The Half-Amazing, Half-Crazy Greening of CD Sound


It sounds crazy. Completely wacko. Like one of those “I Was Kidnapped by a Sexy UFO Hunk” tales you’d expect to read in the tabloids in the check-out lane at Ralphs.

But how’s this for a shocker: If the stories circulating in the audiophile community are true, you can significantly improve the sound of your compact discs (are you sitting down?) simply by marking the inner and outer edges of the disc with a green felt marking pen.

Call it the Big Green Clean.

It’s the hot new topic of debate among CD fanatics--and a claim being taken seriously by CD experts, most notably Pete Howard, publisher of the respected International CD Exchange (ICE) newsletter and resident Rolling Stone CD columnist. Howard says he discovered the craze when one of his subscribers sent him a story from a Beaverton, Ore., paper detailing claims made by an audio store owner there.


After interviewing several other people who’ve tested out the theory--and trying it himself--Howard is no longer a complete skeptic.

“I was intrigued, as would anyone who discovered that you could make what amounts to a $1,000 upgrade on your sound system by simply spending $1.25 for a green felt marking pen,” he said. “I think you’d have to say it’s half-amazing and half-ludicrous. But I’m getting calls from people who are using adjectives like ‘incredible’ and ‘terrifyingly improved.’ Everybody seems to agree there’s something there.”

The green felt marker fad isn’t the only craze sweeping the CD ranks. According to a four-page story by Sam Tellig in the current issue of Stereophile magazine, you can also improve CD sound quality by coating your CDs with (now you really have to sit down) Armor-All spray cleaner. (You coat the playing surface and wash off the Armor-All before playing.)

Both schemes sound pretty farfetched to us. But Howard isn’t so sure. “What makes this such a potentially fascinating story is the implication that after millions of CDs have been tested and manufactured, consumers can suddenly buy a green marking pen or a cleaning spray cleaner and dramatically increase their CD sound. Enough people have come to me that you’d have to say something is happening here, even if you don’t know what it is.”

Unfortunately, none of the Green Clean proponents can explain why the marking pen works. And it’s too soon for official test results from audio authorities. Is there a sound technological principle at work? Not likely, says Ed Outwater, Warner Bros. Records’ vice president of CD quality assurance.

“It doesn’t sound like this is within the realm of possibility to me,” said Outwater. “A CD operates by a laser bouncing up into the play-side of the machine, where it reads the digital information. So how a green felt pen marking on the outside of the disc would have any impact is beyond me.”

Outwater was similarly skeptical about the oven-cleaner hypothesis. “CDs do get dirty, but the grunge simply impedes tracking. Cleaning the disc won’t improve the sound clarity.”


For a second opinion, Pop Eye asked Grammy-winning producer Hank Neuberger, an audio consultant for the recent Grammy telecast, to take a Green Clean blind-fold test. Neuberger listened to two CD versions--one greened, the other unmarked--of Steely Dan’s “Hey 19” and the Band’s “King Harvest.” The results?:

“Granted, it wasn’t the most scientific experiment, but I really don’t think you could hear much difference,” he said. “Maybe the green-coated CD had a little more clarity in the upper-middle range. But it was very subtle, if anything.”

Neuberger said the craze reminded him of the hubbub nearly a decade ago when Bob Clearmountain, then a hot rock producer, began mixing albums on tiny Yamaha NS-10 studio speakers. “Everyone heard he got his special sound by taping Kleenex over the tweeters,” Neuberger said. “So not only did everyone go out and buy NS-10’s, which are now standard in every studio in the world, but everyone was asking--what kind of Kleenex did he use?”