ClassicsOnline.com, an online digital music download site that specializes in classical music, announced their new upgraded site will be called ClassicsOnlindHD.com and will launch in April. High-resolution classical music just inched away from downloading in favor of streaming. The announcement would seem to be great news for fans of classical music. Using a technology called “adaptive bitrate”, ClassicsOnlineHD claims that their new site will measure up to the standards of high-resolution audio. Here are a couple of paragraphs from their press release:
“We are excited to announce our new high-definition and lossless classical music streaming and download site – ClassicsOnline HD•LL – which will supersede the existing ClassicsOnline.com effective April 1, 2015 – when purchasing at ClassicsOnline.com will be completely disabled.
All ClassicsOnline HD•LL albums will be available for download in a variety of 16-bit ‘lossless’ CD-quality files (ALAC, WAV, and AIFF), in addition to mp3 files. Many of the albums will also be available in 24-bit ‘HD’ master tape-quality files.”
The first thing I noticed was their adoption of the term “High-Definition” rather than “High-Resolution”. I was an every early advocate of using HD-Audio because of its familiarity and similarity to HD-Video but other forces were pushing high-resolution, so I decided to go along. If you actually go out and do a search, there are more HD-Audio references than HRA…but that horse has already left the barn.
The other curious wording in the quote above is the acknowledgement that most of the 60,000 albums that ClassicsOnlineHD.com will be offering are CD specification files. The fact that most (even up to 90%) of the recordings offered on any high-resolution site are in reality transfers of standard definition analog tapes or rips of CDs means that only a special few albums are available as real high-definition tracks (hello PonoMusic). The folks at ClassicsOnlineHD chose to describe their best offerings as “24-bit ‘HD’ master tape-quality files”.
As a knowledgeable audio enthusiast and experienced engineer and record producer, I don’t know what a 24-bit “HD” master tape-quality file is. Like other less informed consumers, I’d venture a guess that the delivery files will all have PCM word lengths that are 24-bits long…regardless of the dynamic range of the source files. And as far as “master tape-quality” goes, perhaps that means that the record label’s analog master tape (after editing, mixing and mastering) has been newly transferred to a large PCM bit bucket. Doesn’t this limit the quality of the so-called “HD” copy to the fidelity of the source analog tape…and isn’t that a far cry from a recording that was made in high-definition at the time of the original sessions? I think so…in fact, I know so.
I would embrace ClassicsOnline.com’s new strategy if they would just leave the “HD” part out of their description. They…and plenty of others…must think that by including the letters “HD” in their marketing materials that consumers will believe that the older recordings will be new and improved. Sadly, they will only be as good as the sources.
So what about the streaming part of the announcement? It’s based on an adaptive technology that Orastream has been pitching for at least 3-4 years. The press release says:
“ClassicsOnline HD•LL uses ‘adaptive bitrate’ streaming technology, allowing you to listen to classical music at the highest possible sound quality available on your home or mobile networks without interruptions from buffering. The streaming technology delivers sound quality ranging from 16-bit, 44.1 kHz all the way up to 24 bit 192 kHz, achieving a much broader dynamic range and increasing the amount of detail the human ear can hear, especially during quieter passages of music.”
The Orastream approach uses “MP4 SLS” that changes the bitrate according to what your wired or wireless network can deliver. In order to get lossless stereo 192 kHz/24-bit lossless PCM audio streamed to your DAC, you’d need to have over 8 Mbps or about the same data rate that I have coming down over fiber into my building (I have 10 megs up and down). To imagine that this sort of bandwidth is going to be available to your audio playback system (or portable device) is wishful thinking. This is where the “adaptive bitrate” technology comes in. If the bandwidth required for high-definition streaming isn’t available, then the protocol calls for throttling back the bitrate. Unless you monitor this migrating bandwidth, you’ll never know what audio quality you’re getting. I have monitored it and noticed that most of the time you’ve going to listening to less than CD quality. But that is still the “highest possible sound quality” so the PR is accurate.
And finally, we should remember that putting 60,000 albums from analog masters into a 192 kHz/24-bit PCM bucket doesn’t deliver, “a much broader dynamic range and increasing the amount of detail the human ear can hear, especially during quieter passages of music.” In fact, the dynamic range and the amount of sonic detail will be the same as it always was.
To be fair, some of the labels that are distributed on the ClassicsOnline site are making new high-resolution recordings. I know Naxos and Chandos have been using high-resolution PCM for many years.
In order to get the best possible sound, you should avoid streaming and secure the files you want as downloads…at least until MQA happens.