The Car CD Player Deathwatch

Why the In-Dash CD Player's Days Are Numbered


  • 2013 Chevrolet Spark: No CD Player

    2013 Chevrolet Spark: No CD Player

    GM skipped the disc player in its MyLink system in the Chevy Spark. MyLink mostly relies on a connected smartphone to bring music into the car. | May 15, 2013

3 Photos

Technology has its own form of survival of the fittest. Once-popular media formats are eventually pushed aside as the masses move on to the new, more convenient way to watch movies, listen to music or read books. DVDs are currently falling victim to this vicious cycle as on-demand streaming video has finally become widespread. CDs have been on a slow decline since the dawn of the iPod over a decade ago. (When's the last time you brought a disc into the car?) And now the auto industry has started to ditch the disc as well.

The Car CD Player Death Knell Is Nigh
Car technology moves at a much slower pace than consumer electronics. The cassette slot didn't disappear from the dash until 2010, when that year's Lexus SC 430 became the last car to offer a tape deck.

Now it's the disc's turn to fade away as drivers turn to music that's either stored on their smartphones or streamed to them. (What's the future of the car radio? Not quite so dire.)

"With the rising popularity of digital music and streaming services, some automakers made the decision to shift focus from the CD to connected services and smartphones," says Vadim Brenner, VP of product management at Gracenote, the predominant supplier of "metadata" such as the album, artist, song information and album art that's often seen on a car's infotainment display.

Automakers and consumers aren't abandoning the disc in droves just yet: Gracenote reports nearly 5.5 million CD "lookups" on its database every day, representing only an 18 percent decline since 2008. But all signs indicate that the death knell may be sounding for the car CD player. The main motivating factor is that fewer drivers are carrying clunky discs into their car: probably because they've stopped buying them in the first place.

Forecasts show that sales of CDs and DVDs topped out worldwide in 2011, says Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager of infotainment for IHS Global. He adds that in 2013, the overall CD "attach rate" (the number of vehicles that include a disc drive) dropped 75 percent. But beyond this shift in consumer taste, automakers also want to ditch car CD players to save weight and open up their interior design options.

Spark, Sonic and Soul Skip CDs
General Motors recently deserted the disc in its MyLink system in the Chevy Sonic and Spark. MyLink mostly relies on a connected smartphone to bring music and other content into the car.

"We decided to put one of our more advanced radios in our entry-level vehicles because we knew that the most connected customers are younger buyers — the ones who buy Sonics and Sparks," says Sara LeBlanc, GM's program manager for MyLink in the Spark and Sonic. She adds that customer research conducted by Chevy revealed that the target buyers for the cars listen to music on their phones. "So we took the disc drive out to give our customers more memory or a bigger screen because CD is not a feature they want," she says.

Another youth-targeted vehicle that's dumping the disc drive is the Kia Soul, which will shed the CD player starting with the 2014 model. "Because the Soul lends itself to a demographic of purely digital customers, it makes sense for it to mark the beginning of an evolution in which car CD players will eventually disappear from dashboards," says Henry Bzeih, Kia's chief technology strategist. "But this transition could take three to five years across the industry as a whole."

It's not just these lower-priced or small vehicles that are abandoning the CD. The 2013 Ram 1500, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2013 SRT Viper can now be ordered without a disc drive, Boyadjis says. He says that a local Ram dealer told him that among the trucks customers have ordered, only about 10 percent of buyers wanted a radio with CD player. "And only two or three buyers demanded to have a CD drive in the truck," Boyadjis says.

"Customer preferences are clearly trending in favor of content being brought into the vehicle on mobile devices rather than CDs," says James Robnett, director of UConnect strategy and product management for Chrysler. UConnect is Chrysler's vehicle-wide infotainment platform, encompassing the Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Viper brands. "And we anticipate growing demand for cloud-based content." That's why Chrysler is launching UConnect Access Via Mobile, a service that supports Internet radio streaming via a customer's smartphone.

Ford has been on the cutting edge of infotainment technology since the release of its Sync system in 2007. Yet the automaker isn't saying when (or if) the CD will disappear from its vehicles.

John Schneider, chief engineer of Ford Electronics and Electrical Systems Engineering, does think that the disc is in its twilight years, however.

"Like the cassette player before it, customer demand for integrated in-dash CD players has peaked and is on the decline, being replaced by more popular, portable and cost- and space-efficient technologies," he says. Portable digital media players connected to the car by Bluetooth or USB connectivity are the primary choice of today's customers, who use them to play music or other content that either lives on their devices or is delivered over the Internet, Schneider says.

Design and Weight Help Kill the Disc
Designing a new vehicle is a trade-off that involves making sure individual systems fit the car's budget, size and weight requirements. Adding one element often means taking away or compromising on another. And increasingly, designers and engineers are foregoing the disc drive so they can add other more desirable features.

"We budget a certain amount that we're going to pay our suppliers for a radio, and if we can delete the CD and improve one of the other features, that's a win-win situation," LeBlanc says. Since the car CD player wasn't a feature that Spark and Sonic customers necessarily wanted, that freed GM to work on making the cars' displays bigger and improving their resolution or processing speed.

The center location that an in-dash CD player occupies has "high real-estate value," says Ford's Schneider. And since it could be used for higher-priority features, disc drives have started to migrate to new locations in the car. The CD player in the 2013 Ford Escape, for example, sits at the very top of the dashboard "center stack," not in the middle of it. In Edmunds.com's long-term test 2013 Dodge Dart SXT Rallye, the CD player resides in the center console, so as not to hog space that's better used by the car's 8.4-inch touchscreen. In the Chevrolet Traverse, the CD slot is at the bottom of the center stack.

Another consideration in discarding the disc drive is its weight. Any savings there can help make a car more fuel efficient. Although the weight of a CD player may seem insignificant, automakers are looking to shed as many pounds as possible to increase miles per gallon.

At an Automotive Press Association presentation in Detroit last year, Michael Arbaugh, chief designer for Ford interiors, said that eliminating the CD player could shave almost 5 pounds from a car's overall weight.

"That was definitely on our minds," GM's LeBlanc said of the decision to leave the CD player out of the MyLink system. "We track mass savings, and that was especially important in the Spark and Sonic."

Discs Slots Will Look Odd in the Dash
You don't have to throw out that sun visor CD holder just yet. The car CD player will stick around for a little longer.

"A significant percentage of customers around the globe still expect an integrated CD player to be offered for their vehicle," Schneider says. "Automakers will be challenged to continue to offer CD players, at least as optional content, through the remainder of this decade."

Boyadjis predicts that by 2019, 35 percent of vehicles worldwide will still have CD players. "At the end of the day, the hardest technology to remove from the vehicle is the well-established one," he says.

But even if disc drives don't completely disappear from the dash for a decade, they could soon make the cars that have them appear antiquated. That may be enough for more automakers to consider killing the car CD player.

"Now if you see a cassette deck in a car," LeBlanc says, "you think, 'How old is this thing?'"

Comments

  • lsiii lsiii Posts:

    I have had a few cars over the last 4-5 years, and haven't used the CD player in any of them. Ever since I used Bluetooth Audio and/or my iPod in the USB jack I haven't looked back.

  • cygnus_x1 cygnus_x1 Posts:

    It's a sad trend that young people are settling for less and less in just about every aspect of their life because they don't know any better. Then again, the music they listen to is so bad I guess the sound quality doesn't really matter anyways. Car makers can take the CD player out of their cheap girlie cars as long as companies like Acura and Lexus keep putting DVD drives in their cars. There's no way to get high quality surround audio from an MP3 and people who want good quality audio in their cars will pay for the optical drive.

  • rwatson rwatson Posts:

    I'm with cygnus_x1 on this. Sound quality is not an issue now, only size and convenience. This is perfect for the auto industry of today where the consumer thinks "quality" depends on mass-manufactured electronic gadgetry. The current trend in vehicles seem to hinge on the notion that if you keep loading the center stack with devices that make the LCD feel "trendy" and "smart," they'll never notice the shortcomings of the car. It appears to be working. The more ADHD, the better the sales. I have an Ipod. I loaded it with songs - close to 300 I guess. Sounded like garbage. Proof the majority drag their knuckles after all. The battery lasted a whole 3.5 years. That's when I found out they want you to mail it in for a replacement without your songs and pay them $80. It's all for the sake of smaller and lighter stuff that suffers in total quality. The electronic gadget industry aren't counting on the fact that quite a number of young "audiophiles" (the kind who actually sit and listen to music, as opposed to those who just dance around when they hear their favorite computer generated beat and auto-tuned Disney channel celebrity) are actually discovering the sound quality of vinyl LPs. They're buying these relics up and actually noticing what I've always noticed. Of course, they'll always be the minority because the masses are conditioned to marketing of "convenience." The consumer pays too much in the end because it's more profitable to just stick Chinese made junk that makes us feel smart into these underwhelming, low quality, top-dollar vehicles. Sounds like today's politics.

  • @ Cygnus_x1 & rwatson: I just turned 31 and never really took too the whole IPod craze but my wife has one so I've loaded some songs from ITunes and the quality sucks. I hate the fact that the only reason this trend of mobile music is taking off is be

  • banna_smith banna_smith Posts:

    I still use the CD player inside my car because I found that the sound quality is much better on the CD than it is from my IPod. You can definitely feel the bass better and hear the instruments better on a CD, too.

  • shatner shatner Posts:

    Well this sucks. MP3s sound like crap, but most people don't notice on their Bose stereos because they sound like crap too! I would actually not buy a car that I could not fit an aftermarket CD player in nicely.

  • shatner shatner Posts:

    I still miss the days when most factory stereos came in the standardized sizes so you could just pull them right out and upgrade them without custom face plates. The Scion Tc still has them, can't think of any other cars that do!

  • greenpony greenpony Posts:

    Hold on a second. Cars are noisy places. Tires, engine, exhaust, wind, horns, emergency vehicles... It's not really the optimal place to be listening to high fidelity audio. With all the NOISE, you miss all the subtleties of a good piece of music. And here you all are, arguing about the difference in quality between mp3s, CDs, and records, as if it matters when you're slogging through a major city rush hour or cruising at 80 on the interstate. To listen to music, to really listen to and appreciate music, you ought not to be distracted with something as demanding as, oh I don't know, OPERATING A MOTOR VEHICLE. That's what your home stereo is for.

  • agentorange agentorange Posts:

    I'm largely with greenpony. Cars are too noisy to tell the difference between a CD and a low-compression MP3. Now a highly compressed MP3 will sound like crap even with somebody running a chainsaw in your other ear. Sadly, many of today's youth don't actually know what uncompressed music sounds like. What torques me is that not two motor manufacturers treat accessing music on a USB stick or iPod the same way. At least with CDs you know what you are going to get.

  • cygnus_x1 cygnus_x1 Posts:

    Just to add to my original post, I bought a new Acura TL yesterday with the ELS sound system. You can definitely hear the difference between a DVD audio disc and an MP3 @320 coming through the USB port. Totally night and day. Even a CD can't hold a candle to DVD-A. As far as car noise, at 80mph my TL is quiet enough that even at moderate volumes the music drowns out any external noise. A quiet car shows refinement and I wouldn't settle for less. Until they figure out how to get DVD-A onto a flash drive, I'm sure optical drives will be around for a while.

  • shatner shatner Posts:

    You can get great quality sound in a convertible if you put enough clean power in it, and I don't mean just a lot of bass. Say no to Bose!

  • rhiansuarez rhiansuarez Posts:

    Well the CD players are slowly fading its popularity, people these days prefer players that can be inserted with their portable stuffs in the car like USB's, Mp3 players, phones, ipod and many more...

  • ne1butu2 ne1butu2 Posts:

    It's hillarious that "audiophiles" now hold CDs in such high esteem. In the 80s, they were squawking that there was no way to get the detail out of a CD that you could get from vinyl or reel-to-reel. Frankly, CDs are outdated today because you can only get 12 or so tracks onto them. No one listens to music that way anymore. For the hundred or so audiophiles that still exist in the world that hem and haw over vinyl vs CD vs Compressed, they are not the people that any mass audio brand caters to anymore. Even McIntosh Labs, the pinnacle of the audio world, has capitulated and now offers airplay devices for their home systems. Audio manufacturers will attempt to improve their upconversion techniques to squeeze all the detail out of compressed audio that they can. Regardless compressed music is here to stay. CDs are on their way out. And fast.

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