In a factory near Hanover, Germany, on 17th August 1982, Philips and Sony co-developed the world's first Compact Disc. The CD manufactured at the plant was "The Visitors" by ABBA, and its release brought with it a shift from analogue to digital that the music industry has been carrying forward up until its most recent incarnation, audio streaming.
In 2014 the number of audio streams in the UK doubled as nearly 15 billion songs were streamed from digital services such as Spotify, Deezer and Google Play compared with 7.5m streams in 2013. Research recently released by CSR found that consumer perception supports these figures, with almost two-thirds of audio lovers believing CDs, vinyl, and even MP3 files will be effectively obsolete within five years.
It may come as a surprise then to learn that this growth in streaming, while impressive, still only accounts for 12.6 per cent of all the music consumed in the UK. An even bigger surprise might be the fact that together, CD and vinyl still accounted for a huge 49 per cent of all Album Equivalent Sales (AES) in 2014.
Commenting on this trend, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the association that represents the UK's recorded music industry, has said that the volume of CD album sales in 2014 points to "relatively resilient demand for a format that some commentators had written off, but which many consumers still appreciate."
So all of this begs the question: who are the consumers still buying CDs, and why?
In a quest to find out what is driving audio trends among consumers, CSR recently surveyed 2,000 audiophiles that typically put on and listen to music at home once a week or more. 82% of those surveyed rate excellent sound quality as one of the most important features in home audio systems with 79% agreeing that the quality of sound is becoming more important than the appearance of devices.
So the answer to the question, it seems, lies in quality. While people historically liked to show off the look of their speakers, today they value sound. The fast pace of technology innovation is a key driver for this, because as technology has matured, consumer tolerance for anything less than superior clarity has diminished. It's this desire for quality sound that is key to understanding the resilience of CD sales.
Audio streaming services have proved a success partly because of the freedom that comes with being able to stream music wherever, whenever. But this desire for flexibility has come at a cost. Most streaming services compress data to a quality level far below that of CDs. So while 2014 was in many ways the year of music streaming, it was also the year when sound quality was sacrificed for convenience.
For more and more consumers, this issue of quality is turning them back to physical formats. The volume of CD album sales in 2014 stood at 55.7m and vinyl album sales are now at their highest level since 1995. While this goes some way to explaining the resilience of the CD, it's by no means a long-term solution. Serious music fans crave the convenience of streaming as well as the audio quality of CDs.
Perhaps there is a solution in the advent of high-resolution audio (HRA). A number of services launched in 2014 which provide CD-like quality streaming including HDtracks, Qobuz and Pono. The delivery of CD-like quality audio to your headset or speakers via Bluetooth is also entirely possible using the aptX audio codec. Supposing the infrastructure for increased bandwidth keeps scaling and consumers have capable audio equipment, high-res audio looks genuinely achievable in a happy marriage of convenience and quality.