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A Beginner’s Guide to High Resolution Downloads of Music

The trend to digital downloading of music files is definitely growing, but you no longer need to compromise audio quality in order to do so; there are even some surround sound options.

Published on March 11, 2012

A Beginner’s Guide to High Resolution Downloads of Music

Some readers may be interested to try downloads at higher than standard CD quality.  There is plenty of choice now with many websites offering FLAC files at qualities of 24/44.1, 24/96 and above that.

What’s better about high resolution sound?

You may notice comparing a 24 bit file with its 16 bit version:

1.  smoother high frequencies. Upper strings will sound less constricted;
2.  more depth to the sound stage;
3.  a more clearly defined acoustic with sharper instrument imaging.

Downloading and storing files

High resolution files are much bigger than CD quality (16/44.1) files.  The size of an hour’s worth of music at 24/96 will be about 1 gigabyte.  Once files are safely downloaded onto your computer’s hard drive they need to be backed up in case of drive failure or you will lose everything.

When files have been bought they may, in many instances, be retrieved from the company they were purchased from should a problem arise, but one’s own backups ought to be made.  If a plug-in hard drive is not at hand, the files for four albums at 24/96 may fit onto a backup DVD.  I have a double storage device in my network;  when I save files to it, they are automatically mirrored to a second drive in the unit giving added protection.  If these are of interest, look for drives which can be configured RAID 1.  Two popular makes I have used are made by Iomega and Western Digital.

Getting music from files

There are several ways to listen to music from purchased files.

1.  A high-quality sound card can be connected to any amplifier via a high quality DAC.  John Sunier uses a Benchmark DAC1.  Many DACs now have USB inputs to use with music servers or computers.

2.  A file-streaming device can be connected to your network and amplifier.  I am using a Musical Fidelity CliC.  Accessing the file you want is quick and easy with a few pushes of buttons on the remote control while you watch the display on the unit.  Some receivers and Blu-ray players can perform network streaming as well.

3.  The files can be burned to DVD and played on any DVD player which can output at 24/96. Check the manual of your player.  Several universal players (not Sony) can play DVD-A discs.  If you haven’t got a network device and don’t want to connect your computer physically to your sound system then burning DVDs to begin with at least may be a good way to start.

Software for burning audio DVDs

1.  If a DVD player is to be used, a stereo Digital Audio DVD disc (DAD) can be burned using “Audio DVD Creator” ($40).  The FLAC files need to be converted to WAV before the software is used.  Foobar or a similar program will do this.

2.  If DVD-Audio playback is included in your Universal Player,  a DVD-A disc can be burned using software from Circlinca, with prices starting at $45.  If your Blu-ray player offers high-quality sound playback, Circlinca has software for burning to a Blu-ray disc.  I have used Cirlinca’s software for burning to DVD-A and DAD for some years now;  it’s a quick and easy process.

Circlinca has the added benefit of a sufficiently lengthy trial period, which they encourage prospective purchasers to use before purchase, so several discs can be burned and auditioned before a decision is made.  Circlinca’s website offers a lot of useful and clear advice and instructions.

Suppliers of high resolution files of classical music

Those interested in starting listening to high resolution music from downloaded files can begin by downloading quite a selection of files free of charge from a variety of sites.

1.  The Classical Shop (theclassicalshop.net) stocks the complete Chandos catalogue and a wide variety of others.  Clicking on 24-bit will reveal two free Chandos files, on one of which Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays Debussy, the other being an excerpt from a Weinberg symphony.  Chandos also offers surround sound files for sale as well – Circlinca’s software will burn DVD-A or BD with surround sound.

2.  Linn (linnrecords.com) stocks the complete Linn catalogue as well as a wide variety of other labels.  Clicking on “download” then “download our testfiles” will reveal a couple.

3.  HDTracks (hdtracks.com) stocks Chesky, Reference Recordings and a wide variety of other labels.  Customers outside the U.S. won’t be able to download material.  However, entering the HiRes store on the site will reveal the “HDtracks 96/24 Ultimate Download Experience” consisting of five substantial tracks free of charge to anyone.

4.  HDTT (highdeftransfers.com) offers transfers from commercial reel-to-reel tape and LP at 24/96 or in many cases 24/192 as well.  Some feel these aren’t high resolution, but the definition is certainly, in my opinion, superior to a standard CD.  The very highest-quality gear is used for conversion of the analog music files to hi-res digital.  The store-front page has a link for downloading a track each from six albums at both 24/96 and 24/192.

5.  2L  (2L.no) is a Norwegian company which has been at the forefront of both high and very high resolution downloads and music on audio blu-ray disc. The store-front has a link to a very substantial number files at the “HiRes Download test-bench”.  In addition but beyond the scope of this article they offer DXD files and DSD files as well. (These are used by many labels for the original recordings for highest resolution.)

6.  Channel Classics (channelclassics.com) offers a “Try it now – free download of the moment” at various sample rates including 24/96.  Channel has also recently begun offering DSD downloads in stereo.

7.  Cybele  (cybele.de) is a German company which has many SACDs under its belt.  Click on “Equipment, software, download” to reach a small selection of sample files at various sample rates, including surround and DSD files.

8.  eClassical.com is a relatively new company offering much of the BIS catalogue as well as other labels.  High resolution BIS downloads include 24/44.1, 24/88.2 and 24/96 sampling.  Eclassical’s pricing structure is different – single file cost is determined by its time length, so 10 minutes of an 60 minute album costs one-sixth of the total price.  While no free files are offered that I can see, there is a 100% money back guarantee if you don’t like or can’t use what you download.  In addition, each day a different album is offered at half price and this may be at high resolution, and there are introductory offers where the high resolution is priced the same as CD quality.

9.  The Boston Symphony Orchestra (bso.org) offers recordings made by the BSO, some of which are available as downloads only.

10.  highresaudio.com is based in Germany and offers files from a variety of labels.

11.  qobuz.com is a French supplier of music files from a wide variety of labels, the high resolution ones found by clicking on Studio Master.  Clicking on “Magazine” on the home page transfers you the Magazine home page;  scrolling down, you will come across a free download of an album to test your DAC.

12.  Resonus (resonusclassics.com) is a new UK label with eight items in the catalogue.  While you can buy MP3 and CD-quality files through its website, high resolution 24/96 files are available from others, such as The Classical Shop and Linn.

13.  DaCapo  (dacapo-records.dk) offer their own recordings and some studio masters at 24/48 and 24/88.2. Under “Downloads” can be found a test track from their lovely recording “Romantic Violin Concertos” which I reviewed on this site.

14.  Gimell (gimell.com) is a UK label featuring The Tallis Scholars. Most download pages refer to the free test download files.

15.  Pristine Classical (pristineclassical.com) offers historical recordings up to 1961 transferred mainly from 78s and acetates,  but in a few cases from commercial reel-to-reel tapes.  These are at 24/44.1 upsampled to 24/48.  They also offer very convincing “Ambient Stereo” downloads.

16.  iTrax (itrax.com) offers their recordings and a variety of other labels, including Zenph Re-performances at high resolution and in surround. (Since Sony no longer releases the Zenph “re-performances” as SACDs, only as standard CDs.)

17.  Society of Sound (bowers-wilkins.co.uk) is based on an annual subscription of $60 for two selected high resolution downloads per month.

19.  Hyperion (hyperion-records.co.uk) is a long-established UK label.  The good news is that in a few week’s time  Hyperion will be offering a mixture of 24/44.1 24/88.2 and 24/96, depending on what was actually recorded, so keep a look-out for their Studio Masters.  I imagine they’ll have a few test files, too.

20.  Acousence (acousence.de) doesn’t offer downloads on their site; they’re supplied through Linn, but they do sell high resolution FLAC files up to 24/192 on a DVD, ready for streaming or burning.

21.  Naim Audio (naimlabel.com) offers high resolution downloads from 24/44.1 to 24/96.

22.  Analekta  (analekta.com) a Canadian label, offers some 24-bit downloads at 24/88.2 of recent material.

23.  Cedille  (cedillerecords.org) offers a selection of 24-bit downloads of their more recent recordings, though the sampling rate is not given.

24.  Hi-Fi Duino is a site for audio engineers working with audio chips—specifically the Arduino platform. But at http://hifiduino.wordpress.com/2011/01/25/free-hi-res-music-downloads/ they have free hi-res downloads.

25.  Let Loss makes audio power cables and filters, but their site offers many hi-res audiophile recordings, with some of them free, plus nearly 160 reviews. www.lessloss.com/high-resolution-audiophile-recordings-c-68.html

Many of the above sites also offer detailed help and advice pages about high resolution downloads.   If, after downloading a selection of sample files and listening via disc or network streaming and noticing a distinct improvement in sound quality, you may well become tempted to buy some hi-res files.

How hi-res should you go?

Unless you have extremely youthful hearing ability plus the highest-end speakers and audio gear, many of us feel that the improvement of 192K over 96K is inaudible.  The word length expansion from 16 bits to 24 bits makes a much greater enhancement in the sound.  24/96 or 24/88.2 is fine for nearly everything.  Also, remember that 192K and 176.4K files take up much more memory on hard drives, for little audible improvement.  [...Ed.]

How can you be sure you’re getting what it says on the tin?

There have been undoubtedly a few errors by labels uploading the wrong resolution file to their site;  errors, in my experience, are corrected quickly, and replacement files are provided.  A small minority of files will have been up-sampled to 24/96, for example, from a lower rate; if this has happened, it should state so clearly on the site.  As high resolution 24-bit files cost in general rather more than CD quality 16-bit, customers need to be confident that the 24-bit file began its life as a 24-bit recording at the sampling rate offered.

Some companies which offer 24-bit downloads will let you download the 16-bit FLAC and MP3 versions as a bonus as well.  Listening comparisons should reveal a noticeable difference in sound quality.

There have been a few instances of accusations of upsampling when none has happened – frequenters of the more toxic forums will have noticed feeding frenzies as soon as doubts about a recording’s provenance are suggested. Errors and unacknowledged resampling are rare – if you feel there’s been a mistake or you don’t feel you’ve gotten what you paid for, ask for confirmation or a refund.

Enjoy your discovery of high resolution downloads!

—Peter Joelson




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