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The Straight Dope 

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So what's this I hear about how all my compact discs are going to sound like mush in ten years? Apparently the acidic inks used in the discs are causing the plastic in mine to disintegrate even as we speak! But others say it's all BS. What gives? How long will my CDs last? Should I cut my losses and get into digital tape? Or should I just cut my throat? And just what the hell is the meaning of life, anyway? But I digress. My CDs--what's the dope?--Robert Warner, Altadena, California

Welcome to the wonderful world of "CD rot," friend--the audio equivalent of the plague. At this point we're in the same position as the crew on the Valdez five seconds after they hit the reef: everybody's in the dark, the guys in charge say there's no problem, but all that noise sure doesn't sound promising.

The noise in this case began last summer with a series of articles in the British press claiming that CDs, once thought to be virtually indestructible, actually have a life expectancy of only eight to ten years. Supposedly the problem is corrosion of the aluminum playing surface. CDs are made by stamping a pattern of tiny pits into a disc made of polycarbonate plastic. To make the pits reflective and thus readable by laser, the pitted (i.e., top) side of the disc is coated with an extremely thin layer of aluminum. This in turn is coated with lacquer, and on top of the lacquer is printed the CD label. (The laser reads the disc from below, through the polycarbonate plastic.) In theory the lacquer protects the aluminum from damage, but tests now suggest a number of things can go wrong: water or air may be trapped in the polycarbonate during manufacture, the polycarbonate may develop tiny cracks if it's cooled too quickly, the lacquer may not seal properly, or the ink in the label may eat away at the lacquer. If air or water gets through to the aluminum surface it can oxidize, and what you wind up with is a real expensive drink coaster.

One company in particular has been banging the drum about the CD rot menace: Mobile Fidelity, which sells special gold-plated CDs. These discs, which Mobile Fidelity calls Ultradiscs, are manufactured by a Japanese firm called Ultech. Ultech did "rapid aging" comparison tests of gold and regular discs, subjecting them to multiple rounds of high heat, high humidity, and bitter cold. Afterward the gold discs still worked fine, but more than half of the aluminum discs became unplayable.

Bear in mind, however, that Mobile Fidelity isn't exactly an impartial observer--it wants to sell you gold discs, which cost double or more what aluminum discs go for. Slightly more convincing evidence comes from Nimbus Records, one of Britain's largest CD makers. "We have been carrying out accelerated life tests and I'm afraid that a lot of compact discs will prove less durable than has been claimed," a company official says. Nimbus blames the problem on cut-rate manufacturers using shoddy techniques. Cambridge Audio, a maker of CD players, and the U.S. Navy, which uses discs for data storage, say their tests show potential problems as well.

Of course, lab results are one thing; the real world is something else. The major CD makers universally deny that CD rot is a genuine threat. Cecil has checked with manufacturers, retailers, and radio station engineers, and though there are stories of the occasional defective disc being shipped from the factory, there seem to be hardly any cases of normal discs that failed after a period of ordinary use. Then again, we're dealing with a technology that's still fairly new. Furthermore, all CD players are equipped with error-correcting technology that tends to conceal problems until a disc becomes virtually unplayable. So who knows, maybe the audio industry has a ticking bomb on its hands here. For now all you can do is buy your discs from reputable manufacturers, keep them away from extremes of heat and cold, and hope like hell the Chicken Littles out there are wrong.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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