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The Stones Go High-Res for HDTracks. Should You Care?

Sections: Audio, Digital, Love Hz

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HDTracks promoIn case you hadn’t heard, the Rolling Stones are now offering much of their classic catalog in very high-quality uber high-resolution audio formats that will rival (and perhaps surpass) the capabilities of SACD and DVD-Audio.

This is cool news, and certainly a step in the right direction in so far as getting consumers listening beyond the limitations of CD and MP3 quality music delivery. What stands to be seen, though, is how this will play out in terms of mass acceptance (even among audiophiles, which according to the CNN article, HDTracks awesomely already has 100,000 of them lined up as regular customers).

Here are some of my concerns, the answers to which ultimately are simply TBD:

A Bigger Bang

Even though tracks are distributed in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) format, the files will inevitably be much larger than even the WAV or AIFF files commonly burned on to CD-Rs by consumers. From the HDTracks website we learn:

“For comparison, our 88.1kHz/24-bit FLAC files gives you profoundly more musical information, twice the amount found on a CD. Think of the CD playing music vs.88.1kHz/24-bit FLAC files as similar to the difference between watching a VHS video tape vs. watching a DVD on your HDTV. For another comparison, 176.4kHz/24-bit FLAC files would be comparable to watching Blu-Ray video on your HDTV. The DVD on an HDTV is going to look a lot better than a VHS tape, and a Blu-Ray is going to look even better!”

Groovy. Now how do I download all that stuff on my standard broadband internet connection?

If this takes off en masse, who is going to foot the bill for bandwidth it takes to download lots of big files? It will be curious to watch how the ISPs react to a growing population dowloading heavier files like these. There is already name for the offending beasts: “bandwidth hogs.” That said, assuming this catches on — and don’t get me wrong, I hope it does! — people will probably have to ultimately add in this cost to their purchase price.

Consider this the “shipping and handling” fee you currently pay for your Amazon CD purchase — which, dependent upon your usage may be more or less.

Back Me Up

Recently, I started backing up my growing collection of digitized music on to a 1 TB drive I picked up at Best Buy for under $100. And then disaster struck: the brand new hard drive crashed on me! Completely. I was able to return the drive and opted for a different brand, but this time — at the recommendation of a programmer friend — I bought two identical drives. So now when I back up a new addition to the digital collection, I back it up twice.

For the digital audiophile, considering the size of these larger high-resolution downloads is crucial. I wonder if some people may be unwittingly trading off their CD or LP shelf space for a row of hard drives — each of which will have to be plugged in somewhere — either into a computer (powered USB) or additionally into an AC outlet. I currently have three 1 TB drives lined up on my desk, each which boasts a lovely wall wart that is hogging up all available outlets in my APC power surge protector. Personally, I find a box of 45 RPM singles more fun than a stack of hard drives, but that is just me.

mark's desktopI cleaned up my desk a bit show you how I am dealing with the multi-hard-drive dilemma (the three Western Digital drives fit neatly into an old CD storage case which I quake glued to the desk — this is California after all).

Your experience may vary. But you can see how this might add up to space challenges and additional “hidden” costs.

HDTracks addresses this on its site:

“So which format should you choose? That really depends on your preference for file sizes, budget, storage available for music on your computer, and your desired level of sound quality. At HDtracks, you’re choosing between High Quality and Highest Quality. Either format is going to be at least twice as good as any CD you’ve ever played, so either way, you can’t go wrong.”

Its all good — If you have the budget and time to go all hi-res digital, go for it!

HD’s Little Helpers

Be sure, you also consider the mechanics of how you will play it back in a way that will really take full advantage of the high resolution tracks. You’ll probably want to invest in a spiffy high end D/A (digital-to-analog) converter. Or perhaps you’ll want to invest in a high end SooLoos system (about $8K) or the nifty Olive (about $5K). Any way you look at it, though, without a high-quality playback system, all those extra bits of musical data are simply wasted.

Get Onto Your Cloud

Then perhaps consider the option of storing your files on “The Cloud” — a massive digital storage server you access via the Internet. But, of course, there are costs involved in doing that, too. There is no free lunch. This leads us back to the oft-discussed notion of the labels “licensing” their tracks to the consumer. How it might work is simple: the consumer “buys” and downloads the recording. And if their hard drive crashes, they might be able to get a fresh copy from the Cloud. If the labels maintain said cloud, only one original set of files would need to be stored up there (in theory) — ala iTunes, you just download a copy as needed. Then again, the Internet doesn’t really quite work that way, so its entirely possible that multiple copies might get stored on huge servers around the world and you’d grab what is available in your area.

But I digress…..

Get What You Need

At the end of the day — at least for the short haul — a disc-based delivery may be more efficient for the aspiring hi-res audiophile. Physical hi-res discs offer familiar convenience and storage simplicity. Blu-ray can handle high-resolution audio size-wise, as can DVD-A (I’ve had Neil Young’s American Stars ‘n Bars on stereo-only 192/24 DVD-A for years and it sounds quite wonderful) and I suspect SACD can do the same. Nonetheless, if you want to get yer ya ya’s out in 176/24 fidelity, by all means go for it. Just make sure you’ve got the playback capabilities to really appreciate that level of digital fidelity, and you’ve got the storage space to handle it.

It’s only rock and roll and if it sounds good, you’ll probably like it…

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