There’s a riot goin’ on out there in music land, and most poor suckers don’t even know about it. For the past 25 years or so, mainstream music listeners have been steadily conditioned to listen to sub-par quality sound, trading out fidelity for convenience. While the so-called “red book” standard CD has indeed gotten better-sounding over the years, due to better recording technologies and mastering techniques at 24-bit resolution, the final result is inevitably going to be chopped down to 44.1 kHz and 16-bit resolution. That is just the way CDs work. MP3s reduce that information – and fidelity – even further.
There is no doubt in my mind that, by now, you have crossed paths with a friend like me who has extoled the virtues of higher-resolution audio sources, be it from SACD, DVD-Audio Disc, Blu-ray Disc, or good old vinyl LPs. Thus you are reading articles like this wondering whether it is time to invest, one more time, in better-quality music. You know the answer is a resounding yes!
The good news is that it’s not that hard to jump into the high-res waters. In fact, you may already have some of the gear you need to listen to these things. For the purposes of this article, we assume you are probably fairly far along in the game – that you know about ripping your CDs and getting them into iTunes and your portable devices. This article will briefly give you a quick “toe in the water” view into getting high-resolution audio into your life.
High-Res Discs: A Valid Option (for Some)
In the early part of the 2000s, two fine but competing high-resolution audio disc formats essentially counter-marketed themselves into commercial oblivion: Super Audio CD (SACD) and DVD-Audio. Curoiusly enough, both formats are still alive and showing surprising signs of life, meaning that new titles do get released in these formats … but more on that later. I’ll not be arguing the fine details of which disc format is better, as there are so many variables that such a discussion would ultimately amount to splitting hairs. Check your DVD or Blu-ray player’s instruction manual to see if it plays multiple disc formats and can decode different codecs. For example, if you have an OPPO or a Cambridge Blu-ray disc player, it should play all the formats and play them well. I can’t say enough about my trusty Oppo BD-83 player, which has been a great-sounding workhorse. I also have an inexpensive Sony Blu-ray player that plays SACDs (not surprising, since Sony was one of the inventors of the SACD format); it’s a functional player but does not operate with the efficiency of the OPPO.
Get Down with the HD Download
Did you even know that there are now high-definition, high-resolution downloads available? These are files that are, at minimum, twice the size of standard CDs, sampling the music at 88, 96, or 192 kHz in 24-bit depth. In short, higher resolution can translate into higher fidelity, depending on the source material used. If a quality master tape is transferred properly into high-res digital, it can arguably mirror the master tape very closely.
Some artists and labels are starting to make these available on a case-by-case basis. Most exciting is the website HDTracks.com – run by the legendary David Chesky – which features a remarkable number of major-label titles across a wide range music categories and genres. If you like getting your music digitally, now is a fine time to start upgrading your collection. More on that process later.
Initially, I found it daunting to try to figure out how to get into high-res downloads, as I’d heard you needed some special outboard hardware and a special player to handle certain files and yada yada yada. However, after diving into it, I found out it was a lot easier than I’d been led to believe. The one piece of gear you’ll need is a DAC, or Digital-to-Analog Converter. These black boxes contain various and sundry electronics of different quality levels and performance that will process the sound, translating it from a digital form to an analog signal that traditional amplifiers and receivers can process, in a dedicated manner to avoid artifacts that can crop up otherwise, especially if you are playing off of a computer that is not designed specifically for handling music (the resultant effect of those artifacts being less-than-wonderful sound).
I myself started small and purchased my first DAC based on the recommendation of CNET reviewer Steve Guttenberg’s review of the AudioEngine D1 DAC. For about $170, this DAC has been a solid performer at taking control of the audio output from my iMac – the native computer audio processing is overriden – and then translating the digital files into some sweet-sounding music that simply plugs into an auxilliary input on the back of my Denon 3802 AV receiver. The AudioEngine D1 can handle digital audio at sample rates/bit depths up to 192 kHz and 24 bits. For under $200, it’s a nice audiophile upgrade for digital audio playback.
Of course, when shopping for DACs, you can easily go higher into the price and performance stratosphere. Make a quick visit to sites like MusicDirect.com, and you will find DACs from fine manufacturers like Meridian, Music Hall, Pro-Ject, PS Audio, Benchmark, Marantz, and many more at prices ranging upwards of $7,000! Some newer high-end home theater AV receivers even have very high-quality DACs built in to them, so check your gear. You may already be able to handle these formats and not even know it. You might be able to connect your gear to the Web, or at least play your favorite music from convenient and inexpensive USB flash-drive memory sticks.
Getting on Track with FLAC
Assuming you will be playing music from your computer, you’ll need some sort of player that can handle the high-resolution files. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the wide range of options for setting up one’s computer to handle high-resolution files. Being on a Mac myself, I can tell you that this was the most confusing part of the process. However, by searching numerous online forums and talking with some friends, I was able to figure things out. There are some simple settings you need to adjust. On the Mac, a key setting that enables 96/24 audio playback is buried in the Audio Midi settings. Go figure.
While iTunes can be used for playing high-res audio in WAV and AIFF formats, most HD downloads I’ve obtained come in the FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) format, which is sort of a compression scheme enabling quicker downloads. iTunes does not yet support FLAC. If you really want to use iTunes as your primary player for playback, even when downloading FLAC files, you will need to use some other sort of program to manage the playback. Fortunately, there are numerous options out there, and I encourage you to experiment, as most seem to have free trials you can check out before purchasing. I tried Channel D’s Pure Music and Sonic Studio’s Amarra. Both work pretty well with minute differences in sonic performance, as well as in user interface.
Curiously enough, the option I have settled in on is actually a free player created as an open-source project by volunteers, called VLC Media Player, offered by the VideoLAN Organization. Simple and effective, this option was the most hassle-free in terms of ease of use and real-world functionality. Just open up the app, drag and drop the FLAC files you want to hear, and you are on your way. I also like this player because it lets you access media information to confirm whether you are listening to a file that is indeed high-res (or at least marked as such). There are versions for Mac and PC, and did I mention that it’s free?
Speaking of the PC, if you are looking for something more elaborate, there are a number of robust music-management software programs available that can turn your PC into a useful server, including Media Monkey, Sonata, and J-River.
Dedicated Server Hardware
Of course, if you want to go higher-end, the sky is the limit; it is up to you to decide just how far you want to travel. For example, if you have about $30,000 to spare, you can get one of the Kaleidescape systems, which will allow you to stream Blu-ray-quality audio and video all over the house from one central server. It provides a glorious interface that you can even control from your iPad or iPhone. It is very cool, but it is expensive.
Some Thoughtful Advice
As I tend to write for a broader audience than the exclusive group of uber-audiophiles who have the budget and space to get the boutique audio products, my recommendation is to start simply (as I did) and see how you like high-resolution digital audio. Put your toes in the water with an under-$500 DAC from Audioengine, Music Hall, or whichever brand you have learned to trust. Give it a try using your computer for your audio needs. See how much you like the sound and whether you like the process of managing audio files, as opposed to physical discs. Go visit HDTracks.com and download the free sampler. HDTracks.com also has a lot of useful technical information there to help you on your particular downloading journey, including links to numerous players.
Personally, I find discs a much simpler way to manage my music, given the sheer size of my collection (which involves about 5,000 LPs, 5,000 or so CDs, hundreds of surround sound audio discs, 45 RPM singles, 78 RPM discs, and now hundreds of albums in digital file formats like FLAC). I personally like that everything is backed up in a firm physical format that, barring some natural disaster, should remain in good condition as long as I take good care of them.
This brings me to another important point that many people overlook until it is too late: you’ll need to buy and install a backup hard drive or two. High-resolution audio takes up a lot of disc space. So you’ll probably want at least one backup drive to keep the music from overtaking your computer. I tend to keep a certain amount of music on my main drive, and then periodically I will offload music to a backup drive. And then I back up that drive. Yes, I back up the backup. Obsessive? Not really. It’s a smart thing to do. Just talk to anyone who has lost their entire digital music collection when a hard drive or iPod crashed (or was stolen), and there was no backup when the backup failed at a critical moment. In these days of inexpensive terabyte hard drives, there’s no reason not to become obsessive about backing up your beloved music files, especially if you are going to start spending $20 a pop on tracks from HDTracks or other sources.
Where to Start?
HDTracks has been doing a pioneering job of bringing high-resolution music to the masses in resolutions up to 192 kHz and 24-bit. Many of these releases indeed sound fantastic, although quality does vary from release to release, depending largely on what the labels provide. If the labels take the time to deliver a genuinely high-resolution digitization off the best possible master tapes, then the sound will be great. If the music is grabbed off a slave copy or if a high-resolution version isn’t available, the sound will be only as good as what is provided. Files presented at 44.1 kHz and 16-bit will sound like a CD for the most part. Some files at 48 kHz and 24-bit can sound a whole lot better. Keep a watch for my column on Audiophilereview.com, where I periodically review high-resolution albums from HDTracks; when feasible, I will compare and contrast them to other sources, such as LP, SACD, DVD-Audio, and Blu-ray.
What’s really cool about the growth of HDTracks is that the site is now featuring lots of great new artists, as well as legacy recordings that have previously not seen the light of day in high resolution. Here is a quick rundown of some titles that jumped out at me. Again, these are all in at least 96/24, and some are in 192/24 resolution:
Daft Punk: Random Access Memories
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Michael Buble: To Be Loved
Green Day: American Idiot
Depeche Mode: Delta Machine, Speak & Spell, A Broken Frame, Black Celebration
Flaming Lips: The Terror
Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow
Prince: Around the World in a Day
Madonna: Like a Virgin, True Blue, Who’s That Girl
The Smiths: The Complete Smiths (all except The Queen Is Dead are 96/24)
Michael Jackson: Thriller
Elvis Costello: National Ransom
I have all of these HDTracks downloads and have been very pleased with them:
Stevie Wonder: Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life
Velvet Underground: Eponymous 3rd album
Yes: The Yes Album
Nico: Chelsea Girl
Bettye LaVette: Thankful and Thoughtful
The Beach Boys: SMiLE
Issac Hayes: Hot Buttered Soul
Aaron Neville: My True Story
Here are some SACDs and DVD-Audio discs you may want to check out:
Lavinia Meijer (Harpist) / Philip Glass – SACD with 5.0 surround mix
Beck, Sea Change – DVD-Audio with 5.1 surround mix
King Crimson, Discipline – CD+DVD-Audio deluxe edition with 5.1 surround mix
The Beatles, Love – CD+DVD-Audio deluxe edition with 5.1 surround mix
Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and At War With The Mystics – CD+DVD-Audio deluxe edition with 5.1 surround mixes plus loads of extras
Herbie Hancock, Gershwin’s World – SACD with 5.1 surround mix
Gary Burton, Like Minds – SACD with 5.1 surround mix
Pat Metheny, Imaginary Dream – DVD-Audio with 5.1 surround mix
David Crosby, If I Could Only Remember My Name – DVD-Audio with 5.0 surround mix
High-Res Stereo SACDs:
Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet
The Kinks, Muswell Hillbillies
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
Vince Guaraldi, A Charlie Brown Christmas
Thelonius Monk with John Coltrane
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
Oscar Peterson, The Way I Really Play
Blu-ray Discs (mostly audio-only, but some include video):
Pat Metheny, Orchestrion with 5.1 mix
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill
Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here & Dark Side of the Moon – boxed sets with 5.1 and quadrophonic mixes
Jethro Tull, Aqualung – 40th Anniversary boxed set with 5.1 mix
Tom Petty, Mojo with 5.1 mix
AIX All Stars, Goldberg Variations Acoustica
Yes, Symphonic Live with 5.1 mix
Rush, Moving Pictures with 5.1 mix
* Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T, and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, AudiophileReview.com, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine, and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician/composer whose songs have been used in TV shows like Smallville and Men in Trees, as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written. www.smotroff.com
By Mark Smotroff, HomeTheaterReview