The Cassette Deck is Dead; Are CD Players Next?
By Chris Haak
According to an article in the New York Times last month, you can no longer purchase a new 2011 model-year vehicle in the United States with a factory-installed cassette player. The last holdout was the Lexus SC430, which went out of production after the 2010 model year. So if you’re in your 30s or 40s and plan on dusting off those old mix tapes from high school, you’ll need to find a Walkman and plug it into your new car’s aux-in jack.
A search on the website for Crutchfield, a well-known car-audio retailer, returns only four aftermarket cassette decks. The Sony Walkman cassette player, though still available, is on its last legs. Indeed, the cassette is all but dead. And frankly, I don’t miss them one bit. It’s hard to find a specific song, their quality isn’t good – and degrades over time – and if the tape tears or unwinds inside your player, you’re really screwed. About the only good things about them were their low price and that they didn’t skip the way CDs sometimes do.
CDs – particularly once MP3s became ubiquitous and CDs became recordable – were clearly a superior alternative to cassette tapes. Six-disc changers eliminated the need to shuffle discs and kept the driver’s attention on the road, while providing high-quality, distortion-free music.
But CDs are probably also on their way out. Though changers made things a bit easier, there’s still the inconvenience of lugging around physical media, which portable MP3 players like the iPod and iPhone solve. The 2,021 songs stored on my iPhone would require about 135 CDs (assuming 15 tracks per disc), which would be a box full of discs, and that would occupy its entire own seating position. Then there’s the matter of actually finding a specific track you want in that hypothetical cardboard box that’s sitting on the front passenger seat of your car full of CDs.
Terrestrial radio is awful, predictable, and commercial-filled, and satellite radio has relatively poor audio quality, as Sirius XM compresses the bandwidth of some channels to a degree greater than ideal to fit more channels into a limited satellite feed. Satellite radio is also expensive; I’ve subscribed to XM since 2004, and it used to be $10 per month. Now it’s $12.95 per month PLUS a $1.40 per month royalty fee, which comes to $172.20 per year.
For those who don’t embrace the responsibility of choosing their own traveling tunes, there’s always Internet radio such as Pandora, which is quite likely the Next Big Thing in in-car entertainment. The music is as good as satellite radio, and you can be more granular in your genre choices. Rather than choosing a decade like the 70s, you can pick an artist, like the Beatles, and Pandora will give you some Beatles, some Paul McCartney solo material, and some Wings – not to mention some Rolling Stones or other artists that the Music Genome Project identified as having a sound similar to the Beatles. Pandora also boasts only minimal, brief commercial interruptions, and gives you a 40 hours per month completely free. If you need Pandora more than 40 hours per month, want better quality, or want to completely avoid ads, upgrade to Pandora One for $36 per year, or about a 79 percent discount from the price of satellite radio.
The future of in-car audio over the medium term is likely to be BYOM, or bring your own music, which systems like Ford’s SYNC facilitates nicely. You’ll be able to plug in your iPod or iPhone (or better yet, wirelessly stream its contents over a stereo Bluetooth connection) and play your choice of music stored locally on your device. Or, you could choose to play music you own but that may be stored “in the cloud” where you stream your own content from a server (or your own server) over a wireless Internet connection. And if you really don’t want to pick what song you’re going to listen to, just go with Pandora or another Internet radio service.
This disruption, of course, is bad news for both terrestrial (AM/FM) radio stations as well as Sirius XM. Content on FM radio is likely to become more commercialized and more homogenized, and satellite radio is likely to get more expensive as both media bleed listeners. If a major on-air personality were to jump to an Internet radio service, it would give the still-young media a serious shot in the arm. It worked extremely well for Sirius when it signed Howard Stern five years ago, after all. Who says history can’t repeat itself? Besides, the CD is about to repeat the cassette tape’s history as well.