Since 2021 I’ve been using a combination of tools to handle my music collection. Today I’m going to talk about the tools I’m using to manage my collection including how I catalog, import, serve and listen to it.

Although I do subscribe to a music streaming service I have taken an interest in expanding my physical collection as well. My collection consists largely of CDs with some vinyl records mixed in. While I appreciate the convenience of digital stream I also enjoy the process and experience of playing physical media, which I’ve written about before. That said, I like to also take my collection with me in digital formats and enjoy knowing that it comes from my own personal collection. Before we get into how I copy my CDs to digital lets first discuss how I catalog and keep track of my collection.

Cataloging

A couple of years ago I learned about a site called discogs.com. In their words Discogs is “a platform for music discovery and collection” and this is exactly how I use it. You can search for and add to your collection each piece of physical music media you own or are interested in owning and add it to your collection or wishlist, respectively. The database contains user submitted and curated information about most releases available with surprising detail. You can choose to be super detailed about how you add items to your collection by selecting the exact release or more simply add the first item you find. How you use Discogs is ultimately up to you but it is an incredibly handy way to track what you already own, find new stuff you’d like to own and so on. Using Discogs allows me to track the state of my media (some of it is damaged and needs to be replaced, for example) as well as ensure I don’t buy the same item twice.

Importing

I import all of my CDs using a tool called XLD, available at https://tmkk.undo.jp/xld/index_e.html. Using an external DVD drive to my Mac, XLD is able to look up what CD is in the drive, grab metadata about it and take care of copying the music off of it and onto my NAS. The metadata ensures that the folders are named properly as well as the track titles. I stick to the FLAC format for the files as it ensures the best quality and compatibility with playback software. Whenever I sync music to my phone for offline play in the car I opt to have the songs encoded on the fly to a smaller format.

Some vinyl records also include digital files that you can download from a site. For these I will typically add them to an appropriate folder of either MP3 encoded music or FLAC encoded music.

Storage

All of my music is stored on a TrueNAS based storage system and then shared out to a virtual machine that is running Plex. TrueNAS exports the data using Samba so it is easy for my Mac and the virtual machine to access without issue. TrueNAS stores the files on a raidz set for redundancy and I periodically back the data up to another disk.

Playback

Once the music is imported and stored on TrueNAS I add it in Plex. Plex is a convenient way to manage music as it detects the music you have added and downloads additional metadata about it, like album reviews. Recent releases of Plex allow you to “sonically fingerprint” music so that it can better find similar music in our collection for building better mixes.

Although Plex is the server part of the music system the actual software I use is called Plexamp. Plexamp is an app that is dedicated to music playback offering a slick interface, ability to download music locally from Plex and provides gapless playback. If you’ve ever listened to an album and wondered why there were gaps between tracks that sound like they should flow together, gapless is what you’re looking for. In addition to gapless, when playing a mix you can optionally have Plexamp fade between songs and I find that this works extremely well. Overall, Plex and Plexamp are my favorite tools for listening to music.

The actual hardware I listen on varies depending on where I am. While working and at my desk then I will be using the setup detailed on my audio system page. While out and about it will be through my iPhone connected to headphones or my car.

Conclusion

I’ve long listened to music but only recently have I gotten back into the general process of collecting it and paying attention to the process of listening to it. I enjoy my physical formats but I’m also not blind to the convenience of digital formats. How do you manage your music?

Nobody asked for this but today I’m going to discuss why I put a CD player back into my audio setup.

Before we get into that, I want to touch on one of my biggest pet peeves about macOS: the media controls. A few years ago a change was made to the keyboard media controls that allowed them to control more media, even media that is available on web pages like YouTube or the little video widgets on news sites. On the surface this seems like a welcome change but in practice it feels as if the feature was programmed to purposely do the wrong thing at all times. For example, let’s say you have Spotify open playing music in the background and you visit a site that as an auto play video. Then you get a phone call so you press pause on the keyboard and…the music doesn’t stop? What gives? Well, macOS decided that the keyboard controls should control the video on the webpage and not Spotify. Or, maybe you’re like me and you use multiple music apps like Spotify and Plexamp. You’re listening to music with Spotify in the foreground with Plexamp paused in the background. You press pause on the keyboard and now suddenly there is two songs playing because macOS decided that what you really meant was to unpause the inactive music app, not the one you are actively using!

While I certainly appreciate having access to an effectively unlimited supply of music at the click of a button the overall experience has degraded significantly over the years. I believe a major contributor to this is due to how powerful today’s computers are. We’ve added greater functionality and expectations to computers and in a sense they’ve become too capable and complex for their own good. It used to be that browsing the web while running Winamp was about as much as you could reasonably expect a computer to do. I’m not lamenting that computers are more capable but I am saying that it has come at the expense of some tasks that used to feel simple and straight forward.

Which brings me back to why I’m using a CD player. As I mentioned in my broader post about the state of my audio stack in 2022, I have put a CD player back into my audio setup partially because of the straight forward simplicity that it offers. I turn on my amplifier, CD player, turn the input knob to CD and then put in a CD. That’s it, that’s all it does. Since the device has but one function there is never a question of what pressing a button will do. If a CD is playing it will always pause it. If it paused then it will play it again. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Terre des Hommes once said, “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” and I believe using a CD player is similar in a way. It’s incredibly refreshing to put down a device that can do anything well enough in favor of a device that does just one thing really well.

Of course, using music apps will always offer greater overall flexibility what with the huge selection to choose from, ability to take and play the music anywhere and all the other reasons CDs lost out to file based formats. But like reading an actual book, taking a CD out of its case, placing it onto the tray of a CD player and pressing play provides the sort of tactile experience not possible using digital files. For these reasons, at least for now, I am back to listening to CDs (along with my vinyl records) at least some of the time.

Like a “what’s on my computer” post, I thought it would be fun to go through a list of what is in the audio system in my home office. Back in 2020 I started down a journey of upgrading my audio equipment. This post details what I’m currently using and a little bit about why.

Amplification

Late in 2021 I upgraded the heart of the system from my Sony STR-DE425 to a Denon PMA-600ne. During the last half of 2021 the Sony started to show some signs of old age where it would randomly half enable surround sound mode or start the test tone but in just one channel. To fix it I’d have to unplug the receiver for a bit and then plug it in again. For this reason, I decided it was finally time to step up the amp I use in my audio chain. I decided on the Denon PMA-600ne integrated amp because it provided a number of analog and digital inputs, a phono pre-amp while providing basic tone controls. It has more than enough power for my room and reviews very well. What I immediately noticed about this amp was how much brighter it sounded than the Sony. I’ve always thought the Sony receiver had what I could only describe as a sterile sound but what I didn’t realize was how rolled off it was on the top end. With the Denon in place there is a lot more detail on the top end.

Sources

Despite having a nearly limitless selection of music available to me through Spotify I sometimes like to engage in the experience a bit differently depending on my mood. For this reason, feeding the Denon is a mix of devices that I can select from.

About mid 2021 I picked up a Sony CDP-C245 so that I could have a CD player again. This 5 disc changer was a cheap find on Craigslist that got me listening to my CD collection again, even though most of it is ripped to the computer anyway. What I like about the CD player is that it is dedicated to the task of playing CDs, has its own unique sound signature and has a nice display. Using the CD player is a bit like picking out a skin for WinAmp years ago or selecting what software you want to manage your music collection in today. Like software, the interface on each device is different and unique. It has physical buttons for all of the functions that the device offers. I like the classic Sony CD player display with the calendar grid, the symbols for which disc is selected along with the track and timer display. All told, using the CD player adds a bit of nuance to the experience that is just satisfying. The player, being old and used, has its issues. The tray sometimes freaks out and needs to reset itself by opening and closing. It also lacks digital output. I may replace it with a slightly newer model that has digital output but I’ll definitely stick with the classic Sony design.

Since the Denon is not a receiver it doesn’t have a built in radio tuner…but I do listen to the radio sometimes. To solve this I am using the tuner in the Sony and simply outputting it to the Denon. I wasn’t really expecting this to sound as good as it does but the Denon does a great job here.

My computer, which I run Spotify and Plexamp on, is connected to the Denon using a Schiit Modi 3+. Prior to the Modi 3+, I connected my computer to the Sony STR-DE425 using plain a 3.5mm to RCA cable. Oddly this resulted in a bit of hum some of the inputs on the receiver. To resolve this I picked up the Modi 3+ so that I can could add an excellent DAC with digital inputs to the Sony, remove the hum and just improve the overall sound quality. The Denon does have digital inputs but unlike the Modi 3+ it doesn’t have a USB input. Rather than adding optical out from the computer I opted to just stick with the Modi 3+ and feed it into an analog input on the Denon. Also connected to the Schiit is my Xbox One X’s optical output.

I have a few other gaming systems in my office in addition to the Xbox One X. These systems are all HDMI based and for these devices I use an HDMI switch that includes digital outputs. The HDMI switch allows me to output all of the systems to a single HDMI input on my monitor and then route digital audio from the switch into a digital input on the Denon.

The last item connected to the Denon is my Audio Technica LP120x turntable. This is a well known and excellent turntable that also reviews very well. Since the Denon has a built in phono preamp I opted to use that instead of the one built into the LP120x. I can’t really say if one sounds better than the other but both are more than acceptable and any remaining differences would certainly fall within the realm of personal preference.

Speakers

The Denon is currently connected to a set of Polk T-15 bookshelf speakers. These speakers are a bit unique in that they aren’t really designed for direct, on axis listening like other speakers. Instead, they were engineered from the point of view that a lot of users aren’t able to create a dedicated listening space and would instead position the speakers in a less than ideal arrangement. For this reason, the speakers offer the best sound when you are about 20 degrees above or below the tweeter. “Luckily for me”, my desk design doesn’t really allow for ideal speaker placement and the T-15s, while inexpensive, sound great to me in this room. I may upgrade in 2022 but before I do I plan to put some acoustic treatments in the room.

To round out the sound, and give it a lot more heft, I also have an old subwoofer connected to the subwoofer output on the Denon. This Yamaha subwoofer is from a home theater kit that I bought to give me a little something while living in an apartment. It is…not great but provides some much needed bass extension that the T-15s lack. This is arguably the weakest link in the audio chain today and is the first thing I am looking to upgrade in 2022.

Software

As I said, my computer (a Mac mini) is one of the sources connected to the Denon using the Schiit Modi 3+’s USB interface. Using this connection, the Modi 3+ appears as an output audio device on my computer providing a direct path from my music software to the DAC which is then converted and fed into the Denon as an analog signal. The software I am using includes:

  • Spotify (with subscription) provides streaming audio
  • Plexamp (requires Plex Pass) allows me to play my ripped CDs from my Mac but also on my iPhone
  • Plex for some of the items in my collection that work better on Plex, like OCRemix tracks and some game sound tracks.

To help route audio on my computer I use Rogue Amoeba’s SoundSource. This app allows me to route audio from the above apps directly to the Modi 3+ while keeping other apps like system audio or Zoom routed elsewhere.

Conclusion

Thank you for joining me today as I go through my audio system as it currently stands. Putting this together has been a lot of fun and listening to it even more so! When it comes to audio, what do you use? What is your favorite piece or what are you looking to improve first? Leave a comment!

As a certified Xennial, I’ve seen and used almost every music format that has come into existence. When I was growing up, I can remember having multiple systems in the house that could play records (both 33 1/3 and 45s) and 8 tracks. For awhile we even had a large console system with a radio, record player with changer feature and an 8 track player. We had a collection of records sitting on the floor in a closet and a set of records would come out around the holidays. There were even a few specifically for us kids. We had tape players and eventually CD players too.

I was too young at the time to really appreciate what was in the record collection or even tell if the systems we listened on where of any quality. The records were beat up and if they were in a sleeve at all the sleeve was tattered at best. I can still remember all of the pops and crackles that I thought was just normal for the medium. Records were all we had at the time and I didn’t know anything different at that age. Eventually tapes replaced vinyl records and CDs replaced tapes. By the time I really got into owning my music it was only on CD and then digital formats took over. I still have a large number of the CDs I bought over twenty years ago and they still work perfectly fine.

Late 2020 I got into a conversation with my wife about how vinyl records were so popular again, how we both grew up with old Christmas records and how we missed listening to them. Being who I am, I couldn’t help myself and got caught up in the idea of giving records a try again. That year, I bought one of those inexpensive little suitcase players and a couple of Christmas albums. Even with this little inexpensive player I was intrigued with it all. The large artwork, the record itself spinning on the platter and the relative simplicity of it all producing sound. Naturally this meant I had to add a “proper” turntable to my wish list along with some records and hope for the best.

Suffice to say, a turntable was eventually delivered to the house. In January of 2021 I received an Audio Technica LP120x and I got to work hooking it up to my system. The AT LP120x requires some mild assembly to get started. I had to put on the counter weight and the headshell as well as the platter itself. Then I had to properly balance the tone arm and ensure everything was set just right to ensure it played records as well as it possibly could. Then I set the needle down on a record.

The first thing I noticed was just how good it sounded. It was nothing like I remembered at all. The sound was full and rich in a way that I did a double take. Was I really listening to a record and not a CD or stream? How did I not know that records sounded like this?

I’m not here to tell anyone that records are better than any other media format. They’re not. Records simply cannot compete with digital in terms of wow and flutter, jitter, dynamic range, noise floors and every other technical spec you can think of. Records cannot compete with the convenience and portability of digital files and streaming. What I am saying is that records can sound really good and change your listening experience in a way that you might find enjoyable. Vinyl records are an experience that is a bit like reading a book rather than watching a movie. The larger format is tangible and has weight. There is no mystery to how it is played, you can see it plainly spinning on the platter with a needle tracking a groove. Records are delicate and require care to prevent scratches and occasional cleaning to keep them sounding good. Unlike a CD, a scratch in a record is definitely something you’ll hear.

Records, to a greater degree than other formats, allow you to customize the sound a bit. The sound signature of CDs and CD players (as well as digital files) is largely the same between devices. I think most people would find it difficult to tell the difference between one player and the next. Record players, however, because of the physical properties of it will always have tradeoffs due to physical differences and limitations imposed by those differences. You can change the tonal characteristics of a record player by changing what type of stylus (needle) you use or the cartridge it is attached to. Maybe you want a warmer sound with more midrange and bass. Or maybe you prefer a brighter sound. Whatever your preference, you can work towards it in subtle ways.

All of this is to say that, listening to music on vinyl is more involved in a good way. You are more a part of the process and for some people this is perceived as a benefit to the medium. Being perfectly capable of excellent sound quality while adding in these other tangible bits really adds to the overall experience if you’re someone who is looking for just a bit more out of the experience it is an excellent direction to go towards.

Of course, records aren’t perfect. Because they are played by dragging a stylus through a groove, vibrating the stylus in order to reproduce sound, they will pick up anything extra in those grooves like dirt, dust and scratches and reproduce them as annoying clicks, pops and crackles. They’ll even happily playback static shocks that might occur if the air is particularly dry. This was one of the most difficult things for me to get used to when starting out because I was very much used to CDs and digital files being free of any pops and clicks. Records can also come with manufacturing defects with badly pressed grooves, grooves that are off center or even records that are warped. Most of the time these don’t ruin an entire album but I have at least once exchanged a record that I just couldn’t get cleaned properly. This is just part of the process.

https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/a19180

Through all of 2021 I have been picking up new and old records, adding them to my collection and tracking them on discogs. I also picked up equipment to make cleaning records easier and as effective as I could so that I could reduce all of the pops and clicks as much as I could. For 2022, I don’t expect that I’ll completely stop adding to my collection but there is one more problem that is unique to vinyl records right now which is cost. Records are considered a “premium product” and carry a premium price. Even at the beginning of 2021 a lot of newly released records were priced between $20 and $30. At the end of 2021 I’ve been seeing a lot of records priced between $40 and $50, a significant increase that really makes me rethink a purchase unless it’s something I really want. I’m hoping market pressures will resolve the pricing issues in 2022.

Thank you for joining me today while I ramble on about my vinyl addiction. If you are also into vinyl or thinking about it leave a comment!

For a couple of years I’ve used Rogue Amoeba’s SoundSource app to control audio routing on my Mac. It allows me to do tricks like sending system notifications to the built in speakers, Spotify to my Schiit Mani DAC and Zoom to my headphones. It also allows me to apply compressors to Zoom calls so that it normalizes the volume of all participants or knocks down some of the brightness on some mic setups. One thing it lacks, however, is the ability to loop audio coming in on an audio input back to some destination. For that, I would need to pick up some different software. It isn’t a feature I need all of the time so I couldn’t really justify the price.

Sometimes I want to play Xbox but need to basically integrate the audio with Discord which is running on some other system. The problem, of course, is how do I get the audio integrated or mixed properly? I do have an external mixer that can partially get the job done but for technical limitations of my mixer I can’t really mix what I hear without it mixing that back into what others hear.

Enter LadioCast.

LadioCast is an app that is meant to allow a user to listen to web streams that use icecast, rtmp or shoutcast. It has a bit of a bonus feature that allows the user to mix up to four inputs and send it to any output. If you happen to have some kind of external audio device that allows for AUX in, like this Behringer UCA202, then you can easily send any audio into your Mac using the Beheringer as an input and then use LadioCast to redirect it to an output. Between LadioCast’s volume controls and SoundSource I can mix game audio with other audio like music from Spotify and Discord.

If you have been looking for an app that allows you to monitor input audio then give LadioCast a try.

In this post, I thought it would be fun to revisit my home audio journey and walk through how things have changed over the years to where they are now. For as long as I can remember I’ve had an interest in A/V gear but audio gear and I have a history that goes back a bit further. When I was younger, I would read up on the latest devices and formats and just soak up as much information as I could. When I could I would, using what we had around or I had access to, spend hours recording to tapes, dubbing tapes, and listening to whatever we had. Over the years I’ve upgraded my stuff but never really getting too far beyond entry-level equipment. This hasn’t lessened my enjoyment of it all in the least though.

As I was growing up, got a job, and eventually had cash to spend I would save it for various pieces of gear to add into my own setup. Being a teen living in a small rural area miles from many electronics stores and it being before online shopping was a thing my choices were rather limited. I didn’t let this stop me from putting together a fun system. At the time most big box stores had a much more robust electronics section. K-mart sold audio components as did Radio Shack.

I don’t actually remember what my very first system consisted of but it was probably something we picked up at a garage sale to get me going. I know it was an inexpensive, all-in-one system with a radio and tape deck. I also remember that it had an AUX input. This AUX input is what I hooked my first component up to. A Sharp DX-200 CD player.

Sharp DX-200 CD Player.
Sharp DX-200 CD Player

This CD player served me well for many many years before ultimately succumbing to a small plumbing mishap while sitting in storage (it also needed a new belt). However, it wasn’t long before I knew that the next piece I needed in my setup was a new receiver to replace the original…unit. For this, I remember spending a lot of time looking at various flyers for big electronics stores and researching what was available at the time. After a while, I settled on a Kenwood KR-A4060.

Kenwood KR-A4060
Kenwood KR-A4060

This thing was, honestly, amazing at the time. AM-FM receiver with phono, CD, and tape input with monitoring (this will be important later). This also served me well for many years until I gave it to someone to use in their new place. Procuring it was a bit of a chore because it required a two-hour drive to pick up and GPS wasn’t a thing yet. It’s amazing we ever found anything back then.

At this point, this is where things get a bit fuzzy. I don’t know when I got new speakers but it had to have been quickly after picking up the receiver. Optimus STS-1000 speakers from Radio Shack were not the best speakers ever made but perfectly adequate (and more importantly, large).

STS-1000 Speakers
STS-1000 Speakers

I held onto these speakers until got married and was living in an apartment that wouldn’t have appreciated them the same way I did.

After the speakers came the graphic EQ. An Optimus 31-2025, also from Radio Shack (do you see a trend here? It’s because Radio Shack was close). This rebranded Realistic 31-2020 (but also under the RCA brand) graphic EQ was pretty neat and it only worked because the receiver had tape monitoring. Using tape monitoring I was able to send any audio to the EQ, modify it and then “monitor” it. This meant the changes made by the EQ were applied to all of the inputs of the receiver.

Optimus 31-2025
Optimus 31-2025 Graphic EQ

This is a piece that was just a lot of fun because of all the bouncing lights. Its demise came after buying my first full A/V receiver which didn’t have the tape monitoring trick.

The Sony CDP-CE215 5 disc changer was most likely next in the chain. To be honest I don’t remember when I picked this up or even where. This was a pretty basic 5 disc changer, even for the time, but served me well for many years until I offered it up to someone so they could use it in their new house. If I remember correctly, it was one of the first Sony models that came with the jog shuttle wheel making it easy to quickly jump to the desired track.

The Sony CDP-CD215 5 disc changer
Sony CDP-CD215

Next in the audio stack, and definitely a late addition that should probably have never happened was a Sherwood DD-4030C

Sherwood DD-4030C

This was another Radio Shack pick-up that, because tapes were already on their way out, was a very cheap clearance item that I couldn’t say no to. Of all the things I’ve sold this is the one I regret the most. Mostly because it was so feature complete and such a smooth performer. Everywhere I see this being sold it either looks to be in bad shape or is twice as much as I paid for it new. That said, I did finally manage to find one on eBay and was recently able to fix it up and get it in working order! In a future post I may go through some of what I did to get it working again.

Somewhere between all of those, I picked up an Optimus PRO SW-12 subwoofer. To this day I can’t remember what I used to power it since it was passive but it created a lot of boom, more than a kid my age had any right having. It too was sold after getting married and living in an apartment.

This setup treated me well for a number of years. It was definitely all low end but was a great introduction to the world of hifi gear and gave me a place to grow from. Anyway, I think that does it for a “post 1” and in my next post I’ll look back on the home theater stuff that later replaced most of this equipment.

For a long time, I’ve wanted a Spotify-like experience but with music I’ve collected over the years. I appreciate Spotify because I can stream music on my desktop and phone anywhere I am but I can also download music locally to my phone to save on bandwidth. That said, there are some things that aren’t on Spotify like video game soundtracks or ocremix content that I also want to have with me. While Spotify can download local content to my phone the process is a bit cumbersome and the interface is, honestly, not great for that.

Enter Plex and Plexamp. Plex, probably better known as the tool of choice for those heavily into piracy, is actually a great way to store, catalog, and play your music. But Plexamp (and a paid Plex Pass) as a client really takes the experience up a notch by offering an experience that is entirely focused on music playback including hi-res formats and gapless playback. It also has some really clever genre, mood, and artist-based automatic playlists that are super slick. Combine this with the ability to stream the music from outside your home and offline it (at any bit rate you want including FLAC) and you really have a winner.

While I could do a video showing it off I don’t think I could a better job than this one.

A while ago I wanted to improve my audio setup in my office. I ordered some bookshelf speakers and hooked them up to an old receiver I had sitting around doing nothing. To help improve the setup further I decided to use a USB-C to optical adapter so that I could feed pure digital into my receiver. The receiver has a better DAC than my Mac and it reduced the noise a bit as well. Once I did this however I noticed that sound effects from the system and the first little bit of music would not play. This was because macOS does it’s best to save power and will power off, or whatever it is doing, the sound card. In turn the receiver would see no signal and sort of forget what sound format it was receiving. When audio started to play then it would determine what type of audio it was getting and then output the audio. Of course, this takes enough time that most system sounds won’t play and instead I’d got a small pop sound in the speakers as the receiver “came online”.

To combat this I found this little helper – https://github.com/mttrb/antipopd. This app will send what amounts to a null (in the background it is the say utility saying “space”). This keeps the audio chain alive and prevents any pops or delays in audio output. I highly recommend it.

In 2004 I took delivery of a new car that was equipped with a CD changer. Until then I had only ever had cars with a single disc player so stepping up to a deck with a six disc changer was incredible. No longer did I need to keep a sleeve of CDs in the car that would get scratched or lost, I could just keep what I was listening to at the time right in the deck. It was still a time where creating and burning playlists to a burnable CD was totally acceptable and all was well in the world.

I kept that car for about ten years and during that time we saw the iPod and other music players gain tremendous popularity. And why wouldn’t they? You could put as much music onto the device as it would hold and carry it around with you anywhere you went! The original iPod even had this slick wheel based interface for getting around quickly and easily. Amazing! Unfortunately, when my car was designed, these types of players weren’t common yet and there was no way to interface an iPod or any type of music player with my deck because I didn’t have an AUX input. Bluetooth connectivity was even less of a thing at the time so that option was out as well.

So I kept on making CDs of the music I wanted to listen to and feeding them into the changer knowing that some day I would sell the car and pick one up that had a Bluetooth interface. I thought, one day I’ll finally be able to listen to all of my music at anytime and it’ll be great.

Well, as it turns out it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.

A few years ago I picked up a newer Mazda, one with Bluetooth and iPod connectivity, an AUX port and even Pandora! The possibilities before me seemed perfect and I got to working figuring out which method would work best for me. After much tinkering I settled on using Bluetooth because it offered wireless connectivity and worked with whatever music app I wanted to use. I loaded up Spotify with downloaded music and that was that.

After awhile though the flaws in this new system started to appear. I discovered that Mazda’s Bluetooth implementation was less than ideal. It takes a lot of time for it to connect to my phone and start playing music, sometimes over a minute. I can no longer just hop in the car and have it resume where it left off just moments after starting the car. Other times it connects but can’t tell me what is playing or just refuses to play anything at all until I visit Spotify and select something from there.

And herein lies the primary issue and why I miss the venerable CD changer. It isn’t because Mazda’s Bluetooth implementation is bad (and it is really bad), it’s that the process of selecting music is so much more involved. To select music, I have to get my phone, unlock it, open the Spotify app and go digging for the playlist or album I want…while driving. It turns out that having a large selection of music requires changes to how you interface and interact with that music. It requires that you look at a screen to scroll and make selections. All of these interactions are fine when you can spend the time doing them but in the car speeding down the highway is not the right time.

So why is the CD changer the better option here? It’s because interacting with a CD changer is fundamentally different than a music app on your phone, even if your vehicle has a stellar deck and you are able to interact with the music app using steering wheel controls or the touch screen you still need to look at a screen to know where you are. Not so with a CD changer. You put six discs into a changer and you know what slot they are in. You know, using your ears, which track you are listening, which CD it is on and from that you know what slot is it in. If you want to listen to a different disc you know how many times to press the disc change button. Listening to Taylor Swift on disc 1 and now you want to listen to the third song on your new Metallica album in slot 3? Press the disc change button twice and then press the next track button a couple of times. Done and you didn’t even have to take your hands off the steering wheel. Such an interaction isn’t an option anymore. In a music app the interface is 100% on the device, with a CD changer half the interface is in your head.

In the end, it isn’t really the CD changer I miss. It’s actually the “interface” that CD changers provided. There is no equivalent, that I’m aware of, in today’s music apps that emulates the CD changer interface. I believe the ideal solution would be to allow a user to configure a set of playlists as “slots” like a CD changer that are in a locked order. Controls are then offered on screen and the steering wheel to switch between playlists in a locked order, just like a CD changer.

I like the progress that has been made with technology. I appreciate being able to put more music than I could possibly listen to in a year in my pocket. I just wish this progress didn’t come at the expense of usability. Burning a CD was a hassle but when it was done it was done but interacting with your player happens every time.