Over the years since the advent of the MP3 file format, every now and then some misinformed or luddite journalist writes an article about how MP3 and digital downloads are killing music because MP3 has lower fidelity than CDs. I always maintained that MP3 encoding wasn’t nearly as bad as the doomsayers claimed, and that in a few years when file storage got cheaper and internet bandwidth got broader digital downloads would outstrip CDs in quality. My rationale was that 44.1kHz recording makes CDs high enough in fidelity that there isn’t enough demand for higher quality to make a replacement medium economically viable–the failure of SACD to take over the market seems to support this theory. With digital downloads, however, there’s no need for new hardware standards–most media players and computers can play 96kHz audio no problem, somebody just needs to sell the recordings.
That’s where HDTracks.com comes in.
Everything they sell is encoded at a higher quality than the standard 128kbps, much of it uncompressed or losslessly compressed, and it sounds great. But what really sets them apart from the competition is their commitment to better-than-CD-quality audio. A substantial portion of their library (much of which is classical) is available in the lossless FLAC format at 24 bit encoding at either 96 or 88.2 kilohertz. CD quality, by comparison, is 16 bits at 44.1 kHz.
So are these high data-rates worth the trouble? It’s hard to say, and depends on several factors. I downloaded Shostakovitch’s 8th Symphony from HDTracks in both 320kbps MP3 and in 88.2/24 FLAC, and because HDTracks doesn’t offer downloads at 128kbps I re-encoded it myself. I made my comparison on the recording studio standard AKG headphones, but not on a hi-fi stereo or good studio monitors, so it’s an incomplete test. 128kbps sounds good, but 320 does sound a little better–cleaner, richer, deeper. I couldn’t tell the difference between the 320kbps MP3 and the 88.2/24 FLAC, but I didn’t test on different hardware and I’m only one person–your mileage may vary. The file sizes are much bigger than the difference in quality. The first movement of the Shostakovitch is about 28 minutes long. The 128kbps MP3 takes up about 27.5 MB of disc space, or just under 1 MB per minute of audio. The 320kbps MP3 takes up about 65.5 MB–about 2.3 MB per minute. The 88.2 FLAC requires about 426.7 MB–about 15.2 MB per minute, which is actually more space than uncompressed CD-quality audio requires. In other words, we see diminishing returns in the fidelity and file-size tradeoff, and you’ll have to decide for yourself what option is best for you. The improvement in quality from 128 to 320 seems worth the file size to me, but the improvement to 88.2 isn’t. On the other hand, hard drives get cheaper and bigger every day, so you may not care about that issue.
The pricing difference is quite reasonable. iTunes charges $9.99 for this album, and HDTracks charges $11.98 for the 320kbps MP3. The increase in audio quality is probably worth the small increase in cost (to say nothing of avoiding DRM and not patronizing the evil Apple empire.) The album costs $15.98 in 88.2/24 FLAC, which also seems reasonable.
The most important issue, though, is that advent of HDTracks marks a tipping point in the transition from physical media to digital downloads–now the files available for download are actually better than what you can buy in a store.
ClassicalTV.com recently launched as a sort of Hulu for classical music. The availability of high quality classical music video in one centralized, curated location fills a critical gap in the classical industry, and I hope they succeed. They currently host more than a thousand hours of performances and documentaries, many free and some pay-per-view, and will presumably be expanding rapidly. I have a free John Cage video playing in the background as I type this, and I see that one of the first listings in the Premium section is a performance of Doctor Atomic, for $9.99.
This is a new website, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find that it has a few problems. The categorization of videos could be much better, and much deeper. Categorization by style would be a big step in the right direction–for instance, I care much more about being able to browse through a list limited to music composed after 1900 than a list limited to chamber music. And I question their decision to exclusively use the Silverlight media player, since it isn’t really standard yet. But these are small things. The most important task before them now is massive content acquisition–the more video they have the more useful the site will be. Let’s hope they’re hard at work on licensing more video.