CDs have become the forgotten middle child in music collection (though they're not as bad off as cassette tapes, which are at this point basically the abandoned step-child). Vinyl has once again become super hip--the height of authenticity for any music collector. And MP3s are obviously the easiest option--just dump 1,000 songs onto your player from your hard drive and every song you could ever need is available at the push of the button.
But what about all those CDs you bought in the 20 years prior to the rise of readily available MP3 players? Odds are, they're likely now sitting in a box in your garage or your closet, sandwiched between your high school diploma and those dumbbells you're finally gonna use one of these days. By this point, you've converted them all to MP3s, so you have them in digital form. So, the question is: should you just toss all those discs, or perhaps start using them as coasters whilst listening to your latest digital playlist?
The truth is, probably not, for a couple of reasons. One is obviously sentiment. We all likely remember playing some album over and over and over again as we drove through town or walked through the city, armed with only our thoughts and those dozen or so tracks that seemed like they were written just for us. But the reasons to hold onto your CDs go beyond posterity to a more important issue: quality. What you may not realize is that, when songs are converted from CD to MP3, they actually lose a large amount of their overall file data. The bit rate for song files on compact discs is 1,411.2 kbit/s. Said rate for MP3s is somewhere between 128 and 256 kbit/s. So, that basically means that the CD quality is anywhere between five and eleven times as good. The argument could be made that the difference is negligible to the untrained ear, and some even argue that younger generations, raised on MP3s, actually prefer the "sizzle" sound that is found in the files (a result of noise artifacts) to the purer sound of CDs. But as digital music players continue to develop further, the time will likely come when they are able to handle the larger size (i.e. better quality) files. However, you won't be able to re-convert your current MP3 files back up to that higher quality size--you can compress bigger sound quality to a smaller size, but once those kbits are shaved off, they can't magically be put back.
So, does this mean you should hold on to your CDs? Much to your roommate's/girlfriend's/mother's dismay...YES! Okay, with that settled, the next question is how do you not only keep them, but preserve them, and prevent them from only being usable as those aforementioned coasters. Here are a few steps to ensure that your CDs are kept in a better state:
HANDLE WITH CARE
As discussed in our previous piece on records, the best way to handle a CD is holding it by its edges or through its center hole. Putting your hands anywhere else, particularly on its under side (where the data is actually stored) runs the risk of pesky smudges or, worse, scratches from that nasty hang nail you still haven't trimmed.
CLEANLINESS IS KEY
Again, like with records, dust is your sworn enemy in terms of making sure a CD plays correctly. Luckily, cleaning compact discs is definitely easier than vinyl, since there are no grooves on a CD where dust and dirt can get trapped. That said, most people still clean CDs incorrectly. Using a tissue is a bad idea, as tissue paper's intentionally loose construction leaves deposits of paper micro fibers on surfaces it touches (if you've ever had a cold and wondered why you wind up with a coating of white dusty residue on your hands after repeated nose blowing, there's your answer). The better option is using a lens cloth, which, in a lot of cases--like this one --is actually cheaper than a box of tissues. Also, keep in mind that the proper motion for cleaning CDs is not circular (sorry, Mr. Miyagi), but wiping from the center to the edge as you go around the disc.
NO FOREIGN BODIES
Putting adhesive labels on CDs (generally applies only to ones you burned yourself) will affect their ability to be played in most CD players (which themselves may ultimately go extinct, leaving you forced to use whatever existing one you can get your hands on). The same goes for pens with too fine a point, as they can leave grooves in the disc's surface, or markers with certain types of solvent. A good old fashioned Sharpie usually does the trick.
BACK THAT THING UP
There are programs available, such as Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) that give you the option of ripping full quality files from your CDs. The potential downsides here are that the files take up a large amount of space, and odds are your MP3 player won't support them--yet--though that will likely change at some point. Other systems, such as Exact Audio Copy (EAC) provide you with a way to rip files intact and convert higher quality versions to whatever digital file type you prefer, MP3s or otherwise.
WHAT'S IN STORE
Now that you've handled your discs delicately, cleaned them, made sure not to stick anything onto them, and backed them up digitally...where do you put them? Rule number 1 is: don't stack them or lean them. Leaning leaves their crucial underbelly exposed to the potential for dirt, dust or scratches, while stacking leaves room for scratching or possibly being crushed or broken. Jewel boxes are a great storage system, or else a binder with polypropylene or Tyvek sleeves.