Picks and Pans Review: I Ask Readers If They Want to Feel That Their Collections of Records Are Obsolete, If They Really Want to Spend Money on Buying Discs That Will Save Them the Trouble of Getting Up to Change Them, and If They Really Want to Wait Year

updated 03/11/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/11/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Compton Mackenzie in The Gramophone

With the digital compact disc (CD) enlarging its beachhead, many record collectors are asking the same questions. Yet Mackenzie could hardly have visualized the day when laser beams would reproduce music by "reading" billions of tiny pluses and minuses coded on a spinning piece of aluminum and plastic. Writing in 1949, he was defending the shellac 78 rpm record from assault by the first 33 1/3-rpm LPs. Anyone scoffing at digital audio today is likely to end up seeming as prescient as the harrumphing Mr. Mackenzie. The CD is here to stay.

Compact discs have a long way to go before they dethrone the vinyl platter, of which some 300 million were sold last year—it will take 10-15 years, industry observers say. Meanwhile, the CD is making impressive inroads. In 1983, the year the new format was introduced in the U.S., consumers bought 1.5 million of the little discs and 35,000 machines to play them. Last year, 250,000 machines and an estimated 4.5-million discs were sold. This year the industry is projecting a leap to half a million machines and 10-14 million discs. Supply, rather than demand, seems the limiting factor—only nine factories in the world (one in the U.S. in Terre Haute, Ind.) make the discs.

Why the stampede? CD is the best-sounding bandwagon to come along. The laser beam projected by the CD player penetrates a disc's clear plastic coating to pick up a pattern of microscopic pits embedded in the underlying aluminum layer. Most problems associated with turntables and tape decks are banished: no clicks, pops, or tape hiss, no turntable rumble or flutter from imprecise speeds. You can turn up Def Leppard without inducing the needle-quaking acoustic feedback that parents think the music already resembles. And you can boogie in hobnail boots next to a CD machine without jarring the laser.

Moreover, CDs have much broader dynamic range than LPs, with greater definition. Although dust or scratches in the clear coating can occasionally cause the laser to mistrack, CDs require far less care than LPs and should last far longer.

Classical music aficionados first embraced the CD medium. To understand why, you need only listen to such a disc as Julian Bream Plays Granados & Albéniz (RCA). The absolute background silence and vibrance of each guitar string make these beguiling dances vivid without destroying their intimacy. The same feeling enhances two Beethoven Quartets, Op. 59, No. 3 and Op. 74, by the Smetana Quartet (Denon). In some quiet passages heightened realism even becomes distracting—one musician is a heavy breather. CDs can overwhelm as well. Try Herbert von Karajan's bold readings of Hoist's The Planets, with the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon). It will reveal any faintheartedness in your amplifier and speakers. (CD players connect to standard playback equipment without special modification.)

The CD is startlingly superior in reproducing the human voice, which is why opera buffs may feel compact discs were invented for them. Peter G. Davis, music critic of New York magazine, finds that the CD "frees the voice somehow from the background of the orchestra and highlights it in a way that is more striking." An exhilarating case in point: La Traviata, with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti (London). The effect holds for pop records, too. If you've never deciphered all Chrissie Hynde's nasty little words on Pretenders (Sire) you can now.

There can, of course, be too much of a good thing. With some CDs that means clarity and precision escalated to utter astringency, what Davis calls a "harsh neon glare." The problem is not the playback so much as how well the recording was remastered (if it was remastered) for transfer to CD. Though much vaunted, digital recording is not always superior to the traditional analog system, which records sounds using less precise electrical impulses than the digital binary system. Engineers skilled in analog recording had to throw out many treasured assumptions about such things as microphone placement and mixing when confronted with digital technology in the early '80s. "Until engineers learn to use digital technology with musical sensitivity the quality will vary," says Hans Fantel, audio columnist of the New York Times.

When remastered properly for CD, many older recordings sound simply ravishing, almost as if they'd never been heard before. "When they made the old LPs," Fantel explains, "they mixed them to sound good on the average phonograph. They took out the bass so the needle wouldn't jump around, and they cranked up the treble to override the surface noise. But now we have CDs, and everything on the original master tape can be put on the disc without lousing it up." The old LPs of Bruno Walter's sweeping 1959-60 traversal of Bruckner's Fourth Symphony and, on a separate disc, Seventh Symphony (CBS Japanese Import) sound ghostlike compared to the new CD versions. If you'd rather roll over Beethoven than listen to him, the CDs of Elvis' Golden Records (RCA), Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (Columbia), Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark (Asylum) and especially the Four Tops: 19 Greatest Hits (Motown) will inspire you to donate your aging LPs to a deserving teenybopper.

By year's end, the number of CD titles should double to 4,000—something for everyone, though jazz fans have had the short end so far (and brass sections on some of Verve's 1950s jazz sessions strike the ear like an icepick). The record industry promises future enticements such as compilations taking advantage of the 5-inch disc's 74-minute uninterrupted playing time. Already several double albums have been fit onto a single CD, though in some cases (Prince's 1999 for one) it was necessary to drop a cut from the LP.

In the next year or so disc prices are expected to decline to $10 (from $12-$20 now). But CDs will probably always cost more than LPs because they are much harder to make. While the first CD players fetched upwards of $1,000, the latest models are priced as low as $300. In any price range the consumer can count on fairly consistent quality—fancier models mainly provide more sophisticated programming. Beyond the stunning sound, compact discs offer many new conveniences. Any track can be "accessed" almost as quickly as you could place a needle in a groove. There is also something like a tape deck's "cue and review" feature for finding points within a cut. And CDs require no rewinding. Even a no-frills CD player can be set to repeat a cut, or the entire disc, and top models let you program tracks in any order, omitting the clinkers entirely. CD car players, Walkman-type units and even boom boxes are here or coming. Industry execs hope the take-it-anywhere aspect and the ability to skip unwanted tracks will end home taping by consumers.

CDs have already claimed some surprising converts. Composer Philip Glass recently edited his opera Satyagraha two different ways. "I actually had to shorten some of the music to fit the LP," he says. "But with CD I was able to get a whole act on one disc without interruption." Adds Glass, "If I'm suddenly writing for a 74-minute format, instead of a format of two 22-minute sides, I have no doubt the piece is going to come out differently."

One thing to keep in mind: Whatever advances digital technology and CDs bring, what remains paramount is how the piece "comes out"—the original quality of music and performance. As Peter Davis puts it, "No amount of hocus-pocus will make that any better."

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