An Inexpensive Upgrade To Your Stereo System

…and you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck.

The front of a record store.

It isn’t really the Last Record Store, but it’s probably close.

As a latchkey kid in the sixties the radio was my constant companion. It was the only source of entertainment that offered nearly infinite variety. When I grew older and got a paperboy gig I saved my money and bought my first good stereo system. I purchased my first CD player, a Magnavox’s FD-1000SL top-loader, about 1984 and I’ve been collecting CDs ever since. For years audio buffs like myself had put up with the snapping and popping of vinyl records as well as tape hiss from cassettes. The new format was quiet—no clicks, no hiss (except from the master tapes themselves). With the introduction of the “portable” CD player as well as in-dash mobile players you could take that wonderful sound quality anywhere. Audiophiles had a problem with the format, however. They complained that the sound was too “cold,” “lifeless,” and “sterile.” Further, prolonged listening made some people’s ears tired, a phenomenon called ‘listener fatigue.’ Audio nerds raved about the warm sound quality of vinyl and clung desperately to their collections even as turntables became ancient relics and vinyl records ceased production. It turns out they were on to something.

As time went on and recording engineers learned more about the CD format they realized that they had to master the material differently than if they were prepping it for a vinyl release. Mastering is the final phase in music production where an engineer makes subtle tweaks to the sound—adding a little compression or equalization, for instance—before the music is submitted for physical production and release. Vinyl records didn’t have the dynamic range of digital so some frequencies needed emphasis while others were cut, and equalization was applied in order to play nicely with the mechanical medium. If you know what good audio is supposed to sound like and you dig out CDs released in the eighties you’ll find the overall sound to be somewhat irritating. Over the first ten years or so the sonic quality of new CD releases gradually improved, but millions of those first poorly-mastered CDs were pumped out.  Sadly, many older titles on store shelves are still made from the original poorly-made masters.

There is a saving grace for audiophiles like myself who like older music offerings, known in the industry as catalog titles. As stocks of these older titles ran out, music companies realized that these items were gold. They’d recovered the original production costs years ago and incurred minimal expense in making more. Nearly every cent was profit! They also realized that the older master tapes were deteriorating and their golden eggs needed transferred to a newer high-resolution medium for safekeeping. For years now the music companies have been quietly remastering their older catalog titles and re-releasing them to an audience eager to buy the older tunes they’ve heard on the radio for years.

The “Disappearing” CD

But as sales have slowed, the music biz has been predicting the end of the CD. In the February 29, 2012 Rolling Stone an article titled “Is the CD Era Finally Over?” quoted an exec as saying new CDs would probably stop being introduced in two years, although stores like WalMart could keep them alive for as long as five years. WalMart is re-expanding their music department after shrinking it a few years ago. They’re getting a flood of reduced-price CDs to sell for $5 each, and they’ve found that people who come in to browse them are staying longer and buying more. After reading the article I visited my local Wally World and fished in their “bin-of-death” to see what turned up.

I was pleasantly shocked to find a number of classic titles I already owned in remastered versions. Some of them had bonus tracks and the sound quality of these newly remastered classics were far superior to the older copies I owned. I could even tell a difference on the factory stock CD player in my truck. As I shopped in other stores like Meijer, Kmart, and Best Buy I realized that they were also getting these $5 classics to sell. Additionally some of the stores have multiple price tiers of these older titles, usually at $7 and $9. I’ve been in sonic heaven and have bought many upgrades as well as a number of titles from artists I’d passed by over the years. I couldn’t bring myself to spend over $12 each for them back then, but at $5 each they’re a bargain. Thanks to careful shopping I’ve added titles by Rush, John Mellencamp, the Dixie Chicks, Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. I’ve also seen more recent titles from newer artists like Coldplay and The Fray. In the past five months I’ve spent more on music than I’ve spent in the past five years, and I love it.

I realize this doesn’t make sense to everyone. “Why buy discs and clutter up your house when you can download anything you want from the Internet?” There are two reasons. First, I want the highest available sound quality for my music. Most digital formats aren’t lossless, meaning they throw away data in order to make smaller file sizes. (This translates into the ability to have 2000 songs on your portable player rather than 500.) If I want to rip lower quality copies to play on my phone I can do it myself and, if something happens to the copy, I can rip a brand new one. Second, I want the additional features of having the album art and booklets with my music. Album art was once considered a high (but popular) art form that has all but disappeared in the digital age. To me there’s nothing more enjoyable than playing my favorite music while looking over the album notes or following along with the lyrics.

Some Shopping Tips

If you’d like to try your hand at upgrading your sound system my way, here are five things I’ve learned through my shopping jaunts which may help you in your music purchasing:

Examine the packaging carefully.  How can you tell if a title’s been remastered? Some things are obvious, like a sticker that says “Digitally Remastered from the Original Tapes” or something similar.

— Some remasters have clear spines, viewable in the area immediately to the left of the CD booklet, and printing in that clear area may say something like “The Definitive Remasters” or “Original Masters.”

— Titles on Warner labels will say “Flashback” for older un-remastered titles but read as “Flashback Remasters” on the reworked titles.

— The back of the package may say something like “Digitally remastered at Northern Recorders, Los Angeles by Peter Piper.”

— If you see a logo that reads “HDCD” it’s a definite remaster.

— A section listing bonus tracks is also a good indicator.

I picked up a copy of Linda Ronstadt’s “Simple Dreams” that had an older black spine and no mention of remastering on the package, and took the chance because of the newer Asylum logo on the back.  A copy of Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” on the same label that I’d bought had the black spine also, but carried a ‘remastered’ sticker on its front so I thought my chances were good. Unfortunately my gamble didn’t pay off as I found out from the muddy-sounding first track.

One retailer’s $5 CD is another retailer’s $9 CD. Remember, many retailers that have the $5 CDs have three strata of discount CDs with price levels at $7 and $9 also. The CDs that are priced at the higher levels will eventually trickle down to the lower levels while some are already at lower price points elsewhere. Rush’s “A Farewell to Kings” was $7 at WalMart but only $5 at Best Buy.

Don’t limit your shopping to the bargain section.  At WalMart you can find the bargain CDs in the bins of death and in a specially priced section with the CDs. However, if you look in the regular-priced CD section you can often find the bargain CDs mixed in with the regular-priced selections.

Don’t see it locally? Look online.  My hunts led me back to some artists like Harry Nilsson and the Carpenters whose works aren’t turning up in the bins. I’ve found some of the titles I want from Amazon and Deep Discount DVD, at the lower price points, but eBay and are also fruitful hunting ground.

Are you lucky enough to still have music stores nearby?  Whether they’re new-only or carry used titles too, these shops can be a bargain hunter’s dream. I scored a number of titles from Chicago at FYE in the mall, as they carry used CDs for $4.99 and up. They’ve been inspected and are guaranteed to play. We also have some used-media stores in the area (Half Price Books, 2nd and Charles, Game Swap and BuyBacks) that provide occasional surprises but you need to know what you’re looking for.

Congratulations, you did it! What now…?

So you’ve decided to perform this sonic upgrade—but what will you do with your older, non-remastered CDs?  You could visit the local media ‘recycling’ store like Half Price Books and sell them for pennies on the dollar. You could make them into an art project (remember the wild things people used to do with the AOL install CDs they were constantly sending out?). You could try dumping them in a garage sale or at Goodwill, but I have a recommendation.  Find some young people who enjoy music, perhaps your own kids. Give them a CD or two and tell them that many of today’s recording artists were inspired by the music you’re giving them.  Sure, the sound quality isn’t up to your standards but to today’s youth, who are used to lossy compression and low bitrates, your old CDs will sound like a revelation. Perhaps you’ll give an aspiring musician of tomorrow a better influence than Jay-Z, Chris Brown, or Katy Perry. And if you give those CDs to your kids, maybe you’ll be able to stomach the music coming from their computers. That’ll make for domestic bliss that’s worth all the money in the world.

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