It makes sense that HDtracks, the first website to offer audiophile-quality downloads from different record labels, was the brainchild of people whose love of good sound was already well known. David Chesky is a composer and performer of jazz and classical music. In 1988, his frustration with the lack of control he had over his own early recordings (Columbia released his Rush Hour in 1980) led David and his brother, Norman Chesky, to found Chesky Records -- a label committed to accurate, truthful recording. The eclectic Chesky Records catalog includes recordings by Clark Terry, Astor Piazzolla, John Hammond, and many classical musicians.
Chesky Records soon began what has become a long history of recording innovations. “We were the first people to do single-point oversampling,” David Chesky told me. “We were the first people to do DVD 96/24, with Chesky Records. We were the first people to do the new Binaural+ series.” The label’s recordings demonstrated that even CDs could sound good.
In 2008, the Chesky brothers started HDtracks.com, to offer CD-quality downloads issued by independent labels, including their own. (Although Mark Waldrep established iTrax.com in late 2007, the site offered music solely from Waldrep’s own label, AIX Records.) The decision to sell higher-resolution downloads through HDtracks is consistent with the Chesky philosophy. “HDtracks is just a natural extension of Chesky Records,” David Chesky explained. “We actually, besides selling hi-rez files, were the first people to make them. I myself have made over hundreds and hundreds of hi-rez albums with my own hands. So, it’s an organic process.”
Chesky Records has resisted the urge to compress their recordings; had other labels followed their lead, we might have had a more positive reaction to the Compact Disc. Today’s high-end CD players reveal how good and honest Chesky recordings have been from the beginning. McCoy Tyner’s New York Reunion (CD, Chesky JD51), released in 1991, is one of the reference discs I play to let my friends hear why I bother with good hi-fi gear.
In the current marketplace, though, downloads rule -- it’s smart to offer high-quality alternatives to MP3s. Younger audiophiles, having grown up with computers, can have the convenience of downloads in CD or higher quality through HDtracks. As older audiophiles run out of space for more CDs and LPs, they also begin to see the wisdom in storing music on a computer or music server, and Neil Young’s PonoPlayer and Sony’s Walkman NWZ-A17 have added portability to the hi-rez experience. It appears that companies like HDtracks will be around for some time.
While SACD and DVD-Audio discs have remained audiophile niches, Oliver Schrage, director of Social Marketing and Strategic Partnerships for HDtracks, notes that “HDtracks is more popular than physical high resolution.” The clearest indication of the strength of the hi-rez market was the agreement in 2011 between ABKCO and HDtracks to sell the Rolling Stones’ Decca-era recordings as 24-bit downloads. Albums by other pop-music powerhouses, including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and the Who, are also available through HDtracks in better-than-CD quality. The Stones and Dylan had already made hi-rez versions of their music available on Hybrid SACDs, but their labels soon discontinued these releases; anyone who missed out on them the first time can now find them online.
I asked Chesky how he set up HDtracks. “The logistics of creating a hi-rez website are difficult,” he said. “You have a lot of programmers and cloud-based things, and a lot of technical things like that we have to overcome. We also test every file. I don’t know what other websites do, but at HDtracks we have a few guys, all they do is brick-wall filtering, and they test the file. If the label sends something in and says it’s 192[kHz], [and] we see the filter is at 48, it’s 96kHz. So we test every file for brick-wall filtering, and the sample rate is assigned by the brick-wall filter.”
For readers unfamiliar with brick-wall filtering, perhaps this description from Trigger Tone will be helpful: “A brick wall filter is a low or high-pass filter (LPF or HPF) that completely cuts off audio signals above or below a pre-selected frequency. For example, putting brick wall filters at 60Hz and 10kHz will cut off any audio below 60Hz and above 10kHz, but will leave all other frequencies completely intact.”
Chesky understands that the makers of recordings sold through HDtracks may have standards of sound vastly different from his own. “We go to the labels and we give them advances and we get the rights to their catalogue. We give them a white paper, how we would like things mastered. But that’s just on delivery. You have to understand that mastering is different. A producer gets in there and says he wants compression and EQ, we can’t control it. It’s his artistic prerogative.
“Even though I don’t like compression and EQ,” Chesky continued, “a guy can come up to me and say, ‘David, I don’t like these binaural records in a big church. They sound weird to me.’ HDtracks is neutral. It’s like Switzerland. We don’t want to dictate to people how to make records. We want to just do the best version of the record that they’d like.”
I asked Chesky if he thought music that was not originally recorded in high-resolution can benefit from more detailed mastering. “Well, look, analog is a very high-resolution format. And you have to understand something else, too. People think, ‘Oh, you do high resolution? We can’t hear up there. The filter’s at 96kHz, the ear can’t hear there.’ The main reason you do high-resolution recording is to get the filters out of the audioband, because they cause post- and pre-ringing, and that really messes up the audio. That’s why we do hi-rez audio -- to make it cleaner, and get these filters that ring out of the audioband that cause corruption to the audio signal.”
While many audiophiles may take note of technical specifications and how they might translate into sound, I trust my ears. SACDs sound better than CDs, but my experience of listening to music in other hi-rez formats is more recent. I wanted to put it to the test with some recordings I know well.
McCoy Tyner’s New York Reunion, produced by David Chesky and engineered by Bob Katz, exhibits all of the qualities Chesky Records aims for. The sound is spacious, deep, and natural -- as I listen, it’s easy to visualize the dimensions of RCA’s Studio A, in New York City, where the music was recorded. The HDtracks’ high-resolution (24/96 FLAC) version of the album brings those qualities into even sharper relief. Ron Carter’s double bass in “Recorda Me” sounds snappier, and Al Foster’s cymbals are clearer and more resonant. His drums ring out with more sustain and body. Tyner’s piano sounds bigger, and his splashes of chords are fuller and more complete.
In “My Romance,” Tyner’s piano has more openness and life in hi-rez than on CD -- the lower-register notes are especially impressive. It’s also easier to hear Carter’s attack for each bass note, and then the note itself. Each nuance of Foster’s exquisitely sensitive drumming is brought forward, and his brushwork is beautifully presented.
Joe Henderson’s dynamic intro to Thelonious Monk’s “Ask Me Now” is even more affecting in hi-rez. You can hear the keys on his tenor sax as he plays, and you get a greater sense of the studio’s natural reverb than from the CD. When Tyner joins him for the duet, the excitement of the two musicians working together is even more direct than on CD -- notes sustain longer, and weave around each other more closely. On the CD, the instruments sound somewhat separate; in hi-rez, the natural overtones and harmonies join together and take flight.
But New York Reunion is an all-digital (DDD) recording. I wanted to test AIX Records founder Mark Waldrep’s theory that music recorded on analog tape can’t be high resolution. Bill Evans’s Waltz for Debby is decidedly analog -- it was recorded at the Village Vanguard in 1961 -- and the Riverside/Original Jazz Classics CD from 1992 was very well mastered by Joe Tarantino. Paul Stubblebine remastered the recording especially for HDtracks in 24/96 and 24/192. I chose the 24/192 FLAC file, and the difference in the level of detail was immediate. The people in the club and the Vanguard’s dimensions came alive in my listening room. Conversations in the background, clinking glasses, even small movements in the room were audible, but so were the sounds and timbres of the instruments. Evans’s high piano notes in the title track hung in the air and breathed, and Paul Motian’s brushes struck his snare drum harder and resonated with more conviction. Scott LaFaro’s double bass sang -- I could clearly hear the sound of the strings vibrating against the fingerboard, and LaFaro’s fingers hitting the strings. The sound of Evans’s piano was majestic and filled the room, but the Vanguard’s atmosphere didn’t fade during crescendos, as it did with the CD. I got a stronger sense of the audience and the players responding to each other.
As good as Tarantino’s CD mastering was, instruments were livelier and more assertive in hi-rez. Notes blended and sustained, enveloping me. Tiny things grabbed my ear, such as Evans pressing and releasing a pedal on the piano in a quiet passage of “Detour Ahead.” The bustle of the room -- at one point, I envisioned busboys clearing tables -- was far from distracting. Instead, it was a reminder that this music was played in the real world for paying customers.
In Waltz for Debby, Evans, LaFaro, and Motian play at an astonishing level -- their communication and quick reactions to each other make this album a prime example of just how emotionally and intellectually rewarding improvised music can be. The clarity and depth of this new 24/192 mastering made the issue of whether or not the original recording met the technical specifications of high resolution a moot one for me. Even when I compared it to a vinyl pressing, I found that the hi-rez version pulled me deeper into the music, although my pressing is from the mid-1980s and is probably digitally sourced.
I then compared the deluxe edition of Jimmy Page’s remastering of Led Zeppelin’s II in 24/96 with Classic Records’ LP pressing from 2005, which I’ve long considered the best-sounding version I’ve heard. The hi-rez file was closer to Classic’s pressing than any CD version. When, in the chorus of “Whole Lotta Love,” Page draws a violin bow across his guitar strings, the sound zipped across the channels with the same verve and impact as on the Classic LP. Yet I felt that John Bonham’s drums sounded more three-dimensional on vinyl, and that Robert Plant’s voice had a rounder tone. I also gave vinyl the edge for the cross-channel swirling that announces the end of the druggy passage of percussion and sound effects in the middle of the song -- and on vinyl, when the band hits the single chord that introduces each portion of the guitar solo, it sounded as if my speakers might be blown apart; the hi-rez playback was a tiny bit tamer.
In “What Is and What Should Never Be,” John Paul Jones’s bass sounded bigger and had more visceral impact on vinyl, but more snap and a better sense of attack in hi-rez. Page’s slide-guitar solo was brighter and more sharply etched in hi-rez, but the band’s power came through as a bigger wall of sound on vinyl. The majestic sound of the gong that ends the track seemed to expand across the wall behind my speakers on vinyl, and while it was still imposing in hi-rez, it sounded reserved by comparison.
To my ears, “Ramble On” was more expansive and open on vinyl, Bonham’s kick drum in the chorus pinning me against the wall. On the other hand, Page’s acoustic guitar rang out a bit more clearly in 24/96, and Jones’s bass notes had sharper edges. Bonham’s drums in “Moby Dick” rang out with real authority from both formats, but once again, I give the vinyl the edge for its more forceful sound -- it just moved more air; each kick-drum stroke was explosively powerful.
I don’t know if all of these differences can be accounted for by decisions Page made when mastering for each format -- I liked different things in both. By contrast, every CD version of this album that I’ve heard has sent me running back to vinyl, even when my only LP was an Atlantic Records pressing I bought in the mid-’70s. I didn’t miss the LPs when I was listening to the FLAC file, but I did hear differences. I also bought the recent vinyl editions of Led Zeppelin and III, and I like them both very much. In both cases, the source was the hi-rez digital master. I guess vinyl is still my preferred format -- especially for the hard punch that I want from rock.
Although I can’t guess what the future of high-resolution audio downloads will be, the market for them seems to be growing. Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds has added to its website Super HiRez (“DSD Downloads & More”), Canada’s ProStudioMasters offers hi-rez files from various labels, and Linn Records, like iTrax, offers its own music in studio-quality downloads. Page down on this link on Sony’s website for information about other download services.
I asked David Chesky if he thought hi-rez would create a new generation of audiophiles. “I don’t know,” he answered. “This is a weird situation. We live in a technological age where we can do anything. In our laboratory in New York we can put you in a three-dimensional binaural space with 192/24 and put you actually in the venue. But, you know, it’s like McDonald’s: Some people just want to eat cereal all day, and are happy with burgers and fries. But the main thing is, when these people want to switch over, it’s a much better roller-coaster ride for all to do high-resolution audio.”
. . . Joseph Taylor