CDs or Downloads?

On the page for each podcast here at A Year in Classical Music we offer you links to playlists so that you can listen to the music online, as well as links that allow you to shop (or, when doesn’t sell a particular album) for CD copies of the albums we discuss. You can often buy MP3 downloads of the albums at and, as well. So which do you prefer, CDs or streaming/download files?

It’s an incredible resource, being able to browse the Spotify and Classical Archives streaming services to sample new recordings; but for 90% of my listening I’ll always prefer CDs. I like to have the artifact, and with downloads and streaming having made physical albums more rare I might even say that rather than replacing CDs for me, they’ve made me value CDs even more. You can sometimes find lossless audio files for download (not yet for streaming, though), so that you don’t lose the high-fidelity sound reproduction that’s so essential in classical recordings; but even then you rarely get the liner note essay that would come with the physical album. The musicological essays that come with CDs have been essential in my education, and almost as enjoyable as listening to the music itself. I’m sure I wouldn’t currently be creating this show had I not spent the last 20 years buying classical CDs and reading the liner notes that came with them.

And I think that even on the rare occasion that you find a lossless download that includes a digital copy of the liner essay, despite the fact that in theory you could have the same aural and intellectual experience that you could with a CD it’s less likely that you’ll actually accomplish it. At least in my experience, downloads keep you in web-surfing, sensory overload, short attention span mode: you play the download on your laptop or phone, but then you hide the window and check e-mail and Facebook, etc. That might be fine for a lot of pop songs but it’s an obstacle to the undivided attention that classical music demands. I find that having a CD copy of a recording of a given piece — holding a physical manifestation of that music in my hands — makes the music itself more real and more valuable, more deserving of a close-your-eyes-and-don’t-think-about-anything-else listening.

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