The Dark Side of the Disc

When the Compact Disc was introduced 22 years ago, it rocked everyone's world. Like any seismic change, it fostered its share of controversy and anger and even some name-calling. As a devout young digerati, I waited patiently for all the conspiracy theories to die away. I'm still waiting.

I thought it would take a year or two for the antidigital thundering to stop - but now, with dark foreboding, I figure I'm looking at a millennium, at least. Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn't ask me, "Why doesn't digital sound as good as analog?" Or more pointedly, "You're that digital guy, aren't you? You suck." I've grown deaf - at least to the belief that analog rules. If you want to believe that, it's entirely fine with me. And there are alien spacecraft in Area 51, and George W. Bush is a robot.

What still bothers me, however, is when that lunatic fringe wanders into the science of digital audio. In the early days of the CD, all kinds of rubbing compounds, creams, crystals, and magnetic potions were marketed to take the edge off CD's "harsh sound." Twenty-two years later, the theories have only gotten nuttier.

For example, the latest cure de jour for bad CD sound is black CD-Rs. I'm sure you've seen them - CD-Rs with an opaque dye that makes them look black. As the story goes, if you record from a commercial CD to a black CD, the black sounds much, much better. Depressingly, I've seen entire shelves filled with black discs.

Neither my opinion nor the facts can shake the certainty of the black-disc believers. When they insist I listen, I tell them that I can't hear any difference. This only intensifies their belief, because they figure their hearing must be better than mine, so they're even more qualified to promote the theory.

You could dismiss this by simply observing that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, so it's easy to see why people would be confused. But why is it just audio that's prone to such beliefs? When I propose to the same people that by copying their TurboTax files to a green CD-R, their annual income might be increased, or that JPEG images stored on pink CD-Rs have much better image quality, they laugh at the absurdity. Yet audio is susceptible to speculation. Analog audio had ritual and charm, whereas digital is just data. In that respect, digital does lack something, and maybe people need something - some talisman - to humanize its sound.

For now, black CD-Rs are big sellers, and every big manufacturer offers them. Maybe they just look cool in a PlayStation sort of way, or maybe word of their magical sonic properties has leaked out. Either way, I'm resigned to both the discs and the believers. I guess the band they're in is just playing different tunes.

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