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HD Tracks & Hi-Resolution Audio: Why We Support it — and So Should You!

by January 25, 2015

You could be forgiven for believing we’re entering an age where streaming music services are taking over. Today, hyper-compressed online music distribution services like Spotify, Pandora and Rdio are being rewarded by ever-increasing listenerships and are fast becoming the norm. It’s just as David Bowie famously predicted back in 2002:

Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity...” 

Music has indeed become no more than a utility for millions of subscribers to all-you-can-eat streaming services. Streaming music comes at a cost to fidelity due to compression. Meanwhile, less-than-ideal licensing arrangements keep certain artists conspicuously absent from some service libraries. Taylor Swift’s recent war with Spotify is just one high-profile example.

But the option for consumers to buy their own hand-selected, high quality musical recordings is far from extinct. For a dedicated few there’s an opposing trend toward good sound, a possible reaction to the utilification of music and that trend includes building your own library of high resolution digital audio from sources like HD Tracks.

High End Digital Downloads

A return to quality audio is good news for listeners whether it’s analog vinyl records or high-end digital recordings. Advances in technology have conspired in recent years to remove the barriers and make it easy. 

High-resolution audio, the kind that used to be the exclusive domain of DVD-Audio and SACD disc formats, remains a cottage industry but has become easy to find online. Pervasive high speed Internet has removed the incentive to stick to the 128-bit MP3 as the ad-hoc standard for digital downloads. 

Cheap multi-terabyte hard drives and Wireless N technology means we no longer fret over storage or bandwidth. Meanwhile DLNA/UPNP have become standard features for set-top boxes that can also stream Netflix.

Advances in processors, touch-screens and solid state storage means digital playback devices are more affordable than ever — some even double as a telephone.

Fierce competition in the headphone market over the last few years has driven sound quality ever upwards and purchase price down. Those cheap earbuds that came with your cell phone are a still a major chokepoint in the quality of your music-listening experience. But for those few who dare to upgrade, high quality headphones have never been more affordable. 

As Winston Churchill might have said:

“Never in the field of audio technology has so much been available to so many, appreciated by so few.”

HD Tracks

Although the now defunct SACD and DVD-Audio discs are hard to find, hi-res audio is alive and well online. And the market’s undisputed heavyweight champion of the world is an audiophile, music composer, audio technologist and record producer — David Chesky and his audio store HD Tracks.

HD Tracks seems like a natural evolution for the Chesky brothers, David and Norman, who founded Chesky records. The independent record company started in the late 1970s with a commitment to the highest quality musical recordings. Then in the late 2000s the brothers Chesky founded HD Tracks as an online music store dedicated to delivering master quality digital music files. 

You can see a trend... the Cheskys really love music.

HD Tracks is the number-one source of high resolution music online with a huge library of music to fit any taste. You can download albums or individual tracks in 96kHz or 192kHz at 24-bit sampling rates and in a variety of DRM-free file formats including AIFF, ALAC, WAV and FLAC. 

Neil Young Pono PlayerEarlier in the month we saw several new portable music players designed specifically for hi-res files demonstrated at CES 2015. For consumers and consumer electronics companies it looks like 2015 might be the year of hi-res listening. 

The distinctly Toblerone-shaped Pono player built famously as a Kickstarter by Canadian classic rock artist Neil Young was among the attendees at this year’s CES. Pono is the result of Young’s long history of trying to improve digital music. Before Steve Jobs death in 2011 Young claims to have discussed a collaboration with Apple on an iPod-like digital music player specifically for hi-res music files. 

We were working on it,” Young says. “Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. But when he went home, he listened to vinyl. And you’ve gotta’ believe that if he’d lived long enough, he would eventually have done what I’m trying to do.”

Sony also has a variety of Walkman-branded high res music players ranging in price from $300-$1200. All of these players are portable with relatively high-current headphone amplification but also feature outputs for your home audio system.

Is Hi-Res Another Audio Snake Oil?

In many consumer electronics circles the value of hi-res audio remains a controversy. So, let’s look at the problem some have with the format in detail. 

The most popular audio compression format is MP3, which you may have heard strips your music down to as little as 5% of the original size. That’s simply a rip-off, a holdover from a time when storage and bandwidth were at a premium. But today the 128-bit MP3 is obsolete,yet many consumers continue to download them simply because they don’t know that better-sounding alternatives are available. 

You wouldn’t go out to lunch and pay full price for 5% of your burger would you? 

We won’t dive into sampling and bit-rates here. There are articles that can provide those details if you’re interested in a quick overview.

Pono Player Snake Oil?The digital sampling rate of analog sound used for the CD-quality standard is 44.1 kHz/16-bit and this is at about the limits of human hearing, meaning the human ear probably can’t reliably tell if analog sound is sampled at a greater frequency, but the human ear can hear the difference if that sound is sampled at a lower frequency or lossily compressed.

Hi-res audio recordings (DVD-Audio/SACD and hi-res digital download files such as those available at HD Tracks) up the ante to 96 or 192kHz at 24-bit sampling rates.

To many, upping the sampling rate well beyond human hearing capabilities might seem over the top. But the question here isn’t, “Why go hi-res?” But rather , “Why not?”

Gizmodo’s Mario Aguilar recently went after the Pono player, recommending his readers not buy the device and accused purveyors of the benefits of high-resolution audio as peddling anti-science. 

In his article Aguilar cites a 2007 Journal of the Audio Engineering Society article by Brad Meyer and David Moran (both also key members of the nationally-influential Boston Audio Society) who conducted A/B testing between CD-quality audio (44.1 kHz) and hi-res (up to 192 kHz) to see if a panel of listeners could hear the difference. 

In double-blind testing, hi-resolution audio failed to be identified with any greater consistency than random chance.  So, does that mean it’s not worth building a hi-res media library? Of course not!

One of the problems with Aguilar’s conclusions based on the 2007 study is that Meyer and Moran compared CD-quality with hi-res audio quality. But that comparison is not the reality of the consumer market today.

A preferred comparison would be hi-res audio vs. the 128 or 256-bit MP3. People are paying money online for streaming audio and digital downloads that are missing data for no good reason.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who couldn’t identify the difference between an MP3 and the original CD or a hi-res audio file.

Potential chokepoints in fidelity are distributed relatively evenly across your playback chain from the original studio session in which the sound was recorded all the way to your speakers reproducing that original session. 

Hi-res audio, by the numbers, can only ensure that part of that chain doesn't introduce any acoustic deficiencies. But, it’s more than likely that a hi-res recording is part of a remaster (of the original CD release) using only the highest quality source such as original master tapes from which most HD Tracks are produced.

Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. But when he went home, he listened to vinyl.

The low quality of so many CD releases lead to a series of remasters of most classic albums. 

As David Chesky pointed out when he spoke to us at Audioholics, the sampling rate is only one small part of the total sound the listener hears. It really takes more than a hi-res sampling rate to make your music sound great. 

So, a hi-res audio file can be seen simply as short-hand for an audio recording that has been obsessively remastered to digital. Forget the numbers, trust your ears. When it comes to building your library of truly audiophile-grade digital music,HD Tracks is a critical resource.

Binaural+ Series

Ultimate Headphone DemoHD Tracks’ sister company Chesky Records has been committed to pushing technology to recreate an audible 3-dimensional space since its inception in the late 70s.

One of the key features of HD Tracks library is Chesky Records’ own Binaural+ technology.

"We want to capture a performance and put you there. These recordings have the spatial feel of actual performances because we record only in concert spaces: churches, halls, and other real, three-dimensional spaces," Said David Chesky.

Binaural+ was developed by David Chesky in cooperation with Dr. Edgar Choueiri from the physics department of Princeton University.

Rather than recording sessions in a studio where emphasis is on deadening the acoustic profile, Binaural+ recordings are designed to capture the ambiance of the venue in which the sessions was recorded. The results are amazing!

Cheskey Records Binauaral+ series are recording sessions made with the help of a special microphone "dummy" affectionately known as Lars. Lars is a replica of a human head with microphones for inner ears. 

Using the dummy is no gimmick, the intention is to capture the acoustics of live environments as they are heard by humans, not recording studios. Chesky’s goal with Binaural+ technology was no less than to acoustically put the listener into the venue.

If you’ve got a good set of headphone rig (dac, amp decent pair of headphones) designed for listening you owe it to yourself to try Dr. Chesky’s Ultimate Headphone Demonstration Disc

It can be downloaded at HD Tracks in full 192-kHz/24-bit glory. The collection is packed with 59 tracks that include key music sessions featuring a variety of musical styles but the meat of the collection are the tests using Binaural+ that will give stereo headphones full surround capabilities.

The standout for me was hearing front/rear and height effects. The Binaural recordings can produce sound fully three-dimensional sound over regular stereo headphones. But the test tracks are narrated by a helpful guide to tell you what effect or frequency you’re about to hear and you can decide for yourself if your headphones reveal every detail. No special surround headphones or software are required.

If you like what you hear from the demo disc compilation you can browse HD Tracks Binaural+ collection for music that suits your taste.

Besides the Binaural+ series, HD Tracks has one of the biggest online libraries of downloadable music available. You can find nearly any artist of any genre that has ever produced hi-res recordings.

Each file is sampled at high resolution that emphasizes true dynamic range and natural frequency response. While the recording quality, tone and timbre will vary album-by-album, you can be assured you’re getting the best possible remaster of that album that has ever been produced. 

Among the HD Tracks library is an Audiophile Picks category where you’ll find only the most legendary recordings. HD Tracks also has current music categories like the 2015 Grammy Nominees which yes, even includes Taylor Swift—take that, Spotify.

Conclusion

These days, all the scalability and convenience of digital music can be enjoyed without downgrading your collection to MP3 or one of its proprietary relatives. We at Audioholics recommend that hi-res files from a trusted source like HD Tracks should be an important part of building that library. We’ve heard the criticisms of hi-res music and completely understand. But calling the kind of high quality digital transfers you get from HD Tracks "hi-res" is unfortunate. Sampling and bit-rate is only the tip of an iceberg of obsessiveness that goes into the production of most hi-res music files just as it did for SACD and DVD-Audio remasters. 

We can’t emphasize enough that you need to check out Chesky’s Binaural+ collection available at HD Tracks. We don’t just say this because of the high-resolution digital transfer properties. With today’s commercial recording industry stuck in the trap of an ongoing loudness war, your ears won’t believe what they’ve been missing when you get to hear recordings that bring back the lost arts of dynamic range and frequency response. I’ll just say you’re welcome in advance.

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About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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