Does it still make sense to buy CDs?

Now that DRM is a thing of the past, MP3 downloads are cheap, and streaming options are everywhere, do CDs still have a place in the world?

Rick Broida

Happy Valentine's Day, peeps! (Actually, shouldn't that be "cheeps"? Hey, I like that. From now on, you're all my cheeps.) I love you guys and gals--even when you accuse me of running scams, ha-ha.

I thought I'd switch things up today. Instead of my usual deal (see this early-morning Marketplace post if you still need your fix), let's talk about something a little more abstract.

Yesterday, I learned that music-on-demand service Spotify now streams at 320Kbps via its iOS app . That's CD-quality, which got me thinking: do we really need CDs anymore?

For a long time, CDs offered certain advantages that digital-music solutions couldn't match. They sounded better. They were easier to play in the car and around the house. They didn't saddle you with DRM hassles. And you could rip them to whatever bit rate and format you wanted--including lossless formats like FLAC, which many audio purists prefer.

Many of these advantages are still true today. But the music landscape is so different now than it was five years ago. DRM is gone. Smartphones and tablets have the storage capacity to house massive music libraries--and play them through car stereos, speaker docks, and the like.

Meanwhile, streaming services like Pandora, Spotify, and Slacker offer incredible on-demand selection, obviating the need to buy music at all. A few weeks back I created an Adele station on Pandora, and it's just plain incredible. I listen to it just about everywhere thanks to devices like my iPhone and Roku box. Price: free.

Because I'm in my 40s, I, of course, have a CD collection--around 150 discs, at last count, all of them gathering dust in a box. Most of them were ripped and stored long ago, and I don't think I've touched a jewel case in about five years. The only CDs I've purchased during that time were a handful of "Glee" soundtracks for Mrs. Cheapskate. (Indeed, when it comes to gifts, the vagaries of an iTunes gift card can't hold a candle to a specific, physical CD.)

Even audiobook CDs have given way to digital downloads from the likes of Audible and Simply Audiobooks, which offer considerable savings over retail CD prices.

So, do CDs still have a place in the world? For me, the answer is no, and has been for quite some time. I like being able to buy individual tracks for 99 cents rather than entire albums for $8-12, and I like the deals I can get when I do opt for albums. (Amazon, for example, has the MP3-download edition of The Decemberists' "Hazards of Love" for $5, versus $12.82 for the CD.)

On the flipside, I've heard from many people who won't touch music from Amazon or iTunes because the bit rates are too low. (Amazon's MP3s are encoded at a variable bit rate that averages around 256Kbps, while Apple's AACs are encoded at 256Kbps.) Because I rarely listen through headphones, and because my ears don't notice any difference between, say, 256Kbps and 320Kbps, I have no problem with it. For me, as long as the music sounds good, that's good enough.

Do you feel differently? Are you sticking it out with CDs, or are you fully embracing this all-digital, all-downloads, all-streaming age? Maybe it's both; this doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing equation, after all. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Bonus deal: Aw, you knew I wouldn't leave you hanging. Flash drive prices are dropping like crazy, as evidenced by this: Newegg has the HP 165 Series 32GB USB flash drive for $22.99 shipped. No rebates--that's your out-the-door price. Not sure I've seen a 32GB drive for less, like, ever.

 

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