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Caring for Your CDs and Music Files  (January 2018)


A few years ago, I bought a CD at a used book sale and loaded it into my car’s CD player so I could enjoy it on the drive home.  Around the sixth track, it began stuttering and subsequently refused to play any further.  After arriving at home, I examined the disc and found a patch about one-quarter inch square where there was nothing but clear plastic.  The reflective layer and label were entirely gone.  (I never would have expected someone to sell a defective CD—lesson learned!)   Figuring that I could salvage a few of the tracks, I loaded the CD into my computer to record what I could.  When it stopped playing, I discovered that it had recorded all the tracks, including the one(s) that caused problems in my car.  Apparently, my computer’s CD player has better error-handling algorithms than my car’s player (second lesson learned that day:  CD players are not all the same).  So I burned a CD of what I had just recorded, and it played just fine in my car.


I’m fortunate that I’ve had very few damaged CDs, and the experience described above prompted me to look into what I can expect of CDs, what can go wrong with them, what I could do to preserve them, and what things I should consider in preserving tracks by ripping them into music files.  Here’s a synopsis of what I found.



Estimates of recordable CD-R longevity vary widely.  Manufacturers’ published figures for consumer-grade discs range from 10 to 25 years, but more conservative estimates place realistic values at five to ten years before burning and two to five years after they’ve been written to.  Some testing has revealed degradation in as little as 18 months.  Quality name-brand discs will last longer than discount brands.  With cheaper discs, cost-cutting measures like inferior chemical composition of the recording dye, incomplete lacquer sealing, or reduced quality control measures can set the stage for more rapid deterioration.  Archival discs are naturally more expensive, but manufacturers’ figures for longevity are from 75 to 300 years, depending on the composition.  Among other measures, this durability is achieved through use of silver, gold, or a silver alloy in the reflective layer.


The causes of CD failure are physical damage like scratches (not to mention blunt force trauma—see Figure 1) and degeneration of the reflective layer or dye caused by gasses, liquids, or fungi.  Here are some tips to protect CDs from physical damage.

  • Handle discs by their outer edge or center hole, not by their surfaces; avoid touching the surfaces altogether.

  • Return discs to their cases immediately after use, making sure they’re anchored inside the cases.

  • Avoid paper or plastic storage sleeves, especially those that are so tight that you have to grasp the disc by the surfaces to extract it.

  • Avoid CD wallets that press discs closely together, as this can cause warping.

  • Store discs vertically, not horizontally.

  • Do not stack CDs without their covers, and never slide one CD against another.

  • Keep the surfaces clean and free of dust.If a CD becomes dirty, wipe it with a clean, lint-free cloth in a straight line from the center toward the edge, never in a circular motion.Never wipe a disc with a wood-based product such as a paper towel.

  • Do not apply stick-on labels.Labels can make a CD unbalanced if the label is applied even slightly off-center, and this can result in read errors and excessive wear on your drive.

Figure 1.  Physically damaged CD and jewel case.


To guard against degeneration:

  • Store CDs at 40-70 degrees F. with 20-50% relative humidity (normal household humidity, a bit cool on the temperature).

  • Avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight or other ultraviolet sources.

  • Use a water-based felt tip marker to label your disc, not a solvent-based one.More generally, avoid contact with any kind of solvents, including cleaning solutions (mild dishwashing detergents are okay).

  • Write only on the top (the side that faces up when you load it into a CD player or drive), never on the bottom (where the laser reads the data).


Test a sample of your CD-Rs about every five years for playability, more frequently if storage conditions are other than recommended.  Since not all players are the same, it would be prudent to test your CDs in multiple players, or at least the one that has demonstrated itself to be the least tolerant of abnormalities.  If a CD is beginning to show errors, rip the CD to other media, burn a new copy if you desire, and expand the testing to more of your CDs.


Music Files

You can store music files like MP3s or WAVs on a variety of computing devices.  Hard drives offer the advantage that your computer can function as a music server, sending music to your sound system’s amplifier or your computer’s speakers.  Because of heavy use, however, the mechanical parts of computer hard drives will eventually fail—as early as three to five years (which is about right for the three laptop disk failures that my wife has experienced).  Solid state hard drives have a longer life expectancy because of the absence of moving parts:  ten to twenty years.  The more times data are written to (as opposed to read from) a solid state drive, the shorter its lifespan will be.  The same is true of flash drives and SD cards (assuming you don’t lose them or inadvertently run them through the washing machine).  It goes without saying that you should avoid exposing any magnetic media to strong magnetic fields, since they can obliterate the information stored on the media.


A significant advantage of music files is that they can be backed up to external hard drives, flash drives, SD cards, CDs, DVDs, or cloud storage—or any combination of these—as long as they’re for your own use and you hold the original recording.  And you can use your music files to burn new music CDs if you wish to.


If you rip your CDs to your computer, I highly recommend ripping them into a lossless format like WAV or AIFF.  If you rip your music into MP3 files or other lossy format, you’ll never be able to reconstitute the quality of the original music from those files.  When you burn files to an optical disc, use quality, name-brand discs for reasons mentioned above.  As precautions against write errors, burn your discs at a lower speed than what your drive is rated at (e.g., 4x to 12x rather than 52x), and don’t use your computer for anything else until the burn process has finished.


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