Commercial music media, a tier list

I’ve owned a lot of audio equipment over the years. Radio receivers, (pre)amplifiers, and equalizers of course, but more importantly the devices required for listening to… many different forms of media. I was late to the party for plenty of them, never an early-adopter and often only dipping my toes into a media after it was entirely out of production. At some point, streaming happened, and new physical formats just kinda… stopped. Existing ones seemed to be fading out; the death of the CD was a big deal. It never really died, though. Pressing plants never ceased to exist, there is no ‘last CD player ever produced.’ It’s hard to say, then, that it’s making a comeback, but alongside the vinyl and compact cassette revivals, the demise of the CD has certainly been delayed. Even more obscure formats like MiniDisc and wax cylinder are getting some niche love.

Given all of this, given my re-entry into the cassette scene, I’ve been thinking a lot about the merits and demerits of all of the media I’ve used over the years. So, here are some thoughts, in a sort of slipshod tier-list format, presented worst-to-best for the sake of suspense. While I’m going to give some historical context regarding why these were all incredible achievements at their time of introduction1, I’m ranking these as a format that I would value for any purpose beyond novelty or nostalgia today. I’m also only including formats that I’ve owned and listened to commercially available recordings on. I could make honorable mentions for ADAT and RDAT, but I’ve only used those for recording (they’re both good at what they set out to do, they’re fine). This is also just for music, despite my extensive LaserDisc collection and the fact that I’m actively digitizing VHS cassettes. Maybe that’s a post for another day. For now:

D-tier: 8-track tape (Stereo 8)

An easy medium to rank. The Stereo 8 Cartridge and the earlier 4-track Stereo-Pak had a problem to solve – get people to buy music to listen to in their cars. In solving this problem, Earl Muntz took inspiration from broadcast tape cartridges, which solve a very different set of problems. Herein lies the biggest failure of the format – the loop. 8-tracks rely on a continuous loop of tape spliced together with sensing foil, the album split across four stereo tracks. Because the audio has to switch between four programs on the same length of tape, and because rewinding doesn’t really exist on the format, gaps aren’t introduced between programs like you might have on a Compact Cassette. Instead, the gap is often the length of the sensing foil in the middle of a song. This alone relegates the format to D-tier for me. But there also just isn’t really any advantage to it today when compared with the Compact Cassette. In theory, they should be better at audio reproduction in comparison to a Compact Cassette, as their speed runs double that of the latter. In practice, I’ve never seen a high-enough end 8-track deck to think that it could’ve made a difference. They don’t feel particularly nice to handle, either. I’m glad that I’ve owned and used them before as a novelty, but I would never invest in a working one for any other reason.

D-tier: Shellac records (78s, &c.)

Before vinyl, records were made in a variety of sizes, in a variety of speeds, out of a variety of materials. But the sort of generally-settled-upon record was a 10″ or 12″ shellac disc, spinning at 78 RPM. These held about 5 minutes of music tops per side, and if you dropped them, big chunks would chip off, rendering a significant portion of the disc unplayable. The advent of the vinyl record solved both of these problems – the grooves were thinner and more accurately reproduced, allowing for a slower playback speed and more groove per side. Dropping vinyl isn’t a great idea, but it’s a much softer material, unlikely to shatter or chip. Much like the Compact Cassette being analogous-to-but-better-than the 8-track in every way, vinyl records are just all-around better than shellac. The low-tech beauty of an acoustic reproducer is about the only reason I, personally, would acquire 78s today. That 5-minute limit really kills any other appeal.

C-Tier: DVD-Audio and High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD)

These two formats are not really similar to one another in any way, but I’m lumping them together because they are both equally boring. DVD-Audio is just… audio on a DVD. There’s a lot more space there, so you can fit much higher resolution audio, or much more audio, or audio with more channels. But it’s part of DVD, so it’s encumbered with a bunch of copy protection and encryption nonsense. It never saw a lot of commercial support, and despite how much this probably would have helped adoption, most DVD-Video players were not also DVD-Audio players. It’s a boring format.

HDCD is barely a format, but it is technologically interesting, at least. It uses (among other things) peak soft-limiting to extract a claimed 20-bits out of an otherwise normal 16-bit CD data stream. All HDCDs were, thus, backward-compatible with normal CD players, albeit with peak distortion. It was made by a company that is only known for making this one thing, a company that was then bought up by Microsoft for the sake of acquiring said thing. Perhaps HDCD would have taken off a bit more if Microsoft didn’t own it… though perhaps they did a perfectly good job managing it, who am I to say? At the end of the day, though, the interesting qualities of the format fade quickly. It’s more analogous to Compact Cassette’s Dolby noise reduction systems than anything – circuitry and a process to squeeze a little bit extra out of an existing medium.

The only thing saving these two from D-tier is the fact that they’re perfectly acceptable ways of reproducing audio.

C-tier: Digital Compact Cassette

The Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) is a genuinely neat format. And I may very well acquire a few more classical recordings on it. I have a portable player; don’t tell any of the DCC-heads, but I use it as a playback unit for analog Compact Cassettes with its incredible head. This is a big part of why I think the format was and is so neat – Philips managed to get an album’s worth of digital audio into the same physical format as their old analog Compact Cassette. Physically, the cassettes are made of a more rigid plastic than analog cassettes, more along the lines of a Zip disk. They also have a Zip-(or floppy-)esque spring-loaded shutter to cover what would be exposed tape on their analog predecessor. Tapes can’t be manually flipped – the top side has album art instead of sprocket holes. All of this leads to a very retro-future feel, the latest and greatest in digital technology.

When Sony made RDAT, they were really hoping to make SDAT, a compact digital cassette format with a cheap stationary head. This wasn’t really doable at the time, and when Philips achieved it with DCC, they did it via compression. Lossy MPEG compression. DCCs sound quite good; I think even the 12-bit tapes handily beat the first version of ATRAC compression used on Sony’s competing MiniDisc. But, like MiniDisc, it feels a bit undesirable when the Compact Disc’s pure PCM bitstream is right there. Unlike MiniDisc, DCC has all the usual trappings of a tape format. It can only seek slowly, by winding through tape, and despite the physical cassette only being insertable label-side up, it’s still a double-sided format. Every DCC deck must have an auto-reverse mechanism, because every DCC tape will stop halfway through and need to be reversed.

Quite a few classical recordings were released on the format through premiere labels like Erato, Decca, and Deutsche Grammophon. This is a definite plus for me, as I can have one deck that plays some classical music on DCC and some queer bedroom pop on analog Compact Cassette. But generally speaking, the format kind of flopped. There are nowhere near as many commercial recordings as MiniDisc. It’s not an easy format for me to get excited about collecting for. I doubt I’d touch it at all if the deck wasn’t such a good deck for analog as well. Even this is contentious, though. DCC fans basically forbid you from listening to analog tapes — the formulation of which is potentially more abrasive, and the exposed tape of which is likely dirty — on DCC decks. Only a few portable deck models were made, and if you want one, your best bet is to import it from Holland. The deck I have is pretty standard – a Philips DCC170. It’s chunky, heavy, covered in deteriorating soft-touch rubber, slow to start-up, and runs off of a bare 18650 cell in a 3d-printed adaptor. It’s a mess of a situation. All told, backward compatibility with analog Compact Cassettes is what’s saving this format from D tier.

B-Tier: MiniDisc

MiniDisc is just all around neat. It’s the first mainstream physical compressed digital medium that I can think of. It was recordable from the get-go, unlike CD, because of its magneto-optical design. Because of its fragmented recording design and its intent for portable use, all players have an audio buffer, allowing for things like gapless shuffle. I don’t really think early versions of the ATRAC lossy compression used by the format sound great, but they do sound fine, and later versions are quite good.

Here in the United States, MiniDisc never really took off. We just sort of dealt with chunky portable CD players that had like three seconds of anti-shock buffer. Perhaps this is good, the secondhand market for CDs and CD equipment is great. But I wish I could’ve experienced MiniDisc in a place and time where it was popular. It deserved it; it accomplished its goal of being a really good digital alternative to the old humble Compact Cassette. It made some compromises (ATRAC), but it looked and felt cool doing it. I don’t really have a desire to get back into MiniDiscs; I’m perfectly happy with my phone, MP3 player, or a cassette Walkman for music on the go. MiniDisc doesn’t really have an advantage over any of those (okay, it has advantages over tape, but that’s not the point with tape), so its appeal to me is purely from admiring its technological solutions to the problems of size and recording. And even though I, personally, am less likely to collect MiniDiscs in 2022 than DCCs, I do think its design decisions make it a much more practical format.

B-Tier: Reel-to-reel tape

Reel-to-reel tape is a decent home listening format. It sounds spectacular. As an artifact, it’s even more ritualistic to handle than vinyl. The tape must be threaded into the machine in just the right way – over this spindle, under that. It’s hardly plug-and-play, but something about loading the reels just sets you up for a satisfying listening experience. I have to knock a few points for the complexity of playback, and a few more for the wide variety of tape speeds, sizes, and track configurations that mean a serious collector needs multiple decks. I have a couple of decks in storage, but would really like to acquire a compact unit like the Akai X-V. Even then, it would likely be for my own transfers rather than seeking out collectible commercially-produced reels. Solid B-tier format.

B-Tier: Super Audio CD (SACD)

SACD makes it up to B-tier for exactly one reason: Direct Stream Digital (DSD). I find the Compact Disc to be a (spoiler alert) neat format because it’s a raw PCM bitstream. SACD isn’t quite raw; its DSD data is losslessly compressed and the discs are unfortunately encumbered by encryption. But DSD itself is still very neat – while a Red Book CD takes the relatively slow, relatively high-bitrate approach, DSD is instead a 1-bit, 2.8224MHz pulse-density modulated signal. The concept of fast 1-bit digital audio is often touted as being ‘more analog.’ This is debatable, and I don’t have any desire to engage in that debate here. I do think that a non-PCM approach to digital audio is interesting, and I find tech that explores this area fascinating. SACD wasn’t a great commercial success, but some good recordings are out there; all the discs I’ve heard sound great. I would really only collect these for the sake of ripping to DSD Over PCM, but unfortunately the process for that involves having a very specific firmware on a PlayStation of some sort. If I had a ripping solution, I’d be very into collecting these.

A-Tier: Compact Cassette

Compact cassettes were my childhood. I got into Tangerine Dream, Björk, the Twin Peaks OST because I inherited a bunch of tapes my cool sister was getting rid of. They sounded good enough, and compared to the somewhat-fragile record player and vinyl, they were a reliable plug-and-play solution for a kid. Eventually CDs and CD players dropped in price, though. They sounded great, offered quick random access, and were even more reliable. With the CD’s prominence, who needed tapes? They started disappearing from music stores, and for years I basically felt like they were fully in my past.

At the beginning of the pandemic, for one reason or another I decided to get a Walkman and I figured I’d get like… ten or so tapes. I’m easily over fifty now2, with three well-stickered hot pink Clik Cases full of synthesizers and angry queers. They’re still quite compact. They sound better than my memory would’ve led me to believe. And, unlike a CD, they’re artifacts that I want to handle. I want to look at the cassette and see that it’s rewound. I want to flip it partway through. I want to marvel at the colorful and glittery shells modern tape labels are using. I buy CDs these days to immediately rip to ALAC files, storing the discs as a backup medium only. Since I turn them into files, I often pick-and-choose songs instead of listening to albums in their entirety. Cassettes are an album format to me, a mindset. I’m only putting them in A-tier instead of S-tier because of things like wind times, noise floor, azimuth issues, wow/flutter… all of these things are pretty minor, but I definitely get why the Compact Cassette renaissance isn’t for everyone.

S-Tier: Compact Disc (specifically, Compact Disc Digital Audio)

Once they became affordable, CDs were a huge part of my life. I didn’t know anything about the technical side of how they worked3, but I knew they were shiny and cool. They sounded great on the cheapest of machines, and unlike tape, those machines couldn’t really eat the discs. All manner of changers existed, I had several machines that used 6-disc caddies, I had a 60-disc direct-access Technics machine, and a 300-disc Sony unit with a rotating tray. Everything about the CD was effortless and convenient. Eventually, I got a burner for my hi-fi stack, which largely supplanted my MiniDisc deck. Even when I got my first iPod4, I preferred my own high-bitrate rips over anything the iTunes store offered at the time. Now, I often buy used CDs on eBay, as this is a cheaper solution than getting a lossless download (if such a thing is even available). The disc itself then serves as a backup.

I think part of the CD’s staying power has to do with this ability to rip. CDs are fascinating to me as a pretty unique format. It’s completely unencumbered by encryption or other DRM. It’s not files on a data (CD-ROM) disc, it’s an uncompressed raw PCM bitstream with a table of contents that lays out the tracks. I imagine this lack of encumbrances also helped the format’s broad adoption. Users like things that just work, and part of ‘just working’ is being able to take advantage of one of digital data’s fundamental truths: its ability to be infinitely duplicated.

S-Tier: Vinyl record

Compared to shellac, vinyl is great. Play time is long enough to not be obnoxious, and the discs are pretty easy to keep in a single piece. Compared to reel-to-reel tape, the format is much more standardized5 and playback is much less involved. And more than any of the compact formats mentioned, a 12×12″ full-bleed jacket housing a bright colorful slab of vinyl (as many current-day releases are) makes for an incredibly pleasant artifact.

Vinyl sounds good. Digital formats obviously have no inherent noise floor, and can perfectly reproduce signals within the bounds of human hearing. Digital formats are incredibly good, and a lot of the things people like about analog formats tend to be because they perceive digital formats to be too good. But conceding that analog formats have technical limitations that digital formats solve, vinyl still sounds really good. Like the Compact Cassette, it’s a format for albums that I want to listen to start-to-finish. It’s a mindset. Cassettes are more portable, but the ritual involved in dropping the needle, the feeling of handling the record as an artifact… it all sets the mindset perfectly. I don’t think the ritual is quite as engaging as that of reel-to-reel, but the practicality of the format makes it truly S-tier.

I started really collecting vinyl when I was in high school, and while life changes made me take a few breaks, I never really stopped. My current collection is much different from what I scrounged up at secondhand shops when I was young, and much more personal. It’s a format that feels good, sounds good, and above all is just kind of magical.

Ultimately this is what my modern listening habits boil down to. My phone or DAP/MP3 player are a practical, functional day-to-day, carry-everywhere solution for listening to a lot of music accurately. CDs facilitate that. Vinyl and cassettes capture something else that’s still incredibly valuable to me on a day-to-day basis. More obscure formats like DCC and MiniDisc remain fascinating examples of cutting-edge digital technology. And while I never want to replace the foam on another 8-track again, even that format — miserable by modern standards — has a story to tell.

  1. I genuinely believe this, even for the D-tier choice. ↩︎
  2. …don’t ask how many Walkmans. ↩︎
  3. Beyond, you know, ‘pew! pew! laser!’ ↩︎
  4. My first iPod was not my first MP3 player. Many years before, I had a Diamond Rio. It was not particularly viable. ↩︎
  5. Plenty of obscure formats did come up, of course, like quadrophonic solutions and records that play backward, but for the most part your only real concern is 33.3 or 45 RPM. ↩︎