The Philadelphia Orchestra has a recording history that dates back to 1917, including many great albums with RCA and Columbia. In 2010 they announced a partnership with the Independent Online Distribution Alliance (IODA) to distribute new live concert recordings via download through a number of sites. As with the New York Philharmonic, which I wrote about in July, the high-resolution versions of these files are available from HDtracks. So far, two albums have been released -- Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony and Prokofiev’s Symphony No.4. Both are of better than CD quality, the Strauss being 24-bit/96kHz and the Prokofiev 24/88. Unlike the NYP releases, these are single pieces rather than entire concerts; you get a little less music for your money, but no less than with most other albums.
I found one statement in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s blurb about the Strauss amusing: “The excitement and energy from the Orchestra is palpable even on disc.” As far as I’m aware, the only way that this recording gets onto a disc is if someone burns it. But the sentiment is correct: while other recordings of this work may be more exciting, this one seems to catch some of the energy of a live performance. Overall, the sound quality is very good, from the lows of the bass drum and organ to the glockenspiel and, yes, the transient behavior of the cowbells. I wasn’t fond of the violin sound, which seemed to have a little too much string and not enough body, but that’s more a matter of preference than absolute quality. The soundstage has good definition from left to right, but it lacks discrimination from front to back -- although you can clearly hear that the horns come from offstage. I liked the sound of the Prokofiev recording more. It had a greater sense of space, and all instruments -- particularly the violins -- had a little more body. We know there are some differences in the signal chain, as this recording is done at 88.2kHz as opposed to the Strauss’s 96kHz, but most of the differences are likely due to microphone placement. The Prokofiev requires a smaller orchestra than the Strauss, which could, at least partially, explain the differences in recording technique. I also compared these recordings to a slightly older Philadelphia Orchestra recording of Prokofiev’s Symphony No.5 -- downloaded from HDtracks -- which is recorded at the CD standard of 16/44.1. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that recording, but the comparison clearly demonstrates the benefits of a higher sampling rate.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s download site isn’t brand-new, but it hasn’t been covered recently in these pages. A few things set it apart from many other sites. First, the prices are very attractive. The cost of a full-resolution album is only $1 more than for the MP3 format, making the cost only $9.99 per album. They also have a multichannel option for those who can take advantage of it. What’s more, the site offers a subscription service that allows downloading of all available titles, as well as those that become available during the subscription period. Current pricing for the subscription service is $30 for three months or $50 for one year. At time of writing, six albums were available in high-resolution 24/88.2. Other recordings, mostly from the BSO’s archive of radio broadcasts, are available only in 320kbps MP3. There’s no official release schedule, so it’s impossible to know whether a subscription will be worthwhile unless you want everything that’s available right now.
The BSO’s 2009 recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, which won the 2010 Grammy for Best Orchestral Recording, is one of the titles available for high-resolution download. It’s hard to compare the musical merits of this recording to those of the Charles Munch -- people tend to gravitate toward the recording they’re most familiar with -- but I think it’s excellent. Sonically, there’s no contest. The new recording has dramatically better dynamic range and more realistic instrumental timbres. I downloaded the first track and burned it to a DVD-Audio to compare it to the SACD I already own, and I played both in my Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP to make the signal path as similar as possible. This recording was made in DSD, so I wasn’t terribly surprised that the SACD sounded better. I wouldn’t say there was greater dynamic range, precisely, but there seemed to be a greater sense of scale. The harmonic texture of instruments was also a little truer to life -- the differences were most obvious in the harp, triangle, and glockenspiel, but they were evident throughout the orchestra. Those who have SACD players and are looking for the very best performance should spend the extra money for the disc. Taken on its own merits, the download sounded very good, and it was far better than the CD layer of the SACD, which I had to rip and then burn to a new disc because the Ayre will play only the DSD layer. Despite what I said about the SACD being better, the high-resolution file has a good sense of scale, which is important in this piece, since it contains everything from sparsely instrumented passages to a full orchestra and choir. Instruments sound as they should, and the recording has a reasonable sense of space. Especially considering the very low price, no one with a high-resolution computer-based audio system should be without this recording.
I had been worried that, as the music industry transitions to a download-based model for distribution, we might start seeing music that’s available only as MP3s. While for some genres and labels that fear is starting to become a reality, it’s heartening to see that some organizations are still interested in good sound quality. The availability of high-resolution recordings is particularly important in classical music, where dynamic range and acoustic instruments make the difference most obvious. In these cases, downloads haven’t made things worse, but by making files available in better-than-CD resolution, they’ve significantly improved the listening experience.
. . . S. Andrea Sundaram