Sound Reflections: CD sounds better than you may think. Here’s why.

Sound Reflections: CD sounds better than you may think. Here’s why.

When the CD came out, many vinyl record enthusiasts decried the format. “It sounds mechanical!” They’d protest. “It sounds cold!” Digital sucks became their mantra. A format war ensued. And while most of them today will concede that CD playback sounds leagues better than it used to, many still can’t fully warm up to it.

Fair enough, but I’d like to suggest to these people that the problem they have with CD sound has less to do with the CD format itself, than with how a conventional CD player plays music from a CD.

The conventional way dictates that a CD is inserted into a (usually) flimsy disc tray, where it spins at a constant speed of 600 to 1800 revolutions per minute (RPM), while a laser mechanism tries to read its information. This is not an easy task for the laser, because the disc, a thin, lightweight piece of polycarbonate plastic, is vibrating at breakneck speed in its disc tray due to mechanical vibrations and air turbulence.

These vibrations change the actual physical distance between the reflective layer of the CD and the laser pickup, an effect called focal distance, which causes the image of the 1s and 0s on the disc that represent the music to blur.

To counter this, an internal error correction system is used to help fill the missing information, a solution I liken to the once popular “drawing by numbers” game of connecting numbered dots with a pencil to draw an image. In the case of CD playback, we can call this “music by numbers”. In either case, we end up with an image that’s a crude representation of the original one.

Another issue that arises from having a CD spinning at such high velocity is the occurrence of timing errors in the signal processing, generally referred to as “jitter”, which smears the music.

Fortunately, there’s a much better way to play music from a CD, one that eliminates any probability of missing information or of jitter contaminating the signal, and some CD/media players are doing it now. How? By not playing back the CD in “real time”. Rather, these modern players create a bit-perfect copy of the CD, doing so by ripping its contents in sectors with multiple do-overs until every part of it has been retrieved and stored as an exact replica on the player’s internal hard drive. It’s this new file that’s then used for playback.

If done right, no conventional CD player can touch the level of performance that this type of CD playback is capable of, since all of the latter’s musical information is played back in its entirety – no “educated guesses” from some error correction system, and no jitter to muck up the sound. It doesn’t get any more “perfect” than that.

Vinylphiles may be surprised by just how non-mechanical and warm this sort of CD playback can sound.

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