On digital formats: the audio CD player graveyard

O Brother CD in CD TrayOver the weekend, my first audio CD player (born 1985) went to the recyclers/electronic waste disposal people. I used it from 1985 to about 1999, and attempted to give it a second life at the family cabin. The persistent failure of the mechanism that opens and closes the disk tray killed it (despite one successful repair attempt). So it went bye-bye.

Why is this event worthy of note here on this site? My audio CDs are good only if there’s a device that will play them. The end-of-life of an early CD Audio player stands as a signpost: It’s a marker of the time that’s transpired since the format was invented, the popularity of that format, and a warning of the risks we take when we store our stuff on Audio CD disk media.

From 1980—Present (and continuing…)

The Compact Disk Digital Audio (CD-DA) standard came into being in 1980, with the first CD players being available for purchase in 1982 (Europe and Japan) and 1983 (United States). In 1985, two years after its introduction, I bought mine.

It was the first of many. That first CD player isn’t my last—a good thing, since the disk player is what makes the actual disks any good. I’ve got another player in my stereo system (a multi-disk changer! Thank heavens for two dear friends who each upgraded stereo systems and donated their still-useful Audio CD castoffs to me.) In addition to my happy hand-me-down stereo system CD player, I’ve got one in my car (it’ll also play disks with MP3s, ooh la la). I used to have a portable player (use with headphones), and all the CD-ROM drives of my several computers also will play CD Audio disks. Many of the drives will write (burn) CD-ROM and CD Audio disks. Two drives will even burn DVDs.

My list of CD drives/players demonstrates what’s happened since the format and players were introduced: They’ve multiplied in the last 25 years since Philips and Sony devised and then published the specification.  How many Audio CD players exist and are in use today? I have no idea. (Market research reports that cover this topic cost between $2000 and $4000. I’m curious, but not that curious.) There are nearly 100 manufacturers of CD players. The numbers have to be in the neighborhood of a billion. More, when the “I have multiples” factors in. (Not the average user: Richard Hess, who does audio preservation, says his Audio CD rough count is 20).

Five, Ten, Fifteen…Twenty-five
In 1995, 15 years after Sony and Philips developed the CD-DA standard, and 10 years after I bought my CD player, a person named Jeff Rothenberg of the RAND Institute said, “Digital information lasts forever, or five years, whichever comes first.” His article, originally published in Scientific American, was reworked and published as a PDF in 1999. Here’s the opening:

The year is 2045, and my grandchildren (as yet unborn) are exploring the attic of my house (as yet unbought). They find a letter dated 1995 and a CD-ROM (compact disk). The letter claims that the disk contains a document that provides the key to obtaining my fortune (as yet unearned). My grandchildren are understandably excited, but they have never seen a CD before—except in old movies—and even if they can somehow find a suitable disk drive, how will they run the software necessary to interpret the information on the disk? How can they read my obsolete digital document?

This scenario questions the future of our computer-based digital documents, which are rapidly replacing their paper counterparts. It is widely accepted that information technology is revolutionizing our concepts of documents and records in an upheaval at least as great as the introduction of printing, if not of writing itself. The current generation of digital records therefore has unique historical significance; yet our digital documents are far more fragile than paper. In fact, the record of the entire present period of history is in jeopardy. The content and historical value of many governmental, organizational, legal, financial, and technical records, scientific databases, and personal documents may be irretrievably lost to future generations if we do not take steps to preserve them.

Rothenberg frames the issue in terms of 50 years (from 1995 to 2045). Because of some 80-year-old letters in my family attic, I think of this as the 80-year problem. Whether 50 or 80 years, we’re both thinking in terms of multiple decades.

And we are two-and-a-half decades removed from the beginning of CD Audio. That’s five sets of five years. Twenty-one years after buying my first CDs, they still play. If they’ve lasted more than five years, does that mean they’ll last forever? I don’t know.

There are several sub-questions behind the question, “Will they last forever?”

  • How long will the physical media last? The disk must survive physical deterioration. Or its contents must duplicated to a new disk later on.
  • How long will the player last? Many more Audio CD players have come into existence since my first one was manufactured. It’s a good bet that there’ll be a working Audio CD player—or something that will “read” and “play” Audio CDs, in another 20 years. Another 50 years. And possibly another 80 years. But who knows when the last Audio CD player will roll off some factory line, and how long it will take the then-existing CD players to wear out and break down like my 1985-era player did.
  • How long will the software last? Software is the machine intelligence that looks at a disk (and the digital bits on it), and recognizes the format of the data. It acts like this: “Ah! A disk! What kind of data is on here? Oh, I see, the data’s in an Audio CD format, so I’ll begin to interpret the bits as audio and ‘play’ it.”  The software is built right into the actual Audio CD player, so if the player exists, the software does, too. This software question is more relevant for CD-ROMs. On a computer with a CD-ROM drive, the software voice might continue, “Hm, let’s see, I recognize a file structure; there are 25 files on this disk. Yes, I have applications that will read this first one—-it’s text—- and these next two files are image files, and an image-editing application will work with them. This fourth file, hm, I don’t know about it….” Will the computer of the future be able to make sense of the files on the disk? Or will it be an incomprehensible string of ones and zeroes?

Audio CD, as a digital format that’s contained in millions and millions of players, will probably last for at least a few decades. The CD Audio standard isn’t limited to just standalone CD Audio players; it’s been adopted into other devices that use the same-sized disk media: Computers that read (and often write) CD-ROM, and now most home theatre DVD players also play audio CDs. So even as digital media players continue developing and morphing, the CD-DA standard looks as though it will survive well into the future. Will it last 20 years? Sure. 50 or 80 years? The Audio CD player might be superceded by some new entity, but the sheer number of currently existing disks and players means that they won’t have disappeared completely… right? right? Who knows if in 2086 there will still be some of those old-fashioned Audio CD players that came about in the dawn of the digital era. If they’re still around, and disks, too, the recordings on CD Audio can still be played.

If you’re creating your own archival disks of spoken family stories, CD Audio is a good bet for longevity. But like the Jeff Rothenberg grandchildren in the attic scenario, with a letter accompanying the disk, it’s a good idea to have some plain-old human readable notation about the disk to describe its significance for those who come after you. But that’s a topic for another time.

Au revoir, my Sony 8x oversampling CD player. You are gone, but my disks and data are still around, and will be for a good while.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on September 20, 2006 in • AudioDigitalityLongevity
27 CommentsPermalink

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I think audio CDs are likely to be readable for a very long time. You can still get a turntable today that’s capable of reading 78 RPM vinyl (and shellac) discs. There’s nothing in the creation of 33/45 RPM photographs that precludes them from reading 78 RPM discs. Similarly, discs that fit the correct form factor such as DVDs look to have a reasonably bright future, and there’s no reason those disc drives will stop reading CDs. There is such a large embedded base of “software” (i.e. music) on CD that it’s very unlikely that audio CDs will be difficult to read within our lifetimes.

Formats that run into problems tend to be sparsely used. I know of certain professional video tape formats that are pretty well forgotten, and information on them is pretty much lost.  (Ever heard of 1-3/4 inch video tape?  2-inch video tape was in fairly wide use at TV stations not that long ago, but almost twenty years ago I was hearing stories about how someone with a 1-3/4 inch tape had to travel to a small TV station in rural central Pennsylvania because they were the only place they could find with a working 1-3/4 inch machine. I suspect they’re all gone by now.)

ralph  on 09/20  at  07:28 PM

Very interesting article.  My Costco uses “Gold Archival” CD’s and they are supposed to be longer lasting - as far as CDs go.  I had them digitalize my father’s old 35mm slides of the family through the years (since 1945).  They came out beautifully.  I then transferred them from CD into my computer to work with and save further on CD and external hard drive.  Yes, we need to keep aware of the integrity of the CDs through the years and the availability of equipment to read them.  As new technology becomes available we should transfer the data to the newer technology (including online storage).  And then there’s paper—good ol’ paper —-  print out all your stuff, distribute it to other family members, donate to libraries—and hope the tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods and vandals stay away.

Donna Hague Wendt  on 05/20  at  12:37 PM

I’ve read lots of these types of articles bemoaning the shift toward digital storage, and they all gloss over or even ignore one huge benefit: unlimited, perfect copies. If I have a piece of paper, the best I can hope for is a close copy, and each generation gets progressively worse. With a digital document, I can create multiple, perfect copies that can be stored on many different kinds of media and in many different physical locations. As new storage formats come along, I can migrate that data onto that new media with no loss of quality. The chances of every copy of that data being corrupted or lost continues to shrink as I make more copies.

Ken Davidson  on 06/15  at  05:06 PM

Ken, you make good points—perfect copies each and every time (well, except for those pesky checksum errors).

Though I’m puzzled at your statement, “these types of articles bemoaning” Because this article certainly wasn’t. Acknowledging limitations and caveats, yes, but not bemoaning.

The digitization “gotchas” lie in the backwaters of obscure formats and insufficient copies. On obscure formats, didja hear about the Domesday Book and how its digitized version had to be rescued because it was imprisoned in an obscure digital format? That example proves your point about migration.

Now, if I can just find a way to transfer some old text files from my Kaypro computer to my current one, assuming that the data on the disks still works….

Susan A. Kitchens  on 06/15  at  05:34 PM

I am facing the Kaypro to something later data transfer problem too - had any luck?
Aug 10 2007 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

David Moore  on 08/10  at  11:21 AM

It’s been 4 years since you published this, and I must say, what a change! We have all these new technologies to copy and store data, most notably SSDs. I really think they’ll replace just about every other medium and stand the test of time (this time).

CDs are most certainly dead, in my opinion. Everything from SSDs, BluRay, and even some new phase-change tech in the labs.

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