His master’s superior download

Digital audio now meets high fidelity in superior downloads that are music to David Cheal’s ears.

May 08 2009
David Cheal

It’s one of the miracles of the 21st century: a piece of music pops into your head, or you have an urge to hear the new Depeche Mode album, and within minutes it’s on your computer. Easy. Downloading is the future of music, without question. The iPod, the MP3 player, the online music shop: this is how the world now buys and listens to music. And who can blame it, when it offers almost instant musical gratification?

To many music lovers, however, downloading is a dirty word. The charge, simply, is that most downloaded music is a mere shadow of its original self: it’s smaller, compressed, narrower. “Lossy” is the technical term, and for once it’s a technical term that requires no explanation. And what’s worse is that a great deal of pop and rock music is now mixed and mastered in the recording studio for the MP3 market, giving much of today’s music a bulked-up, steroid-fuelled quality that becomes tiresome to the ear and lacks detail or subtlety. This inflation of the decibels has become known as the “loudness war”. Rolling Stone magazine has called it “the death of high fidelity”.

The music industry has responded to these concerns in a number of ways. iTunes now sells its downloads in a higher-quality 256kbps format (though this is still way lower than CD quality), and EMI is offering its catalogue as higher-quality downloads via iTunes for 99p per track (compared with 79p for the standard version). Meanwhile, websites such as MusicZeit, Soul Seduction, Magnatune, Bleep and MusicGiants (this last is currently available only in the US, but is expected to come to the UK soon) are offering downloads in various higher standards and formats, some equivalent to or even better than CD.

And for audiophiles, many of whom have hitherto taken refuge in the warm glow of vinyl, there is now the prospect of music that is not just better than CD quality, but which, tantalisingly, has the breadth and depth and detail of a studio master tape. The superior download has arrived.

One of the first to offer downloads of this quality was Linn, the Glasgow-based company that makes hi-fi equipment and which also runs its own record label, focusing chiefly on classical, jazz and Celtic music. Linn launched its online catalogue a couple of years ago, and today it offers 59 albums at better than CD quality in a variety of formats, including studio master (which costs around £18 per album), and has some 80,000 subscribers.

“Our goal is to recreate being in that concert hall,” says Caroline Dooley, business manager at Linn Records. “You can close your eyes and feel like you are in the room with the musicians.”

Linn was followed a year or so later by Gimell Records, a label that serves a very particular musical niche: Renaissance sacred polyphony – unaccompanied church music sung by The Tallis Scholars. If any music is going to benefit from better reproduction, then this is it: human voices, unadorned and unadulterated, weaving and harmonising, recorded in soaring ecclesiastical settings.

“What we maintain is that if you want to listen to good music at home on a hi-fi, then what iTunes sells is really not good enough,” says Steve Smith, co-founder of Gimell. Much of the music offered by Gimell for download (and also by Linn and others) has a 24-bit “depth” – significantly better than CD quality, which has 16 bits.

And the difference, says Smith, is ringingly clear. “It’s a smoother sound, easier to listen to. It sounds wider, bigger, and often more spectacular. You know that you’re listening to more of the original recording. All our recordings are made in a church acoustic where the echo, the ambience, is a very important part of what we are recording. That ‘tail’ to the sound is very important.” Gimell’s downloads are priced from £7.99 for an MP3 album to £19.99 for the Studio Master 5.1 version.

Meanwhile, at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios in Wiltshire, a new joint venture has come to pass between the studio and Bowers & Wilkins, maker of classy high-end speakers. The result is the B&W Music Club, which, for a modest annual subscription of £33.95, offers 12 high-quality downloads of specially commissioned albums recorded at Real World, by artists chosen by Gabriel and his team.

“It’s music that we’ve heard and think is great that doesn’t have a conventional recording channel,” says Real World’s director of operations, Mike Large. “If we love it and it doesn’t have another route, we’re willing to make it happen.” Large stresses that this is music that takes time to download. “Patience is a given,” he says. “There is a requirement for the audience to make an ‘investment’.”

Indeed, Smith says that with his own internet connection “out in the sticks”, downloading one of Gimell’s albums could take up to eight hours, although with a good cable connection it would be closer to 30 minutes.

Among the artists available via the B&W Music Club are Portico Quartet, the jazz ensemble nominated last year for the Mercury Prize, and former Suede frontman Brett Anderson. It has members in more than 140 countries and territories, including Afghanistan and Antarctica. And what they are downloading, says Large, is a sound that’s not just more realistic, but that fosters an “emotional relationship between the artist and the listener”. There’s detail, too: “The noise of the studio, fingers on the strings of guitars, the little noises as a bow is put on a violin.”

Dan Haikin, brand director of Bowers & Wilkins, agrees. “You get the silences in between things,” he says. “Partly they are ambient and partly they belong to the subtle interplay between musicians. You get all of that fundamental detail which really makes a difference.”

A limited repertoire of music that’s been chosen by someone else is necessarily of limited appeal. So while B&W currently has 23,000 members, soon the B&W/Real World partnership hopes to offer a broader range of downloads, delving into artists’ back catalogues.

Of course, this music must be heard on proper equipment to get the benefit of all this extra digital information. Helpfully, a new generation of devices has come on to the market that is perfectly suited to the high-quality download: the digital streamer. The market leaders are Linn and Logitech, which have models from a few hundred pounds up to several thousand; others include Sonos and Naim.

So far, so good. But do these downloads really sound that much better? There was only one way to find out. First, I got hold of a Logitech Transporter network music player, which retails at around £1,500. This is a digital streamer that plugs into your hi-fi amplifier, and connects to your PC (or Mac) either through an ethernet cable or through a wireless home network. It then “tunes in” to your music library and, well... plays it.

I downloaded music from Linn, Gimell and B&W Music Club in Flac (free lossless audio codec) format. From Linn I downloaded songs by a group called The Aliens, who play sweetly harmonised indie rock: it was rich, warm, bright and easy. A passage of Handel recitative also sounded vibrant and full of colour.

Then, a few minutes of Gimell’s shimmering Renaissance polyphony had me swooning with pleasure. And from B&W I downloaded a few tracks by Portico Quartet. From the resonant thrum of the double bass to the high-register “ting” of the hang, a new percussion instrument of their own invention, it was stunningly alive. As a music critic of some years’ standing, I was amazed by the amount of detail I could hear.

Meanwhile, a demonstration of Linn’s Klimax digital streamer (an elegant slim aluminium box that sells for £11,400) was similarly stunning. I heard a song by jazz singer Claire Martin in three formats: MP3, CD and Studio Master. Each was a huge step forward but the Studio Master version was sensational – there was a moment when the drummer, using brushes, gently touched a cymbal and it was as if I could hear each strand of the brush as it made contact. I wasn’t listening to a hi-fi system, I was listening to pure music. Breathtaking. As its name suggests, the Klimax is Linn’s premium streamer – its range starts at at £975.

It should be said that another remarkable thing about these digital streaming devices is that they make CDs that have been ripped to your computer actually sound better; apparently it’s something to do with the lack of mechanical drives and moving parts. These things have a very big future. “It will change your life,” says Linn’s senior sales manager Alan Williams of the Klimax. “You will find yourself listening to music you didn’t even think you liked.”

Superior downloads are a young and slowly evolving market, and as yet there is no standardisation. The music is offered in a rather bewildering range of formats (Flac, Wav, 5.1 etc), so it pays to read the Q&A sections of the websites before taking the plunge. But the people I spoke to were optimistic that an industry standard will emerge, possibly around Flac, making the whole business simpler and more user-friendly.

And what’s certainly true is that this is not just another niche area being colonised by equipment-fetishists and knob-twiddlers: it’s about hearing the music as it was meant to be heard, in all its detail and warmth, as naked as the day it was born.