No More MP3!
If there's a choice between convenience and quality, convenience usually wins out. The best example of this is the sad tale of DVD-Audio and SACD vs. MP3, all of which were introduced at roughly the same time. The convenience of quickly downloading MP3s into portable players easily trumped the vastly superior quality of DVD-A and SACD. Granted, the skirmish between the two high-res audio formats didn't help, but I suspect the outcome would have been much the same even if there had been no competition at the high end. So what's an audiophile to do?
I say, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. I don't mean learn to live with MP3 quality—I mean find sources of high-quality downloadable music that far surpasses the measly trickle of bits provided by MP3s. Of course, such files occupy much more storage space, and they take longer to download. But hard disks are cheap these days, and the time is well worth it if you care about the quality of what you put in your ears. Not only that, you can also enjoy the convenience of distributing the music from a server or taking it with you on a portable player without suffering the ignominy of listening to only 10% of the original audio information.
For me, the minimum requirement is uncompressed (or losslessly compressed) "CD-quality" files (two channels, 44.1kHz sampling rate, 16-bit resolution). This was the original mandate of MusicGiants, which launched its HD Music service in 2005. I've always thought that calling CD-quality audio "HD" is a stretch, but it sure is high-def compared with your typical MP3.
As of this writing, MusicGiants has close to a million individual 2-channel tracks that you can purchase for $1.29 each; you can also buy complete albums for $15. The tunes are losslessly compressed using Windows Media Audio (WMA) at a bit rate of 1100kbps. (Uncompressed CD audio uses a bit rate of about 1400kbps.)
MusicGiants also offers "Super HD" downloads—remastered DVD-A and SACD albums losslessly compressed with bit rates up to 11Mbps. Currently, there are about 75 Super HD albums available, with another 1500 in the pipeline, each costing $20.
Some items in the MusicGiants audio catalog have no digital rights management (DRM), especially in the jazz, blues, and classical genres, making it easy to put the music where you want it. The company expects most of its catalog to be DRM-free by the end of the year. Of course, titles with Windows Media DRM are restricted in their use, and the restrictions might or might not let you play them on various devices.
Another service, launched in April of this year, is HDTracks. It has thousands of CD-quality tracks and albums available in one of several formats, including uncompressed AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format), which integrates seamlessly with iTunes and iPod, and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), a lossless compression scheme that is compatible with Media Monkey, VLC, Songbird, Mac Flac, Toast, and Winamp, but not iTunes or iPod.
Also available are MP3s at 320kbps, which is a lot better than most such files, and they're compatible with all MP3 players, but the compression is still lossy. In the next couple of months, HDTracks will start offering multichannel DVD-A material (96kHz/24 bits) encoded in FLAC.
HDTracks sells individual tunes for $1.49, and you can buy albums for $12, which also gives you access to PDFs of the liner notes, album art, etc.
If you really want to exceed CD quality—and what audiophile doesn't?—there are several download services you should definitely check out. One of my favorite audiophile record labels is AIX. I've known the label's founder, Mark Waldrep, for many years—in fact, he recorded my final undergraduate trombone recital in 1981. Waldrep has always been passionate about audio quality, which is evident in every aspect of his work, from the recording equipment and techniques to the editing to the final mastering. The end result is some of the very best multichannel recordings I've ever heard.
A staunch advocate of multichannel DVD-A—and a harsh critic of applying the "HD" label to CD-quality audio—Waldrep now offers his catalog online at iTrax.com, which launched in November 2007. The service currently has 35 albums and 500-600 individual tracks available with no DRM, and you can select any of 21 different versions of each one to meet your specific needs—lossy and lossless codecs, 2-channel and 5.1-channel mixes (from either the audience or stage perspective), and so on. Each track costs between 80 cents and $3, depending on the parameters you select, and albums cost up to $35.
AIX just reached an agreement to add the Harmonia Mundi catalog to iTrax, which should be available in about a month. This venerable classical label adheres to the same strict quality standards that Waldrep insists on, so their offerings should sound sensational.
A number of high-end audio manufacturers offer their own high-res music services, among them Linn. Like AIX, Linn offers its tracks in a variety of codecs, from 320kbps MP3 to 96/24 FLAC. All tracks are 2-channel and DRM-free. Most of the selections are classical, jazz, and Scottish music—not surprising, since Linn is based in Scotland.
B&W, the well-regarded British speaker manufacturer, also offers a music download service called B&W Music Club. Launched in May of this year in collaboration with Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios, B&W Music Club is part of the company's Society of Sound, a Web community for audiophiles.
For a semi-annual subscription of $40 (or $60 per year), you get a specially commissioned album each month from Real World Studios; a 3-month free trial membership lets you download four tracks from each of three albums. B&W Music Club uses Apple Lossless Compression, which is compatible with iTunes and iPod, and all files are DRM-free.
I applaud the trend that combines the convenience of downloading with the quality of CD specs or better. Now, audiophiles can have their cake and eat it, too.
If you have an audio/video question for me, please send it to email@example.com.