Are CD Players Obsolete?

In our hyper-technologized culture, obsolescence is a pretty relative, subjective term. The average person on the street would tell you that the 8-track tape medium is obsolete, even though there is a strong subcommunity of users and enthusiasts, and an unknown number of players that soldier along in cars, trucks, garages and dens around the country, simple because the tapes and players still work.

A smaller percentage of people would probably tell you that the cassette tape is , or is nearly, obsolete. Sure, you can still buy a dwindling selection of prerecorded tapes and buy recorders, but not nearly as many as ten years ago. And I’m certain plenty of young folks moved right into the world of MP3 without ever giving the lowly cassette a second look.

The CD has been with us for about 23 years, and yet I find myself asking the title question because it’s getting more and more difficult every day to find a simple, basic CD player. The reason for the quest is a current effort to equip my local community radio station with new players, and to select ones for the new low-power FM station I’m helping to set up.

Walk into any electronics store and there’s a ready supply of portable CD players, and plenty of integrated stereos and boomboxes with CD players. But you’ll be lucky to find more than 1 model of single-CD player, except for the largest of superstores. It seems like the single CD player got supplanted by the CD changer, which is being quickly superceded by the DVD player and changer, which cost the same, or even less, than the lowly single-disc CD player.

But the problem is that changers and DVD players are not particularly useful for DJs and radio.

Now, radio stations mostly don’t use consumer-grade CD players, so you wouldn’t think this would be a problem. Except that the ranks of pro-grade CD players are both dwindling and changing.

Our station recently experimented with some professional-grade CD players from Marantz, a brand that is generally highly regarded in the field. However, we’ve had all sorts of problems playing a variety of discs, including CD-R burns and imported CDs that may or may not have some sort of copy protection.

Prior to trying to upgrade the station had been using a stack of 10-year-old Sony home CD players that we cycle out of the studio and into repair as needed. These old, beat up Sony players handle all of the discs that the pro Marantz player chokes on.

Sure, the Marantz has great new features like MP3 playback, pitch control and other great digital doo-dads, but those don’t mean squat if we can’t play 15% of our CDs on it.

What I’ve been able to figure out is that these new CDs players aren’t actually CD players at all, but actually have innards more like a DVD player, which is how they can offer fancy features like MP3 playback.

But, without getting into the technical details, DVD players are actually more like CD-ROM drives than CD players, and CD-ROM drives and CD players are actually pretty different beasts. CD-ROM drives have been made to work like CD players, but this is not their native task.

This difference is why CD protection schemes work, and why, in principle, it’s possible to make an audio CD that will play in a plain audio CD player fine, but not function properly in a CD-ROM drive, therefore making it more difficult to rip CDs to MP3s.

Of course, this begs the question: what use is such copy protection if there aren’t many regular old CD players left?

While this explains why the pro machines aren’t reading all the discs our old consumer-grade Sonys do, it still doesn’t explain why this is happening.

The best I can guess is that demand for plain garden-variety single-disc CD players is fading. When people are building home systems, they’re opting for DVD players, instead, since they’ll play most CDs on top of all sorts of other content. But what about the pros?

I reckon the pro market ain’t what it used to be either. Why? Because radio stations really aren’t using CD players, either.

That may sound bizarre, since commercial radio is built on music, and music is delivered on CD. But the catch is that most commercial radio stations these days are automated. Even if there is a live DJ, it’s most likely that she sits in front of a computer, which has a cued up playlist of tracks sitting on the harddrive, ready to be played with a keystroke.

There’s probably a couple CD players in each studio, but those are more for emergencies–like when the automation computer crashes–or for the occasional exceptional show, than for daily use.

It used to be that commercial radio stations had to constantly repair and replace CD players, turntables and tape machines, since they were used and abused 24-hours day. The replacement cycle kept the pro audio player market pretty flush with demand.

But when stations don’t use this stuff 24-hours a day, they don’t need to replace so often, and so demand for things like CD players go down.

Now, to some extend, this pro audio player market has been kept alive by music DJs, who need equipment, especially turntables, to use in clubs and other venues. But the CD players that club DJs use are different — not to mention more expensive and sophisticated — than the ones used for radio. But I think the DJs are driving the market more than radio, now, so they’re need to play MP3s outweighs a radio station’s need to play any CD that might wander in.

Community and college radio stations are probably the last bastion of true 24-hour a day live-DJ radio played off of CDs — but that’s probably not a big market for CD player manufacturers.

It’s amazing to realize this, especially since CDs themselves are far from obsolete, despite the prognostications of the technorati and a recording industry that would love nothing more than a new, supposedly better format to come in and give the buying public an excuse to replace their entire music collection.

But the demise of the single-CD player seems to be more a result of utility than format. Simply put, fewer and fewer people have a need for such a simple (but reliable) device.

So that brings us back to the question of obsolescence. Is a media device obsolete when it ceases to be mass produced? When it ceases to have new software? When there’s no longer any demand for new ones? Or when it’s succeeded by something “better?”

It’s not an easy question to answer, and certainly not so for the single CD player. And, yet, here I am, trying to find one that will work for what we want, and even hearing from other radio stations that they’re having similar troubles.

Guess, we’ll just have to play more LPs, since we can even still find a turntable that will reliably play every speed of vinyl and shellac made since the turn of the century.

Digital, you are an evil, fickle mistress.






One response to “Are CD Players Obsolete?”

  1. hyper-technologized culture obsolescence

    Mediageek has an interesting post that asks Are CD Players Obsolete?” Although I was only looking for a CD player for my home stereo, i ran into similar problems. Its next to impossible to find inexpensive component CD players these…