I Don’t Like Digital Audio

Oh no, I love it.

I wanted to borrow the line from 10cc’s “Dreadlock Holiday” to make the point up front. I love digital audio, especially in its current guise as sourced via online streaming services.

I love digital audio now, but there was a time when I was hating it. Weeks of my life lost to the mind-numbing process of ripping my CD collection years ago still haunt me.

These days it’s never been easier to get yourself into computer audio – especially if you don’t already have thousands of CDs ripped to a hard drive somewhere and you just want the convenience of great sound without the ancillary hardware baggage.

Just look at the Spotify crowd – 100 million strong – most of whom are rocking only a mobile phone.

You see, the current state of digital audio as a slice of the audiophile pie has gone from a wafer thin piece back in the late ’90s to a rather large wedge of the pie today – perhaps the biggest. Why? I think because it is easy to do now. It is certainly the fastest-growing segment of the industry and as such, is improving, adapting and becoming ever more ubiquitous in audiophile’s lives. Download TIDAL, Qobuz or the Roon app and off you go. Almost as easy to be musically engaged with high-quality playback as putting on a CD.

And that’s really the point; ease of use, ease of access to millions of albums, no screwing around with tagging, file organization, ripping software, external network switches, hard drives – all banal toiling of a past when having a physical copy was a requirement to get into the game.

Not so anymore. There’s no longer a need to pay for a download and transfer to it to a NAS, or buy a CD, and then rip it, and then transfer it to a NAS. I for one, who own a reasonable amount of digital content, do not miss any of that. In fact, while I still buy CDs out of habit (used bins of my local record stores, so cheap!), I’m going for long bouts of time between ripping them to a drive. I mostly listen to them in my car until I’ve amassed enough to force me to sit and rip a dozen at a go.

But I’ve heard rumblings lately that digital audio has become too easy,, too mainstream… I mean where’s the fun in not having to tag and organize tens of thousands of CDs in disparate formats you ripped over a multi-year period before online streaming-music platforms came along to make all your work, well, obsolete, at least from the viewpoint of most people currently engaged in subscription-based music streaming services. My 20-year-old son laughed out loud when I suggested ripping a few dozens CDs I had on hand one day which I thought he’d be interested in hearing. He doesn’t have a CD player – none of the computers in our family have CD drives anymore – and he had no interest in a USB drive full of FLAC files either. Couldn’t I just send him a Spotify playlist?

Dealing with NAS drives, USB drives, meta tags, album artwork, etc. in a manual context is about as appealing to most modern music lovers as fingernails on a blackboard and is a throwback to a bygone era in many ways. But, there are still some out there who prefer this method of listening to music and I applaud them. There are a number of programs which have been parsing data since the late ’90s that are still in use today and offer a plethora of options, albeit in a rather dated user interface and experiential mode when compared to modern offerings like Roon. But, different strokes for different folks – if I had 20,000 albums I painstakingly ripped, tagged and organized I might want to maintain a level of control over how’re they’re presented too.

What about you? Do you still prefer to own your music? Rip it, download it, manually organize, tag and administrate it? Or do you prefer the simplicity of streaming services and their rent-to-listen playback model? I straddle both to a degree, since as I said, I own hundreds of digital albums. But, simply pointing apps at the folder where your collection resides and letting it do its thing works great from where I’m sitting.

I think the days of personal NAS could be numbered. It could be a few years, it could be 10 years, but as cloud-based services – and personal data storage in general by extension – become ever-more ubiquitous, easy to use, and cost-effective, maintaining your data on a physical network you own might just become as dated as SCSI drives. But who knows, perhaps it will be like vinyl and have a nostalgic resurgence with those old hard drives appearing at record stores in the ‘New Arrivals” bin.

mentt's picture

CD player is stil easiest way how to get good sound from digital. Streaming from NAS is not easy and cheap to make it sound as decent CD player. True is that it is quite expensive in the end. Streaming services are always compromise about sound quality, it is best to avoid those if you like best/engaging music experience

Richard D. George's picture

I no longer have a CD player, and I have subscriptions to Spotify and Tidal.


1) Some important content is only available on CD's. KBCO is a popular local radio station. Famous (and not so famous) recording artists routinely stop by and record versions of their songs at the KBCO Studio C. Once a year there is a Studio C CD that is sold in limited quantities (and it typically sells out fast). Many of the Studio C versions of songs are better / preferable to the official versions.

2) For small numbers of CD's, I can rip them in my Bluesound Vault 2, which provides bit-perfect rips. This is what I do to get access to the Studio C albums, both via Bluesound and Sonos.

3) For larger numbers of CD's (like my existing collection) I send them to a guy in California who rips them, gets the cover art, puts everything on a hard drive, and sends them back to me on a hard drive, for transfer to a NAS.

4) Bit-perfect FLAC rips are not bad.

5) Spotify quality is so-so. Tidal is better. I should look into Qobuz.

audx's picture

Even with streaming, there's an offline capability. So it depends on how much you wish to maintain.

The audiophile music boxes are NAS by another name with content streaming from the cloud and then the local "NAS" distributing it from there. If you can spend $100k on your system, you can likely afford your own encoding/tagging serf to handle the details.

I would suggest that streaming is too good of a deal and that musicians and perhaps even labels will eventually rebel and will silo their content.

I'll continue to hoard as long as I'm able to do so.

I'll also stream as it is convenient for discovery.

Ali's picture

Generally speaking I am totally on Tidal when I can find what I am looking for but Still I cant find some records on Tidal. And have to buy it from hdtrack and so. But I have dumped my Naim cd player last year and never regret. I have an ext hd with around 150 cd ripped and about 300 download hires in it. But I won't sell my cds collection just in case! The only thing I miss with cd is I used to look at them in their shelves and randomly could see some albums that I had forgotten to listen to for a long time and then play it again. With Tidal it doesn’t happen most of the time.

Dan Gravell's picture

There definitely remains a niche of people who prefer to self host and self store their collections. Broadly, I'm one of them: https://www.blisshq.com/music-library-management-blog/2019/11/18/interse...

Whether these niches are big enough to "mean anything" and sustain themselves is another matter.

But what I do wonder is: is there a middle way? The ability to have library management, playback etc in the cloud, but still your "own" library? Solutions are out there, e.g. Vox Player. Software like Roon can be seen as (partly) an abstraction layer between self stored and streamed music collections.

findog3103's picture

I love that I can find an album or song within moments of searching for it on YouTube, Tidal, etc. but I find more and more often that some albums I love or are just released are not there. For example, try to search for Hamell on Trial's Big as Life on a streaming service. Also, since there are maybe 4 or 5 major outlets now and they all promote the same music it might actually be harder to find under the radar stuff, except maybe with Bandcamp.

2_channel_ears's picture

I have spent that mind-numbing time ripping, tagging, curating, etc. A big distraction. I am done. I just parked it all onto an SSD installed in a Roon Nucleus. With a couple of streaming subscriptions and my collection, it's enough for many lifetimes of listening. But I still got my ol' vinyl as backup!

Brown Sound's picture

Indeed, I rip, download and curate a vast audio file collection on a NAS and play them on several highly customized versions of foobar2000 on Linux and Windows computers. But I also use and love streaming services, such as Spotify and in particular, Tidal. I feel it is the best of both worlds, but to each their own.

As I have mentioned before, I have been in the IT sector for over thirty years, so building and maintaining these systems and along with the files, is part of the fun in the computer audio hobby. I really have no problem with the newer high dollar network streamers, they look great and I'm sure they also sound great. This also goes for the newer GUIs and players, they look awesome with lots of cool info, but I seriously doubt they will sound better than foobar2000 playing hi-res PCM or DSD.

I love reading the reviews and articles on the newest DACs, players, software and bridges, so keep it up, guys. Just please don't forget there are still old-school diehards, who are true hobbyists and not just plug n' play users. Maybe my IT cohort, Bob B. will add to this comment.

Everclear's picture

The new 16-inch MacBook Pro with 8-core processor, up to 64-GB memory and up to 8-TB SSD storage is avalable for around $6,000 :-) .........

Topher's picture

Now Christmas is rolling around, I'm reminded of a time when my friends and I would make each other mix tapes for Christmas presents. These soon became mix CDs, but when streaming came around we just sort of stopped doing it - you can't burn a Tidal playlist to CD.

Like Rafe's son, I guess we could send other Spotify playlists by email, but it's not the same as digging a five year-old mix out of a cardboard box you used to keep old presents in and putting it on the stereo.

Who knows, maybe I'll record a Tidal playlist to cassette, and we'll be back where we started!

barfle's picture

I really don’t care what the format is. I occasionally stream from Amazon, but I buy high-rez downloads and have a pretty big collection of ripped music on my drobo NAS that I can play through my pte-pro. I have about 1000 CDs, a few hundred DVD-As ans SACDs, and a record collection that includes Edison Diamond Discs.

Enjoy the music, The storage format is secondary.