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Big Finish: Downloads vs Physical Media

I belong to a social media group which discusses anything to do with Big Finish productions. Typically, it’s full of re-postings of Big Finish notifications, people asking whether a range or title is worth buying, and speculations on up and coming releases.

There is one subject that keeps popping up in which people get very possessive: the download vs the physical copy.

From this discussion, it is quite usual for three distinct groups to emerge:

Download Only

The download-only group confess that they’d love to be able to have physical copies of all their Big Finish audios, but they just don’t have the room. Especially if one remembers that Big Finish have been going for twenty years now; if one is a subscriber, that is an awful lot of CDs to find room for (plus the assorted box sets and spin-offs).

In addition, there is appeal and convenience of the Big Finish smartphone app, or the ability to arrange downloaded releases on music management software (you all know to which one I refer).

This group also includes many overseas customers who find that the postage costs makes buying the CDs too expensive.

Download and Selective Physical

Admittedly, there doesn’t seem to be that many, but the selective group are the ones who have limited space and only buy physical copies of a certain range: anything from the Eighth Doctor, for example (cough!). Everything else is downloaded.

This seems to be driven by the storage-space issue that the download-only group are ruled by, but still want to have physical copies of that special range.

Physical Only

The physical-only group, as the title suggests, will only buy a Big Finish drama if there is a CD or vinyl to handle. Being audiophiles, which is very commendable, they want to experience the best audio quality available.

Sadly – and this is the only negative I will assign to any group – many in this crowd have voiced that if Big Finish stop producing physical media, then they would stop buying Big Finish productions altogether.

Which is Better…?

If you are wondering if this is going to turn into an opinion piece, you are right…

I fall into the middle group; I’m a Selective. Being someone who has collected Big Finish releases for nearly 20 years, I’ve got an awful lot of them. It is mostly downloaded these days, but I’ve got a fair few CDs from the early years, before downloads were available, when I bought them in HMV or Forbidden Planet. The trouble is, storage space is at a premium and, aside a chosen few, most of those older CDs are languishing in the loft – having been ripped to iTunes first, of course (other media software is available). 

However, anything featuring the Eighth Doctor is automatically purchased on CD and shelf-space is found. Somehow. 

Big Finish have intimated that they will only have CDs available for a limited period after an initial release. This could be a precursor to abandoning physical media entirely. It does make business sense: no manufacturing costs; not having to estimate the quantity required; and no need for warehouse space to store the unsold. 

Therefore, the group that may be facing the biggest change are those who say they won’t buy any Big Finish dramas unless they can have a CD. 

During one of these online discussions, I put forward the notion that Big Finish are about the product and not the delivery. 

The general response I received was as follows: 

“The sound reproduction is far better on CD than the compressed download”

In a past life, I lovingly tended a stacked hi-fi with floor standing speakers which had all been auditioned at my local hi-fi shop (sadly, now gone). Alas, most of us, including me, moved backwards with our iPods, smartphones, soundbars, computers, and streaming/Bluetooth speakers; this has made the switch to downloads almost inevitable, simply for convenience.

Be that as it may, consider this: the way that Big Finish encode their audiobooks and MP3s, I would argue that the vast majority of listeners would not be able to tell the difference to an audiobook download compared to a CD, when reproduced through similar conditions. Obviously, this is open to opinion, but I’ve experimented here and I genuinely can’t tell the difference. Arguably, my age could play a part here as Middle-Aged Me is unable to hear higher frequencies that Younger Me could, simply down to the aging process.

If one listens to a download on a smartphone via a pair of cheap ear-buds, then the best on offer is never going to be reproduced. Introduce a pair of quality headphones to that smartphone and the experience is greatly improved. Obviously. Similarly, a ‘boom-box’ CD player isn’t going to be a patch on an expensive stacked hi-fi, in a sound-proofed room devoid of soft-furnishings.Therefore, as far as I’m concerned, the sound quality issue isn’t so much about the media itself (download or CD), but the hardware and conditions it is presented through.

“Without a physical copy to hold, I don’t feel as if I really have ownership of the product”

I can’t really argue with this, but I suspect that this is a generational thing. Us older listeners weren’t brought up with Spotify, Netflix, or Amazon Prime where nothing is ever owned. For most of our lives, physical media was always purchased as there was no alternative. After a lifetime, that’s a hard thing to shake off.

When I changed from vinyl to CD in the mid-1980s (my vinyl got scratched too often), I missed the large album cover art and the sleeve notes. Similarly, with a Big Finish download, there isn’t a booklet to download with it; yes, the cover is still part of the package, but any notes and photographs are not.

There is one further issue that gets aimed against the download…

“What if my computer hard-drive fails and Big Finish go under? I’ll lose everything!”

I think I’ve lost count on how many external disc-drives I have as backup for all my important files. Big Finish audiobooks/MP3s are important files and should be part of that back-up.

What I will say here is, it takes a bit of effort to arrange our downloads on our computers, whether it is within media software or files and folders; changing file names or meta tags is often required to get titles in the desired order.  

Nevertheless, none of this is a worry yet, I’m pleased to say, as CDs are still around for the foreseeable future and, if there is demand, I’m sure CDs will still be available. Thus, we are currently able to subscribe to any method we prefer.

What are your preferences and would you stop buying Big Finish if they went to download only?

Colin Burden

Big Finish: Downloads vs Physical Media

by Colin Burden time to read: 5 min
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