Many people tend to associate musical nostalgia with the scratch of a needle against a vinyl record, but for me, it turns out a laser beam piercing the reflective surface of a spinning CD has the same sentimental effect. Shocking, right? We’re conditioned to ignore the not-quite-vintage, not-well-remembered compact disc over the LP, a format beloved by our parents or our grandparents, seemingly regardless of our own age.
But I’m not listening so I can be transported back decades, and I’m not longing for a simpler time when lasers were only seen in sci-fi movies, as I imagine hipsters do with their record players. For me, the relative modernity of the CD is appropriate because not only was it the most common format on store shelves when I was young, but also because I haven’t actually stopped buying CDs.
Why have I still been buying CDs, a format first released in 1982, when streaming services are now commonplace? Apart from them sounding glorious, it has actually been something of a necessity. I listen to a lot of Japanese music, and Japan has not only been slow at adopting streaming, but complicated licensing in the country has meant that a lot of Japanese music was only available to stream online if you were actually in Japan.
When I wanted to add a song to my collection, the easiest way was to buy it on CD through a Japanese online music store and have it sent to me. The average CD single in Japan costs about $9, but the cost is effectively doubled when you factor in shipping. Special editions and albums range from around $15 to $100 or more. Wanting to own music this way was, and still is, an expensive endeavor and one that needs dedication.
But as explained, at first there wasn’t a lot of choice. Things have gotten better as more Japanese artists sell music through iTunes today, and as geoblocking is being removed from Spotify and other services. However, it hasn’t stopped me from buying CDs. While the rest of the world has moved on (or in the case of vinyl, seemingly backwards) from the CD, in Japan and Korea, new music is still regularly released on CD. Given my choice of music, and in the same way as streaming was a few years ago, vinyl is not an option as new releases simply aren’t there.
The lack of vinyl, just like streaming, doesn’t matter. CDs released in Japan, even just singles, are often treated exceptionally well. Take Nogizaka46’s Gomen ne Fingers Crossed single as an example. The basic, single-disc Regular Version is joined by four other versions (Type-A to Type-D), each with different cover art. There’s also a Blu-ray with the music video, plus the first press has a random photo card included, and some retailers will also bundle a poster. While not that common anymore, in the past, different CD single versions would often include different B-side songs too, increasing the necessity to buy all of them.
Collectors’ editions from Korea, such as the various editions by global girl-group IZ*ONE seen in the photos, are often similarly irresistible, each coming with different box art, random photo cards, and other special gifts included with the CD. These mini albums usually have at least five or six songs, making the $30-plus price hurt a little less. Depending on your bank account and your willingness to support your preferred group, buying all versions is not uncommon, and yes, I speak from personal experience.
Over the past few years, I’ve built a modest CD collection, and listened to them mostly through my MacBook Pro’s SuperDrive. It was when I upgraded to a Mac Mini M1 that I lost access to a CD drive, and I started to miss relaxing and listening to my CDs. Doing so with the CD spinning is different to tapping play in the Music app on my iPhone. There’s a danger of holding on to the phone, opening Twitter or Instagram, and not really concentrating. I wanted to concentrate. I wanted a CD player.
I was lucky enough to be offered Naim’s Uniti Star all-in-one music player. It’s an absolute beast, weighing just shy of 30 pounds and fitting in a CD player, a 70 watts-per-channel amp, AirPlay and Chromecast, built-in Spotify and Tidal connections, and a host of inputs and outputs on the back. The classy looks and dreamy performance are backed up by an insanely high-level build quality. I listen using a pair of Sennheiser HD660S or Grado RS1e open-back headphones, each of which is well-suited to comfortable home use, and for exposing the precise, detailed sound from the Uniti Star.
There’s a purity to the sound delivered by a well-mastered CD that I don’t really hear in the same way through a normal digital file, and one I’d never get through vinyl. K-pop CDs in particular usually have superb mastering, and are a joy to listen to. The Uniti Star has more power than my ears are capable of handling, and the Sennheisers are wonderfully natural sounding. Perhaps it’s the effects of the pandemic, with its restrictions on travel and large-scale music events, but every time I revisited my CD collection after the Uniti Star’s arrival, unexpected feelings of nostalgia washed over me.
Listening to Step x Step by Amelie for the first time in ages, I was instantly back in Tower Records in Shibuya, Tokyo, in 2017, listening to the song playing over the store’s audio system. I used my best Japanese to ask a helpful member of staff what was playing, and was shown Amelie’s CD. It was just one example of a CD evoking happy memories. I found CDs that had been kindly sent to me by a fan of a particular group, as they were simply not available to buy outside of a concert, along with signed CDs and hidden photo cards. Nostalgia is created not always by the music specifically, but also the events surrounding the music.
I’m not one for taking trips down memory lane, but the Naim Uniti Star, my Sennheisers, and my CDs have repeatedly led me on pleasant nostalgic strolls. I will never remember where I was, or what prompted me to buy, a digital media file, and the music I listen to isn’t released on vinyl for me to have any connection to the format even if I wanted it. The compact disc is my conduit to the music’s soul, and its link to my own, despite it not really being a format associated with those feelings.
People are flocking to vinyl, which is now inexorably linked to nostalgia to the point where revenue from record sales is expected to outstrip CDs this year, but it’s not an option for everyone. Vinyl was only ever something I bought when the CD wasn’t available, like a lot of dance music in the early 1990s, and now it’s arguably not an option at all. CDs came in a jewel case at that time, maybe with a cardboard outer cover if you were lucky, but today, if you’re shopping in the right places, CD releases are far more exciting, and as I’ve rediscovered, the audio experience remains practically unmatched.
After more than a year of repetitive living, ways to emotionally connect to our pre-pandemic life have become more precious. Music can be a very big part of that, and despite what you may think, it’s all there on wonderful-sounding discs made of polycarbonate. I’ve ordered more CDs today, and when I listen to them in the future, I’ll probably think of the time I spent writing this story.
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