It Never Ends: Twilight Reflections on the Compact Disc

Mike Silverton

[December 2002.]

I write about audio topics for UltraAudio.com. My UA editor sent for possible review a small tube of lotion that “Repairs & Enhances All CDs & DVDs / Stops Mistracking / Intensifies Sound / Eliminates Static / Improves Clarity.” And so end the claims. The manufacturer doesn’t promise that a few drops will add years to one’s life. But they do say that laughter can. Like Marcel’s teatime sweet, this revives memories, most of them amusing. Or maybe not. Depends on whether you were squirting Armor-All on your car or CDs. The party responsible for that debacle survived and indeed flourished. Talk about turning cheeks! We audiophiles are a most forgiving lot. The question remains, why the perceived need to apply an automotive refurbishing agent — or anything — to one’s compact discs?

Not long ago (and perhaps even now) end-users actually applied green ink to their CDs’ outer edges. Or was it inner? An effusive panjandrum snatched from my hands a disc I valued and did his green-ink number before I had a chance to scream. “Relax, you’re going to love this!” I heard not a whit of difference. In returning to the shelves, I’ve reminded myself that he inscribed both edges, outer and inner. At least he didn’t autograph the thing. I also recall end-users celebrating the ameliorative effects of adhesive-backed, transparent sheets one stuck to a CD’s label side. And weren’t there spongy rings likewise applied? I seem to recall that they interfered with some transports. I’m sure panaceas exist I’ve neglected to note. Keeping up is not the best way to spend one’s time. Nor is writing about it. I do so from a sense of duty, noblesse oblige. If you’re buying that one, I’d be delighted to sell you a Hawaiian island for a hundred dollars. It’s mischief, pure and simple.

If you’ve no idea what I’m carrying on about or where, motivationally, any of these putative tonics come from, you’re best advised to start at Square One where everyone who’s anyone in Audiophilia understood from the outset that the compact disc is a deeply flawed carrier foisted off on Those Who Care by a conspiracy of sinister Nipponese and dollar-avid Eurotrash. That, gentle reader, is the price of admission: You’ve got to agree that the Red Book CD needs as much help as it can get to make it sound halfway as satisfying as vinyl; ergo, green ink, decals, donuts, whatever. And you’re not the real deal, a bone-deep high ender, should you hold to a contrary view. The password is “Perfect sound forever,” followed by the obligatory snicker. Ah yes, well, now that we’re into another format war, these peculiar end-user employments will soon find themselves shelved somewhere in the bowels of the Smithsonian Institution several rooms down from celluloid collars.

Or do I take too rosy a view? My four cc’s of lotion also improve DVDs. “…Enhances All CDs and DVDs.” Apparently the CD’s successor requires treatment in order to approach the Golden Ideal. I await the arrival of a DVD player I’d be willing to swap for my Mark Levinson No.390 CD player, which is only to say that I will test these drops on a good, old fashioned compact disc. I mean, it’s one thing to sit here snickering at what one sees as same-old-same-old and quite another to snub what may be a fabulous restorative. The repair claim is easily tested. I too have an asphalt driveway. The blurb quotes a consumer as having skipped a disc’s playing side about 25 feet down his. “I tried to play [it] but the player could not even find the CD.” With only one application, the thing performed flawlessly.

A light snowfall precludes the driveway test. I’ve substituted a square of 100-grit sandpaper, giving a CD from the discard pile a light going over. My player dealt with the abrasions till it got to track three, at which point it hiccuped a couple of times. I’d need to do greater violence to the playing surface before I could test for efficacy in any way commensurate with the satisfied user’s experience. Another going-over proved too much. With two applications, directions observed, my player refused to recognize the disc. Not a fair trial. The specimen was much too far gone. I’d need to fetch another.

The second CD I abraded lightly, and again, my player performed. A follow-up sanding permitted the player to recognize the CD, but it stumbled badly some short distance in. Two applications didn’t repair the damage. The player continued to falter. “Repairs & Enhances All CDs …” Not where I live.

I was about to write, “Is there another hobby so beset with cures and tweaks?” But “hobby” rather catches in the throat. “Hello there, my name’s Mike, and high-end audio’s my hobby.” Hobby, for God’s sake?! Like model trains and baseball cards? Nay, nay, a thousand times nay! High-end audio’s a calling. You know, like the young fellow who enters a seminary in answer to a calling. I think my green-ink assailant would have worn a bishop’s mitre if he thought he could carry it off. (He’s since withdrawn from the field to enter another where fewer sparks fly.)

Well then, if we can agree that high-end audio’s a veritable Petri dish for the encouragement of oddities, perhaps we can also agree that some of these oddities do the job. I once hung out with a chap who’s forgotten more about electronics than I’ll ever know. He was contemptuous in principle of everything I’ve praised in Ultra Audio and then some. Line conditioners are nonsense. Designer cables, worse. Designer power cords ditto. That competently engineered audio components performing within their parameters can have their signature sounds, nonsense. Ridiculous. Dupes hearing what they want to hear.

Things are rarely black and white. This skeptic, most of whose opinions I’ve rejected, championed the compact disc from its inception. All he needed to prove to his satisfaction that the Red Book standard is transparent to the source was a CD reissue of an open-reel tape from his large collection of analog performances, which he acquired via a connection with major label archives. He played these copies of master tapes on an Ampex deck. If the name means nothing to you, Ampex was what the pros used: big, expensive, beautifully engineered studio machines. He had two, both of which he maintained in top-flight condition. So then, with pro-quality headphones, he determined that he could hear no difference between his tape of a given performance and its CD likeness. He sold off his tape collection to audiophiles who were delighted to take advantage of what seemed to them a madman’s folly. Digital is terrible, remember. On this particular issue the skeptic and I toe the silver line. He was also contemptuous of tubed electronics. Again, we agree. All I’ve ever heard from tubed gear is coloration. I know this will provoke heated reactions. What can I say? We hear what we hear, a variant on we’re-hearing-what-we-want-to-hear.

Delivering the irony with a mallet: A good line conditioner (Harmonix Reimyo ALS-777), superior cables (Nordost Valhalla), and well designed acoustic isolation platforms (Silent Running Audio), all of which the skeptic would judge a waste of money, the acquisitions of a naïf, have only helped to confirm that well recorded compact discs sound even better than I had thought possible.

Which leaves us where?

Poised to be cautious? Wary of givens? Sure, and what better place to mention that the overbearing green-inker put on speaker and cable demonstrations for me the significance of which I would not accept, since I’d decided beforehand that the skeptic had it right: I was somehow being duped. As I say, it’s rarely a case of black and white. Both men, as wrong as I think they’ve been in some ways, had something of value to teach. In a better world, we mull things over with an open mind and draw erasable conclusions. I’ve still no use for televangelists, and I’ve declined to review this lotion.

My UA editor responded to what I thought might be the final version of this piece with a question. “There is no shortage of claims in high-end audio, and no shortage of buyers either. Why?” He also suggested that I widen my topic’s field of vision. This latter wish is more easily dealt with. I’ve focused on the compact disc because the repair of its damaged reputation is for me a cause. No lotion required. I’ve been puzzled from the medium’s inception by the high end’s ritual dissatisfaction, one aspect of which finds expression in Armor-All, et al. I’ve seen and heard this analog’s-better mantra parroted as received wisdom in any number of places, e.g., The New York Times’ entertainment pages. And it’s nonsense.

Claims and buyers. Of which are there more? Call it a draw. At its heart, high-end audio is about epiphany. When a reviewer or fellow audiophile tells us that the music seems to be there in the room with him, we’re talking about perfecting illusion. In an inch or so beyond the figurative, the issue is one of magic. Magic defies quantification. And magic will always draw a crowd, in the instances to hand, music lovers and the sound-fixated. Thus the bogus, thus the delusional, and thus, thank goodness, the genuinely magical. One picks his way cautiously. Happy trails.