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CD box sets: It's that time of year again

Downloads and streaming music can't touch physical media for sound quality, and they forfeit the pleasures associated with truly deluxe packaging.

The Big Beat Elvis box is chock full of goodies. Legacy

Downloads and streaming music can't touch physical media for sound quality, or the pleasures associated with truly deluxe packaging.

For a prime example of the state of the art of the box set, check out the extra-thick album sleeves and gorgeous slipcase on Pearl Jam's "vs. & Vitalogy Deluxe Edition" three-disc set. The third disc is a live show from Boston's Orpheum Theatre in 1994. The band is peaking, and it's great to hear this fierce, passionate music sounding this good. To get the full effect, you'll want to play it loud. The remastered "vs." and "Vitalogy" never sounded better.

The folks at Sony Legacy pulled out all the stops for the "Elvis Presley: Young Man With the Big Beat" box. First, the CDs are packed in an LP-size box, with a lavishly printed, 82-page soft-cover book that documents Presley's comings and goings in 1956. There are separately packed publicity photos, letters, and all sorts of goodies. The five CDs of Elvis' 1956 masters, outtakes, live performances, and interviews will delight any Elvis fan. The masters of all the early hits like "Heartbreak Hotel," "Don't Be Cruel," and "Love Me Tender," and the outtakes' remastered sound quality are excellent; the live recordings are pretty rough, but the excitement generated by rock's first superstar's shows is palpable.

The deluxe Pearl Jam box. Legacy

The "Jimi Hendrix: Winterland" four-disc box collects all the performances from the guitar god's October 1968 shows at Winterland in San Francisco. Yes, a lot of the same songs get repeated at all the shows, but he never plays them the same way twice. There are long jams, and the mood is very relaxed, even as Hendrix deals with onstage technical problems between songs. "Winterland's" sound quality is very good; it's distinctly clearer than Hendrix's "Woodstock" album.

"Phil Spector Presents The Philles Album Collection" is a seven-disc set, which includes a bonus disc of B-sides, many available on CD for the very first time and featuring material not issued since the music was originally released on 45 RPM singles. Each CD comes in an oversize cardboard record sleeve. Spector was the hottest producer of the early 1960s, and his densely mixed productions still sound great today. If you want a quick education about what the American pop music scene was like before the Beatles changed everything, this box would be a great place to start.

Then there are the career-in-a-box sets like "The Byrds: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection," with 12 CDs in cardboard sleeves, and the music sounds awesome. With truly great bands like the Byrds it's a lot of fun to hear everything in context. The ebb and flow from album to album puts the music in a deeper context. I never really noticed the band's debut album before, but "Mr. Tambourine Man" is awfully good. The 1965 production is stellar; I just wish Arcade Fire could sound this good.

The Hendrix box, a nice spread. Legacy

"ELO: The Classic Albums Collection," is another epic journey, and the Electric Light Orchestra's sound is so 1970s. No band better fused rock-pop with synthesizers and real strings, and over the course of 11 albums the band continued to grow and develop new sounds. It was pure pop for 1970s people. Still sounds sweet today, and ELO's dense orchestrations fill a deep and wide stereo soundstage. Contemporary recordings rarely sound as good as the best of ELO.

There's more and more talk of physical media's demise, and if that happens, these limited-edition boxes' value has nowhere to go but up. Get 'em while you can.