HRA Solutions: Step 3

There are problems with the emerging “high-res” audio/music marketplace. I think anyone in the game acknowledges that there’s push back, confusion, and other problems confronting every aspect of so-called “high-res”. I just noticed an article over at Sound and Vision titled, “Five Portable Hi-Res DACs Compared”. The author is kind enough to list the audio files that he auditioned to judge the competing DACs and listed the following as “Test Tracks Hi-Res”:

• Donald Fagen: “Maxine,” The Nightfly (FLAC 48/24)
• Nataly Dawn: “How I Knew Her,” How I Knew Her (FLAC 88.2/24)
• Deep Purple: “Smoke on the Water,” Machine Head (FLAC 96/24)
• Saint-Saëns: Maestoso, Allegro, Symphony No. 3; Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Munch (FLAC 192/24)

With the single possible exception of the Nataly Dawn tune, ALL of the rest of these tracks are not high-resolution! So even a writer at Sound and Vision isn’t hip to the realities of acquiring real audiophile quality high-res music tracks. The two pop/rock tracks were recorded on analog multitracks and the classical selection was recorded in 1956! It would have been refreshing to see at least one new audiophile recording included in the list.

So there are problems…

Number 3 in my list of things that the powers that be should be considering is pricing. I firmly believe that most of the so-called “high-res” music downloads should cost no more than the CD spec version. If the audiophiles that shop at HDtracks and PonoMusic have a hard time hearing any differences in fidelity between HD vs. CD, then why should the cost of the “hi-res” downloads be so much higher than the CDs?

Just moments ago, I went to Amazon to learn a little about the Nataly Dawn record. I was surprised to see the prices associated with the various versions…including MP3, CD and even vinyl LP. Here’s the actual screen with the prices:


Figure 1 – A screen capture of Nataly Dawn’s album on Amazon…notice the prices!

The lossy MP3 file is priced at just under $10. The CD is about half of that ($4.45) and the vinyl LP is almost $30! The best fidelity of the bunch is the cheapest. If you want a used CD, you can spend less than a dollar. It’s crazy.

But no crazier than the pricing for “high-res music”. Prices range from under $20 to almost $50 for an album of so-called “high-res” music. It’s impossible to justify charging more for DSD files of PCM transfers…but plenty of sites do it. Why? Because they can and DSD lovers will appreciate the “warm” analog like sound. I recognize that asking companies to equalize their prices goes against the spirit of business but something’s got to change.

For those reselling the past in “high-res” bit buckets that have been transferred from standard-definition analog tapes from 40-50 years ago, the price should reflect the price of that same content in standard-definition. Why can’t ProStudioMasters or SuperHiRez sell the major label albums at $10.98 or $14.98? Because the licensing deals won’t allow it. There are minimums that have to be met. I mentioned it the other day…anytime you see a discount from one of the big high-res download sites; the discount percentage is coming from their hide not the licensor.

The big record labels are gouging their licensees and they in turn price the “hi-res” content much higher than it should cost. I have no problem with audiophile labels like my own AIX, 2L, Blue Coast or Pentatone charging more for new recordings that actually are high-res music, but even there the pricing is higher than it should be.

The “high-res” music folks should bring the prices down. Since we’re not getting premium sound or better sound, what’s the reason for the higher prices? It’s all about greed…not on the part of the retailer but on the part of the labels that set the prices and minimum guarantees.

Market adoption of “high-res transfers”, as I call them, and the growth of high-res music would be a lot higher if they didn’t cost so much. But then again, if someone pays $1000 for a power cord…I’m just saying.

Part 4: Provide accurate provenance for each album and track…even if it’s of a general nature (i.e. This album was recorded on analog equipment).


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

11 thoughts on “HRA Solutions: Step 3

  • At some point in this series could we discuss the lack of liner notes etc on the great majority of HDA downloads? I’ve brought it up here before and have written to HDtracks a number of times and have never gotten any reply. I know this doesn’t really apply to your releases but most of HDtracks have equivalent LP releases that have beautiful artwork, song lyrics, etc.
    At the prices we’re charged for HD downloads why can’t we get pdf files of the same liner content that the LP guys get?

    • The liner notes are a great perk…even a necessity for some. But the lack of consistent .pdf liner notes is not a critical issue in the failure of high-res music.

  • By coincidence, I read the Sound and Vision DAC review just before reading this post, and the use of the Munch/Boston Symphony

    Orchestra Saint-Saëns recording caught my attention also. I have the original vinyl LP for this recording, I believe I purchased it

    back in the late 60s, and I also have the latest CD re-issue. The symphony was recorded on April 5 & 6, 1959. When it was released as a

    CD, Debussy and Ibert works that were recorded on December 9 & 10, 1956 were included on the CD. I don’t know where Mark Fleishmann

    found this recording in 196/24, it was remastered for SACD, HDTracks and other sites have it at 176/24 and 88/24. This recording has

    been a popular choice for demonstrations for the 55 years. RCA and the BSO were intent on creating a state of the art recording. It was

    recorded to 3-track tape. From the album notes:
    “The means of accomplishing this are fascinatingly novel. When it was proved that optimum spatial breadth and sound-source

    differentiations, as well as maximum exploitation of the superb accoustics of Boston’s Symphony Hall, were impossible to achieve with the conventional stage-seating pattern, the entire orchestra was boldly spread out over the front half and full width of the auditorium itself, from which of course the normal audience seats had been removed. And although the organ’s pipe chambers are permanently located behind the decorative pipe-work at the upper rear of the stage itself, the use of a separate three-channel microphone array in the recording effectively shifts the apparent sources of the organ tones right into and all across the space physically occupied by the orchestra…”
    This recording is not high resolution, it is a high resolution transfer and remastering of the original 1959 3-track recording, but it can be, even now, an effective demonstration recording.

    • Thanks Mark…I’m sure the recording is a good as it gets for 1956…and it may hold up very well in the current day. But not having any new recordings that show off the benefits of high-res equipment and techniques, makes the review questionable.

      • Chris from Lafayette

        Mark is correct – the Munch/Boston Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony was recorded in 1959, and the other works on the album were recorded in 1956. The allure and fame of this Saint-Saëns recording probably derives from its minimal microphoning and excellent capture of the space, the very natural direct-to-reflected sound ratio, and the general excitement of the performance. However, it’s been well known for decades that there is also overload (tape saturation) distortion at the end, and we ought to have moved on sonically in the meantime since 1959. The roughly contemporaneous (and every bit as exciting!) Paray/Detroit performance (on Mercury Living Presence) didn’t have the overload distortion at the end, but this came at the price of more tape hiss throughout, as well as some slight microphone colorations compared to what Mercury achieved in subsequent years. Unfortunately, some of the better recorded recent recordings of the Organ Symphony (in DSD or 24/96 PCM – and not just transferred into hi-rez containers from lower-rez masters) have suffered from pretty phlegmatic conductors on the podium. (You hear that, Naxos?) Thus, many audiophiles keep returning to their nostalgic “blasts from the past” – it happens with pop and geezer rock too! 😉

  • Interesting how you reference the Sound and Vision article, I too read that one and was prompted to buy one of the products in the review based on the article. The hook for me in purchasing one was the product’s ability to charge my phone in pinch. So far the product does meet or exceed all expectations with music, the ability to charge the phone to 100% is still up for discussion.

    I have not tried it with DSD via the computer (the product can double as a USB DAC as well), my existing USB DAC will not do DSD. I don’t expect to hear much difference however even when I take the time to do the listen, so have been less than motivated to do so.

    I do thank you for letting me fret less over my music, however. I always kept wondering if I was missing something by not having my files played back in a higher resolution format, but when I have learned via your posts that I am hearing the most fidelity and resolution that could be offered by the original source material, I just let it go and enjoy the tunes.

    Have a wonderful day.

  • Paolo Sanna

    Good morning Dr AiX, first of all sorry for my (bad) english.. so..i’m confused about your Hi Res philosophy, in this post you use this term: ‘Transferred from Standard definition Analog tapes about 40 years ago’.. sorry but 40 years ago we’re in 1975 and the analog reel to reel hi speed master machines (Otari, Studer, Stellavox etc) the machines were used mainly in recording studios, she certainly will know the sound of a recording made on a studer 808 1/2 inch .. simply unbelievable So I do not understand the term “standard”, the standard of a master analog tape is in my opinion the best sound you can get, so if an album like ‘The Nightfly’ it’s wonderful in vinyl record, imagine.. the multitrack analog master ! The analog master tape of ‘The nightfly’ is the ultimate definition, detail and dynamics achieved in that context, I think that creating a Hi Res file from an excellent analog master is very hard and need to be serious prepared technician/engineer with ultimate professional equipment, then you have to be a bit like a Rudy Van Gelder of the digital era, and no matter if DSD, PCM or another, the important thing is that you do not lose even the smallest detail in the process of creating the digital master, so there will be only the full respect of the musical message that the artist wanted to convey.
    Best regards

    • Analog tape…even the best Studer or ATR…produce recordings that are compromised with regards to dynamic range. The sound is wonderful and warm and perfect for commercial pop/rock recordings but it can only deliver 10-12 bits of dynamic range. High-Resolution PCM digital is capable of 24-bits of dynamic range or over 130 dB…everything in real life and more. An excellent analog source master is great but not actually high-res.

      • Of course your 150% right .
        Except for your statement that pop/rock had no need for wide dynamic range media. There are lots of rock music that could take advantage of a high dr. Ever listened to Pink Floyd? Just because the loudness wars have removed the need for dr doesn’t mean it has no use in rock. I could name lots of music from the 70-90s that was stressing the capabilities of the days media, not to mention most home systems capabilities.

        • I know Pink Floyd records and they don’t exceed the dynamic range of analog tape. There are some recordings that are better then others but they exist within the realm of analog specs. Acoustic folk, jazz, and classical music routinely exceed analog specs but rarely go further than CDs.

  • Ronaldo Franchini

    I downloaded free from Linn Records, the Super Audio Collection Vol.07 {2014][24-96] and tested it using MusicScope software. The results proved that the record is really a high resolution audio product with a extreme high dynamics on selected tracks. Outstanding record!


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