HD download debacle!
by Mark Waldrep
I was alerted to an article published in HiFi News & Record Review, a
British audiophile publication that claims to be "the longest serving and
most prestigious hi-fi and music magazine in the world". It was written by
Keith Howard, an acquaintance of mine from some years back, and entitled,
"HD download debacle". The subtext reads, "High sample-rate
music downloads are not all they seem". I couldn't agree more and was
quite pleased that the publisher of a major magazine on audio has the wherewithal
to take the high ground on this issue. My compliments to editor Paul Miller and
HFN. Everything that Keith discovered during his investigation maps perfectly
with my own research and reporting. The world of HD digital music retailing is
not everything that we would like to expect.
like to share a few of the items that Keith included in his report. I think
readers will find this very illuminating. Here's his opening paragraph: "When
audiophiles buy a hi-res music download, most do so on trust. If they've paid a
premium for a 24-bit/88.2, 24/96, 24/176.4 of 24/192 download, they reasonably
expect that the enhanced bandwidth offered by the higher sampling rate will be
fully exploited, inasmuch as the source material allows. But our investigations
show that this trust is sometimes misplaced, and those price premiums are being
asked for audio files in which the signal bandwidth has been curtailed."
he points out that this is not a new situation. At the introduction of
high-resolution or high definition audio formats back in 2000, Paul Miller
published an article exposing many of the early DVD-Audio productions as lacking
substantial improvements over CDs. The SACD and DVD-Audio formats were
specially designed to, "demonstrate the audible superiority of 96 kHz/192
kHz recordings over CD's 44.1/16-bit format [but, in fact] actually sounded
worse." My contention has always been that a standard definition recording
from the past placed in a container that exceeds its fidelity standards remains
a standard definition recording. We might be getting the best possible
rendition of that older track but it is not the same thing as having a new
recording done with live musicians at 96 kHz/24-bits. And it shouldn't be
marketed as such.
first example of "ham-fisted" upsampling came from High Definition
Tape Transfers, which to me is an oxymoron of the most blatant type. Every
analog tape recording is standard definition (limited dynamic range and
frequency response) thus transferring it to an HD bucket is pointless…unless
the company juices the frequency response somehow. There are a couple of very
informative graphs showing the "butterfly" effect of this sort of
audio foolery. HDTT remade the
files and sent them to all of their customers that had purchased the version on
next part of the discussion in the article focuses on HDtracks.com, the company
headed by David and Norman Chesky. Keith writes, "has never, to my
knowledge, released anything so crass (as the HDTT folks) but is has sold, and
at the time of writing continues to sell, files which do not have as wide a
bandwidth as you might reasonably expect from their sampling rate."
continues by pointing out, "as an example that's been on sale for a long
time is the 24/96 download Peter Frampton's Frampton
Comes Alive, the spectrum of which clearly shows the presence of steep
low-pass filter just above 20 kHz." The track, he concludes, "this
track has been upsampled." To be fair, Mike Lawson of HDtracks did
re-label the Frampton title as 48/24 and it is as good as you will ever get
from an analog sourced original. My argument is that it should be labeled
accurately from the outset. Anything that goes back to the days of analog tape
shouldn't be "upsampled" and sold for a premium price.
a subsequent paragraph, Keith goes on, "HDtracks removed John Coltrane's Lush Life when this was exposed as being
filtered. The spectrum of "Like Someone in Love" appears to have been
low-pass filtered twice, probably indicating that it was upsampled from 44.1
kHz to 96 kHz. In contrast, the Frampton download remains available at the time
of writing this and, moreover is not an isolated case - in fact it has some
notable company among HDtracks' classical titles." He downloaded a couple
of classical tracks that are available on the HDtracks site and found that they
too, were subjected to "steep low-pass filtering just above 20 kHz."
it gets worse when you think that customers can spend an additional $10 for the
176.4 kHz versions. Keith's conclusion, "the $10 premium for the 176.4
version buys you, effectively, nothing."
article also targets Linn's high resolution downloads as suffering from the
same manipulations. Linn promises to pay closer attention to the quality of
their source, the rigor of their procedures and to do a spectral analysis of
all new content. Why wasn't this done previously?
end of the article doesn't instill a lot of confidence in the press and
websites that report on our industry, "Unfortunately the hi-fi press -
which ought to be taking a leading role - has mostly sat on its hands: hi-res
recordings are routinely reviewed without any attempt to confirm their
provenance. Web sites that review hi-res recordings are arguably even worse
since their coverage typically outstrips that of the hi-fi magazine but their
reviews again include no objective assessment of the signal bandwidth supplied.
Online audio forums fill the gap to some extent, but aren't to be relied on, in
this matter or any other. For instance, in an Audio Circle forum discussing
HDtracks' Rolling Stones downloads, ted_b, described as a Facilitator, wrote,
'Spectrum analysis shows lots of energy way above 30 k for these Stones 176.4 k
rips, and not just noise-shaping' - which clearly flies in the face of our own
believe that it's time for digital music retailers, high definition record
companies and the press (both printed and online) to adopt an open and honest
approach to high definition music recordings. The more information that
consumers have the better it will be for everyone…the high-end segment of the
business will improve and music lovers will know what is possible with real
high definition tracks.