as well toss in the SX60 bookshelf set for the fully-loaded CD setup.

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