This post started with some random skips in the music on the CD player in my home stereo. The unit is just old enough that the skips prompted questions about whether to repair or replace it. A few phone calls and a couple of trips to some local audio shops delivered an ominous message: CDs as a medium for recorded music are on their way out. Major audio manufacturers have stopped making CD players; replacing one has reached the same state as replacing a VCR – can be done, but… The mainstream medium has become downloaded digital music.

My reaction has been mixed. Mostly I enjoy my iPod, at least as a portable player, and most of my music purchases in the past year or two have been from the iTunes Store. The prospect of converting a large and eclectic CD collection to a digital format is a bit daunting, but I can live with it. So why, in spite of my usual willingness to embrace new technologies, do I find myself resisting this particular innovation wave? The simple fact is that I like CDs. Here’s why:

  1. A CD player is easy to use: My favourite book on usability is still Donald Norton’s The Design of Everyday Things. A CD player is a model of user centered design. How to operate it is simple and intuitive; it is difficult to make a mistake putting in a disk and playing it. To be sure, some digital technology is at work, but it’s invisible. We don’t notice it because the whole experience focuses attention on selecting and playing nusic, not interacting with a computing device.
  2. CDs come with liner notes: Much of my music education has come informally from two sources: a generation of CBC Radio announcers who were passionate about the music and the artists they featured on the air, and a host of writers who created the liner notes packed in the jewel boxes with the CDs. Reading the notes has made me a better listener with insights about composers, artist and things to listen for in the music itself.
  3. CDs are easy to handle: The disk fits nicely in my hand, and it is reasonably forgiving if I happen to drop it or mis-handle it. Going a little further, I can borrow a CD from the public library or share one with a friend by simply picking it off a shelf. No discussion about digital media rights is required.
  4. You can give (and receive) CDs as gifts: At its best, gift-giving enriches relationships. As an avid listener I like to share music with others, and have given many CDs as gifts. Likewise, many of the disks in my collection were gifts received from friends and family members who wanted to share music that mattered to them. As much as I appreciate receiving an iTunes gift card, the experience of going to the computer and downloading an album loses much of the richness that goes with unwrapping a disk received as a gift and playing it for the first time.
  5. CDs can remind us of people and places: Handling a particular disk can evoke memories of where and when I first heard a particular piece or performer. Not long ago I was playing an album by classical Guitarist Christopher Parkening. The liner notes, inscribed by the artist himself, reminded me of a family outing some years ago when we all went to see him and baritone Jubilant Sykes in concert in Toronto. It was a great evening, topped off with a time after the performance to meet and chat with with both artists and, of course, to buy the disk he autographed.
  6. CDs last a long time: Nobody is quite sure how long an audio CD will last. Estimates seem to range between 20 and 200 years.

So where does that leave me? The original problem with the player was remedied with a professional cleaning job for less than $100. My wife and I continue to enjoy our music, but I have also begun the job of migrating the CD collection to a format that will work with a streaming media player. Will the CDs eventually move to boxes in the basement next to the vinyl LPs? Eventually, perhaps, but not for a while.