My first trip to Manhattan was with my mother and native New Yorker stepfather. We road-tripped from my hometown of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, which is a pretty provincial place for reasons that I can’t explain other than people are somehow still pissed about the nation’s capital moving to New York City a little before 1800.
At any rate, we made the trip along with a family friend to go to the legendary Harvey’s Stereo. This place was epic in comparison to what Philadelphia had to offer and the object of my stepfather’s eye was a Compact Disc player. It was early 1984, and Compact Discs were simply the shit. The actual discs (and there weren’t many of them out at the time but they were very sought after) cost a hefty $25-plus per album, which is over $60 in today’s dollars. Early Compact Disc players cost in the ballpark of $1,000US, which back then was a pretty penny. But hell, the format promised to deliver “Perfect Sound Forever,” and who could beat that? Even back then, with terrible DACs, Compact Discs had some advantages over vinyl that pass the test of time to this day. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not one of those true believers who think a “non oversampling DAC” from 1984 can even remotely compete with today’s best (or even cheap) digital-to-analog converters, but in the day, a CD player built like a brick shithouse was pretty cool.
Roll the tape forward to the early 1990s and I was off to music school at USC, complete with nearly 500 carefully curated Compact Discs packed into Case Logic folding cases. I remember this vividly because during Spring Break that Freshman year, some ass-clown broke into my dorm room and swiped all of my CDs. All of the Hendrix bootlegs, entire collections of Led Zeppelin, The Police, Rush, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, The Doors – all kinds of cool and rare stuff was gone. Thank God for USAA insurance who, because of my keeping my jewel cases at home, paid me “retail replacement value” prices (meaning Sam Goody at the Beverly Center mall in Los Angeles – the most expensive place I could find to buy CDs), which made me flush and able to re-purchase much of my music collection again.
Back in that era I was selling audiophile gear in Beverly Hills while a freshman in college, and we sold CD transports like the Mark Levinson No. 31, which was about the coolest thing that I had ever seen. It was a top-loading CD transport that you loaded the disc into (complete with sound effects from the lid opening) and secured it with a magnet-like cap and then lowered the space-inspired hatch in preparation for musical take-off. The cool factor was off the charts. Not long after moving to Mr. Levinson’s Cello Music and Film in West Hollywood for an even higher-end audiophile sales experience, we took esoteric to a new level by selling a Forsell CD transport that for $10,000 actually had the user load the disc upside down and then have it float on a bed of air while spinning thanks to what sure looked like a fish tank pump. Go figure. But paired with a re-branded, studio-quality Apogee Digital DAC made especially for Cello, this digital rig sounded pretty damn good for the day. CD sales at the time made up roughly 85 percent of a $38,000,000,000 per year domestic music business. Today, according to the RIAA in 2017, physical media made up 12 percent of the $8.9 billion domestic music sales with the combo of streaming and downloads now making up 85 percent of the much smaller overall music market.
For decades after that, the Compact Disc transport was THE answer for high-end music playback for audiophiles. And I owned some of the best. Meridian’s reference 800 transport foreshadowed the comingling of movie discs and audiophile discs and was one of the best-sounding audiophile components that I ever owned. There were others that sounded great, too.
Everything changed in the audiophile silver disc player market when Oppo Digital came to town, as they understood what the big AV companies and major record labels didn’t: more than one disc player is too many too many disc players for pretty much everybody. The mindlessly stupid format war between SACD and DVD-Audio off put a lot of mainstream consumers from owning high-resolution, high-performance silver audio disc players. DVD-Video players were cheap and much easier to connect to your system and they enjoyed at one point over 90-percent market penetration in the United States. But MP3s were now readily available for your iPod be it stolen from the Internet or legally ripped from your CD collection. Even at lame sample rates, the convenience of the MP3 was hard to ignore as companies like Apple pretty much changed the music industry forever with an impact that would ultimately kill the Compact Disc for music as it did the CD and DVD for computer software delivery.
An Oppo player pretty much played every silver disc you had and did it until a time when Oppo realized what many audiophiles are realizing now: the day of the silver disc is over. And perhaps for good reason. While Compact Discs ruled over vinyl then and now, they suck in comparison to music in HD, be it a file, a silver disc, or even streaming. Most importantly, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act allowed consumers to rip CDs legally when that isn’t the case with DVD-Video, Blu-ray, and other AV silver disc formats. Even those of us who still have Compact Discs have long since ripped them to a hard drive, as a traditional hard drive with upwards of three TB of storage space costs today as little as $99 from Amazon.com or Best Buy or wherever.
Roon today offers cover flow art that when using an iPad or tablet rivals the the experience of fondling an LP but packed with digital metadata, delivering an experience that just a few short years ago would have cost over $14,000 via a Meridian Sooloos system. Today, a dedicated Roon server will set you back like $500 and can be retrofitted to connect into nearly any DAC for well under $100 assuming said DAC isn’t already a Roon “end point.” So some critics might suggest that they can’t live without their collection of SACDs and DVD-Audio discs, but guess what? If you outsource the ripping of your SACDs to places like Golden Ear (not the speaker company) in Denver or take the time to rip your now somewhat obsolete DVD-Audio discs, those files can nicely live on your $99 network hard drive, stashed away quietly and safely in a closet, leaving you access to damn near every version of a CD or HD disc with a fingertip’s control.
Then we need to factor in the role of the streaming services, which are getting better and better in terms of scope of catalog, performance thanks to improved digital compression and codecs, plus always-improving AI that helps the services build playlists and musical moods around your tastes and feedback. So basically, for $20/month you get access to nearly all the music ever made in (at the worst) CD level quality. This is truly the ultimate audiophile elixir.
So, this brings me to the question that audiophiles who cling on to the past with all of their might don’t want to hear: is it time to sell your CD transport? Do you really need it? Does it offer better sound than your NAS drive and Roon (or J-River, or…)? Is spinning a CD worth your time? Is a huge collection of music stored in your listening room indicative of the look and logistics that you want in a modern, forward-thinking audiophile system? Some say yes and are popping for Oppo players for $2,500 on the secondary market. I’m thinking, not so much. It sure looks like the time for the CD transport is over, much like it was time to yank the turntable out of your high-performance system 20-plus years ago. There is a new, better way of doing things, but then again, I just used a dirty word for many audiophiles: New. Sorry about that.