Looking for the Ultimate Source: Part One

February 2011

Although the death of the Compact Disc has been widely predicted, most people -- even rabid audiophiles -- still get their music from CDs. The real fringe element are the vinyl junkies, and thanks to their never-ending proselytizing, vinyl sales are actually growing. (The sole item on my teenage nephew’s Christmas list was “Vinyl!”)

You can spend some significant change on a CD player or phono system. In our sister journals SoundStage! Hi-Fi and Ultra Audio, we often report on CD players costing over $5000, and occasionally over $10,000. And the price of a turntable-tonearm-cartridge-phono-stage combo can easily top $100,000. Raise your hand if you think one of these exotic pieces of audio art can make it possible for an LP or a 16-bit/44.1kHz CD to smoke a high-definition file of at least 24-bit/96kHz resolution, played from a digital download via computer. My hand is still down.

In the last few months I’ve really drilled down on the sounds of hi-def recordings, spending time with most of the best labels: 2L, AIX, Gimell, HDtracks, iTrax, Linn, Naim. Each has its strengths, but all are obsessed with providing sound that mirrors the master tape -- and when the label has supervised the recording sessions themselves, they’ve fixated on getting the master tape’s sound to be as clear as arctic ice water.

The CD has been a commercial reality since 1983, and while early it was promoted (by Sony) as embodying “perfect sound forever,” it has also long been denigrated by some audiophiles as unlistenable. The vinyl brigade has been worse, describing the CD and digital recording in scatological terms.

The truth is somewhere in between. The current thinking amongst serious audiophiles is that the CD’s 16-bit/44.1kHz digital sound just won’t cut it. Instead, the consensus seems to be that a 24-bit word length and a 192kHz sampling rate are sufficient to keep the noise and distortion lower than the inherent capabilities of the playback equipment. Still, there are some who believe that too much data is never enough, and are pushing for 32/384 recording and playback.

Most people who buy digital downloads usually buy compressed files (usually MP3) at bit rates of 128 to 320kbps, but most often at 256kbps. I’ve never been a CD apologist and I won’t start now, but when music lovers choose MP3 for its portability, low price, and instant gratification, regardless of sound quality, CDs start to look pretty good.

But with the appearance of multiple websites offering digital downloads of files that sound clearly better than CDs, those of us who care about sound can trudge forward into a musical future that will sound better than the past. For a while, it looked as if we’d be doomed to crappy-sounding 128kbps AAC files from the iTunes Store. Here are a few stores that offer a happier future.

Linn Records: www.linnrecords.com

LinnRecords.comLinn Records won Gramophone magazine’s Label of the Year award in 2010 -- a high honor indeed. After spending some time with a large assortment of Linn recordings, I understand why. Even back in the beginning of Linn the (vinyl) record company produced shockingly clear, amazingly present recordings. These days, Linn still makes magic with the jazz musings of Claire Martin and Carol Kidd. They even stray into prime electronica with William Orbit. But their meat and potatoes are recordings of classical music.

I was blown away by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort’s recording of J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor (Linn CKD-354), available in seven different versions. Now, I’m just as sad as the next person about the loss of the local record store, but how on earth could any of them afford to stock seven different versions of a single classical recording? Linn can because it’s a cloud store. I chose the versions with the lowest and highest resolutions: 320kbps MP3 ($11) and 24/192 Studio Master ($27).

The sound of the MP3 was startlingly good. Butt conducts the closing section, Dona Nobis Pacem, with unusual fire and momentum for a text about peace. But he also conveys a romantic feeling guaranteed to choke up even those who think themselves inured to Bach’s charms. The MP3 version is so good that, had it come on a CD, I would have been more than happy -- $11 is thus a bargain.

The 24/192 Studio Master recording is definitely better. The air around the instruments and singers is more apparent, and the decays of sounds seem like the real thing. Is it worth more than twice the price? Well, how much did you spend on your sound system? If you’re enough of a tweaker to have bought nice cables, then spending an extra $16 to have this marvelous-sounding recording should be a no-brainer.

The other question: How much data-storage capacity do you have? The Studio Master in FLAC format is huge, about 18 times the size of the 320kbps MP3. If you have a 2GB iPod Shuffle and are using Apple’s crapalicious headphones, don’t bother with the Studio Master. If you have 20TB of storage and a $10,000 system, you’d be crazy not to get it. Linn offers the 24/192 Studio Master version in both FLAC and WMA formats. Pick FLAC -- it’s an open source and likely to live. WMA, probably, but who knows?

Linn also distributes a couple dozen other labels, all of which seem to follow Linn’s dictum of preserving the actual sound of the event without glossing over or romanticizing it. My favorite is Just Music, whose roster includes Jon Hopkins and Digitonal. Hopkins’ Opalescent (TAO006), which costs $24 in its 24/44.1 version, reminds me of Global Communication’s 76:14, which I consider the pinnacle of electronica.

I corresponded with Jim Collinson, digital manager of LinnRecords.com, to find out more about Linn’s philosophy and what’s happening at the label -- such as, how many customers buy hi-def downloads? “Currently, over 80% of our customers pick the Studio Master downloads,” Collinson said, “and many customers who start with MP3 or CD quality end up moving up to Studio Master quality, too.”

Evidently, the public is also getting the message about FLAC: “Most of our customers choose FLAC. As an open-source technology, we believe that this is the best way to store and future-proof a valuable music collection. The tagging and metadata possibilities for FLAC are amazing too.” In fact, Linn intends to offer new and interesting tagging opportunities for their classical buyers. Collinson wouldn’t give details, other than to say it would be soon.

Asked about the future, Collinson said that Linn believes in 24/192. It’s easy to understand why. Storage is getting cheaper and bandwidth is opening up, which leaves only the issue of cost. Like every other download service, Linn charges a supply-and-demand-based premium for hi-def recordings. Just as the prices of Blu-ray Discs have dropped to just above DVD's because of the lower manufacturing costs made possible by increasing sales. Likewise, as soon as everyone else has figured out a way to market 24/192 files, their prices will be more in line with those of CDs and MP3s.

Linn is one of the few companies that offers the entire chain, from recordings to speakers, and they take great pride in doing their job well. As Collinson said, “championing high quality in every part of the chain, from performance right through to reproduction in the home, is the goal.”

Naim Label: www.naimlabel.com

NaimLabel.comI first heard the impact a Naim component could make on a system’s sound some 25 years ago. The Nait integrated amplifier had no right to sound as good as it did. It was small, underpowered (I thought), and its visually apparent value bore no relation to its cost. But it sure did sound good. And though the folks at Naim would be the first to tell you that their goal is to create a listening experience that “is not about ‘bass’ or ‘treble’ or ‘stereo image,’ but about forgetting the illusion of reproduction and connecting with the music,” I would tell you that I heard the magic whenever the music included a plucked double bass. The woodiness of that sound, the impact in my chest, the pure sense of reality -- it all made me come to attention. Yes, the whole sound was glorious, but the bass . . . Well it’s like asking if you prefer the pancakes or the syrup. I want it all.

While Naim might quarrel with my fixation on the low end, see if you don’t agree. One of their main artists is the legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, who for 50 years has anchored an amazing variety of recordings, from the most avant-garde to anachronistic hoedown country twang to seductive, heart-on-sleeve soft jazz. Naim offers a series of duo recordings Haden made for them between 1997 and 2007 with Italian guitarist Antonio Forcione and pianists Chris Anderson and John Taylor. Each is beautifully recorded, and played with the depth of feeling and effortless expertise that come from years of playing before audiences and, more important, with other talented musicians.

Haden’s standout Naim recording is his disc with Anderson, None but the Lonely Heart (naimcd22), which costs $27.99 in 24/96 FLAC or WAV format. Anderson, who died in 2008, was a New York City player who was mostly unknown in his own town. A debilitating illness prevented him from spending the time in clubs required for a jazz player to reach a certain level of fame, but to his cohorts he was a legend. Anderson had the ability to toss off romantic lines that Fred Hersch would envy, and season them with an occasional funky touch à la Thelonious Monk. Haden’s playing roots the tempo and key changes, giving Anderson room to open up. The sound includes close miking for Haden, a medium-distance perspective for Anderson, and lots of room ambience. Check out “It Never Entered My Mind” to hear what a combined century of experience can bring to a recording.

Simon Drake, general manager of Naim’s recording division, explained their strategy: “Our approach is to handpick the music we love, music that we feel represents our passion for sonic perfection as much as creative quality,” he says. “Excessive dynamic compression kills the life and soul of a recording, and there is too much of it in modern production techniques. The ‘loudness war’ is spoiling dynamics. Excessive compression (especially the lazy digital kind) and making things loud for loudness’s sake is not a theory we subscribe to.”

Even Naim’s MP3s sound great. It turns out they rip them themselves, using the engine from the Naim Audio HDX. Like Linn, Naim offers a choice of seven formats (LP, CD, MP3, 16/44.1 WAV, 16/44.1 FLAC, 26/96 WAV, 24/96 FLAC), but over 70% of their downloads are 24/96. Asked about FLAC vs. WAV, Drake replied, “We are now confident in saying [that FLAC files] are both audibly and technically lossless.”

Drake says that, unfortunately, most consumers still don’t know what “24-bit/96kHz” means. In fact, Drake says that “awareness of the capabilities of 24/96 is not widespread enough in the music industry, let alone amongst the listeners! Even worse, quality-concerned artists are also becoming rarer! If the artist doesn’t have a passion for pure sound, then their music is unlikely to be given the same level of attention in sonic production. You would be surprised how many studios are still recording in 16-bit around the world! The sad thing is, the artists (and the record companies!) do not know any better.”

My belief has always been that a properly tuned analog tape deck that can record on 2” tape at 30ips is about as good as any recording medium gets. Since Drake has access to so much top-drawer equipment and his own master tapes, I asked if he agreed. “When it comes to music, I myself prefer to listen intently with my ears, and not with numbers alone. Ultimately, if the music isn’t recorded well in the first instance, it will not matter at all how you choose to listen to it! Digital is getting better and better, and provides an accessible easy solution for the modern music consumer, and the sooner we can get people listening to better-than-MP3 quality . . . the better!”

Also like Linn, Naim makes a complete line of high-end audio equipment, so I wasn’t surprised to hear Drake’s idea of home music-reproduction nirvana: “If I had to recommend one way to listen to our digital music, it would be through a reference-spec two-channel Naim system with the new Naim NDX as digital source, with a NaimDAC, via a uPnP share of our 24/96 music on a networked computer or storage device, in a big comfy chair with a glass of fine wine.”

Sounds good to me.

Next month: Part Two.

. . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com