8 Reasons Why CD Box Sets Still Matter

Why Box Sets Still Matter

In a world that’s embraced digital music in the cloud, are CD box sets obsolete?  I don’t think so, and here’s why:

1. You get informative booklets and liner notes.

Atomic Platters CD Box Set
The Atomic Platters collection from Bear Family comes with a 292-page hardcover book.

When you listen to music online, you usually don’t get the background information that makes listening more enjoyable. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy learning when the music was recorded, who wrote it, who played on the recording, and its Billboard chart position. I’ve spent many happy hours reading bios of the artists and looking at photos, original album covers, posters, newspaper articles and reviews. It doesn’t matter if you’re learning about music before your time or reliving the music of your youth — these supplemental materials enhance the listening experience.

2. You always get the original recordings.

Versions of Del Shannon's Runaway on Spotify
With all these versions of the same song, how can you tell at a glance which are originals and which are re-recorded?

Artists often record their most popular songs over and over as they change record labels over the course of their career. When you browse an artist’s recordings on a digital music service, it’s often hard to tell at a glance which tracks are originals and which are re-records. Sometimes the original version is not even available. I don’t know about you, but when I listen to a classic oldie, I want to hear the real thing, not a remake.

Take for example the 1961 Del Shannon hit “Runaway”. In a May 2013 article about re-recordings on Slate.com, Dave Mandl wrote:

“…the re-recording of Del Shannon’s “Runaway” is so impressively close that I wasn’t certain it was a re-recording until about 30 seconds in. My conclusion was confirmed when the clavioline break, surely one of the greatest solos in rock ’n’ roll history, started—and was noticeably different from the more staccato original. Sacrilege!”

I understand that many artists signed bad deals when they made their original recordings. They want to re-record in order to make some money. But the truth is that the songs we love capture a moment in time that can’t be recreated years or decades later. When you buy a well-curated box set, you know you’re getting the music you cherish. You’re also getting well-mastered recordings. Even original recordings have terrible sound quality on some cheapo compilations. That leads us to…

3. You get better sound quality than downloads or streaming.

Listening with Headphones
Uncompressed music delivers the best listening experience.

Virtually all the music available on download and streaming services is heavily compressed using lossy file formats. What’s lossy? As the name implies, lossy compression throws away part of the digital sound information in order to make the file smaller. And once you compress music, you can’t uncompress it and get back the sonic nuances that were thrown away. At higher compression rates, almost everyone can hear the difference, especially in sustained high frequency sounds like symbols and string sections.

The music on Compact Discs is uncompressed 16-bit/44.1 KHz. Sure, there are higher quality audio formats with even more bits and more hertz, but 99% of the music you enjoy is not commercially available in a quality higher than what you get from an audio CD. And once you own the CD, you can choose if you want to use a lossy compression format when you convert it for use on your electronic devices.

4. You have something cool to display and look at while you’re listening to the music.

Romancing the 60s CD Collection from Time Life
Time Life’s Romancing the 60s CD Collection comes with a music box that plays “Unchained Melody.”

If you’re old enough, you remember the joy of coming home from the record store with a fresh copy of your favorite artist’s new LP, tearing off the shrink wrap and slapping it on your turntable for its first listen. While you listened, you devoured the visual delights of the gatefold album cover: Artwork, photos, liner notes and credits. Sometimes, secret messages could be found.

You get none of that with streaming and downloads. There have been attempts to deliver electronic liner notes with music downloads, but for the most part all you get is a tiny JPEG of the album cover.

5. The CD is practically future proof.

Woman holding a CD
This hunk of plastic is going to stick around for a long time.

When you listen through cloud-based services like Spotify, there’s no assurance the music you’re listening to today will still be available tomorrow. Licensing deals expire, and your favorite music disappears. With download stores like Amazon, iTunes or eMusic, you own the files, but changing technology means they may be unplayable in 5 or 10 years. CD players, just like turntables, will be around for decades to come, and commercially-produced CDs should remain playable for the rest of your lifetime. If you’re concerned, backup your CDs by converting them to a lossless digital file format (more on that below).

6. You can still listen on all your devices.

Young woman listening to music on her phone wearing earbuds
Buy music on CD, listen anywhere. Phone, tablet, PC, car, home stereo.

As long as you have a computer with a CD drive, you can rip your CDs with iTunes or other music software and make them available for all your devices. This is made especially easy by cloud-based services from Apple, Amazon and Google.

For audiophiles and others who are picky about sound quality, you can choose to convert your CDs to a lossless digital file format like FLAC that sounds identical to the original. The downside? Lossless music takes up a lot more space on your devices.

7. A box set makes a much better gift than an iTunes Gift Card.

Box set vs. iTunes Gift Card
Cool box set with liner notes by Nelson George vs. a plastic card or email. Which is cooler?

Which looks like a gift that was chosen with care? You can take the time to choose and present something special, or you can give a piece of plastic and make the recipient pick out their own gift. Which fills both the gifter and giftee with warm, glowing holiday joy? Which brings us to my final reason…

8. Old people don’t stream.

Grandma with Earbuds
“This is nice dear, but I’ll still listen to CDs on my Bose radio in the kitchen.”

A lot of box set sales are driven by nostalgia, purchased by older people or received by them as gifts. Most seniors and many boomers are slow to adopt new technologies. Some seniors still listen to music on cassette tape, and not because they’re trend-surfing hipsters.

These older listeners want their music in a format that’s familiar and comfortable – Compact Disc. Give them what they want. While shopping, you may even find a box set or two you’d like to own.

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