The other day I burned a music CD. I hadn’t done that for maybe five years. I found my dusty old CD drive, connected it, and tried to remember how the whole thing worked. My CD-burning software didn’t work with Windows 10 so I had to rely on iTunes, another piece of software I use rarely these days. And it made me realize that the CD truly is obsolete.

Back in the day

The compact disc was a revelation when it was released in 1982. It was called a compact disc because it looked and acted a lot like a Laserdisc, a competitor to VHS tapes at that time. Unlike the Laserdisc which was the size of a vinyl record, the compact disc was about the size of a floppy disk. Yes, these were much more relevant measurements back then.

The goal was a music playback medium that wouldn’t get worse every time you played it. Vinyl records and cassette tapes wore out because the very act of playing them actually damages them a little bit. CDs were designed to be durable.

How CDs work

CDs work by spinning the disc so a laser can read pits that have been made in its surface. If the laser reads a pit, that’s a “1.” If it doesn’t, that’s a “0.” In this way, a whole digital file is read. Then, that file is decoded into an analog wave and played out through your sound system.

I gotta tell you, this sounded really awesome when it was first announced.

The problem was…

CDs may have been designed to be durable but they weren’t designed to be incredible. While home users marveled at the clear, crisp sound, audiophiles immediately claimed CDs sounded sterile and inferior compared to well-maintained vinyl. A lot of people say the same thing to this day.

The CD standard uses 16-bit technology which was very expensive in 1980 but isn’t even as powerful as a $50 phone today. The resulting 64kbps data rate is a mere fraction of what today’s music players are capable of. A lot of the fine details of early CDs is lacking, and that’s why a lot of music that was put on CD in the 1980s has been remastered since.

Using a CD today

Burning a CD, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. It took about 7 minutes, start to finish. That seemed awesome 20 years ago but I could download 50 CDs worth of music in that time today. It took a while to load the disc, to “finalize” it, and when the whole thing was over I had to go digging for a sharpie so I could label it. The whole experience was very Y2K.

CDs became obsolete because by today’s standards they’re slow and big. They were replaced first by flash drives — those are kind of obsolete now too — and eventually by cloud storage. If you have a generous data plan and a fast connection, there’s no reason to carry around a suitcase full of CDs. New cars today don’t even come with CD players in many cases, and customers don’t miss them. Do you?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.