I am ready for the future of music. The new future, that is, not the current one. Sure, streaming services like Spotify, MOG, Pandora, the yet-to-be launched iTunes Radio, and all the other ones—hey, anybody remember Rhapsody? It's 12 years young!—are nifty, and especially useful for on-the-go listening and discovery. But here's the thing: I'm tired of reducing music to just a background soundtrack. Sometimes, I want to really listen to music, closely. It's all part of my belated effort to rediscover a shred of inner peace. (The yoga didn't take.)
To do that, I find that I need a form of music reproduction that is melodious to my ears. And despite the convenience of highly compressed music codecs like MP3s or AACs, audio fidelity is not one of their strengths. Play them on a real set of speakers, and their thin, lifeless sound is a lot more apparent than when being piped directly into your eardrums while you work out at the gym. Of course, there are also FLAC and Apple Lossless codecs, which sound much better (and are much larger in file size). But when throttled back to CD-era specs of 16-bit/44.1 kHz, they still do not sound as good as the old-new thing, vinyl records. So: How do we get the listening sensation of analog and the convenience of digital? Join me now for a toe-dipping adventure into 24-bit high-resolution files.
First, this disclaimer: All forms of music reproduction are just approximations of reality. Every device and format is the result of the best guesses of engineers—no matter how precise their underlying science may be, every player that gets churned out of a factory and every file emitted from a computer program create just a semblance of the real performance. Some most certainly sound better than others, but no matter how awesome you may think a particular piece of gear is, there will be scores of naysayers who'll condemn it with a resounding "meh." In the online arena of audiophile debate, there is no absolute good or bad—just whatever playback system pleases you at this particular moment in time.
Consequently, there's plenty of debate over the value of using 24-bit files for music. Even the creator of the Ogg Vorbis codec, the Xiph.Org Foundation, has posted an article discounting the very idea that higher sampling rates will result in improved reproduction that's noticeable by human ears (see "24/192 Music Downloads ... and why they make no sense" at people.xiph.org). But for me, 24-bit files sound better than 16-bit files—less edgy, more detailed, easier to listen to for longer periods of time. And that's good enough for me.
While you can still get hi-res music in physical media, it's simply not that easy to find anymore. DVD-Audio discs are nearly extinct, though Walmart (!) is selling a fairly recent best-of DVD-A by Lynyrd Skynyrd (!) mixed for surround sound (!). Meanwhile, Super Audio CD has been abandoned by its creator, Sony, but it's still fervently pursued by small boutique labels with expensive archival releases found only at online stores. Sony has made an even more half-hearted (quarter-hearted?) effort to launch Blu-ray music discs, with even weaker results. So the main source for hi-res music is online, and for official releases, the predominant site is HDtracks.com.
Formed by David and Norman Chesky of Chesky Records (an audiophile label that used to issue physical media), HDtracks.com undoubtedly carries the largest selection of 24-bit music in a variety of formats, from AIFF to FLAC. You can find everything from hi-res Elvis Presley and Prince to Wayne Shorter and ZZ Top. And it's not just "oldies" on tap; since just about every contemporary album is recorded in 24-bit nowadays, it's much easier to release them in hi-res—so, yes, John Mayer fans, now you hear his voice as God intended. Sort of. Do these releases live up to the site's own hype? "There is no better way to hear recorded music on this planet than hearing an HDtracks hi res file played back via your computer or your digital music server with a good pair of speakers," claims HDtrack.com's About Us. But it's difficult to tell definitively.
The most important steps in reaching high fidelity in music reproduction are actually the mixing and mastering—if executed well by people who know what they're doing, then just about any format can sound at least "good." Unfortunately, record labels today are engaged in what's become known as "the loudness wars"—compressing their releases ever more so the music simply blasts out of those ear buds, at the expense of dynamic range. Even at 24 bits, a crappily mastered album is still going to sound crappy. But HDtracks.com doesn't always tell you the mastering details behind its tracks, so buying a download can be a leap of faith at times.
While jazz label Blue Note's files have a pure pedigree (mastered by premier engineers Alan Yoshida or Bernie Grundman from original master tapes), others, like Stone Temple Pilots' debut album, have nada info. So, I can confirm that Kenny Dorham's Afro-Cuban sounds fantastic—I was confident enough to pay $24.98 for it and was rewarded with what is the best available version. Unlike many of Blue Note's own CD releases, the treble hasn't been jacked up to produce more detail—the cymbals still sizzle, but naturally so—and the sound overall is much more organic. STP, I will never know.
Of course, once you download a hi-res file, you must be able to play it. And—sorry!—your computer speakers probably suck. So you'll need to get a nice pair of those to plug in. And your music-player program must be able to output 24-bit files, otherwise what's the point? So double-check your settings. And if you're streaming your music to your stereo system via Apple's Airplay, forget about it—Airplay will down-res files to 16/44.1. So you'll need an audiophile streaming app. Oh, and about that Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) that's built-in to your computer or portable player? It probably sucks, too. So you'll need one of those.
Welcome to high-fidelity music!