Most of my thirty-five years working in the music business has been primarily in the world of classical, soundtracks, and Broadway recordings, where serious collectors and “deep catalog” have long been the driving forces behind the business. And as the industry has shifted from physical CDs to music downloads a critical concern of mine has been whether a “collectors mentality” could develop within consumers for digital downloads as had previously existed with CDs and LPs. I always considered cassette tapes to have been a “disposable” format for “time shifting” to cars or portable players and my fear was that downloads could be replacing cassettes rather than CDs. Have you ever walked into the home of a serious music collector and seen a wall of cassettes?
Around eight years ago I burned over 15,000 tracks from my collection onto a hard drive. This was done both for the obvious convenience and portability of an iPod but also as an experiment to see how I took to the concept of “collecting” digital files (rather than the traditional “wall of CDs” in my library). At that time I also began buying and collecting digital downloads from iTunes and later Amazon.com.
I quickly came around to loving SOME of the aspects of digital file collecting.
But I still had ONE BIG OBVIOUS PROBLEM…
The sound quality of music files bought online seriously sucked!
Today I own a small but high quality recording studio in the Catskills, but I “grew up” in the business as the sales and marketing guy for Bob Woods and Jack Renner at Telarc in the 1980s. I was also a major supporter of the SACD (Super Audio CD) in my later gigs at Sony and BMG long after most of the major labels had walked away from the format. So I’ve always been something of a sound “geek” and I have never understood why a business that had been moving FORWARD in audio quality for over one hundred years had taken such a step backward with the sound quality of digital downloads.
Fortunately, the Chesky brothers (long famous for the high quality sound of their own label) felt the same way and have developed a music download store called HDtracks. At HDtracks, downloads start with a minimal standard of AT LEAST “CD quality” but also they offer 96/24 resolution files and beyond. In other words, downloads that SURPASS CD quality! And if THAT isn’t enough to satisfy the “collectors mentality” in consumers they also provide the complete CD liner notes as well as the cover artwork as digital files with every “album” purchased. So there are no longer any compromises between digital downloads and compact discs.
I quickly learned however, that there were easy and relatively inexpensive solutions which would allow me to play the HD downloads on my master computer in my office through my home theater system in the next room.
I bought an inexpensive (around $100) “Apple TV” unit online at the Apple store which easily connects to most quality audio equipment (such as audio components from PS Audio) and uses my home WI-FI system to “beam” my music from my master hard drive to my home theater. Plus it streams HD movies online from Apple or Net Flicks as a bonus!
The HDtracks files come in a FLAC format but by using inexpensive software called “Max” (or many other converter downloads available online) the files are easily converted with no loss in quality to either WAVE files which can be played on PS Audio Players or AIFF files that can be played through Apple iTunes. And I can now also SEE the “album” covers on my television screen while the music is playing and quickly and easily search through my entire collection using the “Apple TV” remote control. And it works GREAT!
The one issue I would caution you on is that the Apple TV will not play high resolution audio out of it’s analog outputs or its digital outputs to a DAC. The ATV is great to give you a taste of what it’s like to have a digital storage collection and, connected to a high-end DAC, standard redbook CD’s sound terrific, although they are not high resolution coming out of the device. You can use the ATV as a convenient storage device with cover art on the TV and as long as you use iTunes to play the tracks, you’re good to go.
To music fans not familiar with high definition recordings I can best describe it as being similar to the quality improvement of HD TV or perhaps the difference between a magazine photograph over the lower quality found in daily newspapers. It’s a major leap forward in definition, realism and depth. One listening to the opening cowbell of Honky Tonk Woman from The Rolling Stones or Beethoven’s seventh symphony from Carlos Kleiber on Deutsche Grammophon and you WILL be convinced. And on HDtracks there is an enormous selection from which to choose (with more new releases offered every week).
When Sony and Philips first developed the CD there were two criteria that dictated the format. Sony wanted the time limitation to be the length of the complete Beethoven 9th symphony (around 78 minutes) while Philips wanted the physical size to be able to fit into a standard automobile dashboard “radio” space. But without today’s compression technology they were forced to go to a resolution rate of only 16 bits. Which unfortunately limited the digital sonic possibilities for decades. But now with today’s 24/96 (and beyond) recordings being available as downloads, digital audio has finally truly reached it’s full potential.
The future of music collecting can be found today at www.HDtracks.com