buying music in high-resolution audio formats

Joni Mitchell’s Blue on vinyl has a distortion at times behind her voice and piano. Time to buy a digital track and see if it’s still there. What the heck, go big and get the 192 kHZ 24-bit FLAC high-res audio. whatNerd has a list, “The 7 Best Sites to Buy Lossless and Hi-Res Music”:

  • Bandcamp: it’s a great resource to directly buy music from new musicians without going through a label, but Ms. Mitchell isn’t on it.
  • Acoustic Sounds. “alas we’ve reached the decision to cease operating our Acoustic Sounds Super HiRez digital downloads service”.
  • ProStudioMasters: album available for $25.99 released May 28, 2013
  • NativeDSD: not available. I’ve blogged that DSD is supposedly an awesome format for a digital master, and some obsessive Roon users re-encode all their music to DSD 512 before sending the bits to their music player, but it seems mostly classical tracks are available to buy in DSD.
  • HDtracks: album available for $26.48
  • 7digital: it only has her later Geffen releases, and only in 16-bit 44 kHz FLAC format.
  • HIGHRESAUDIO: seems to be a UK site, only has The Reprise Albums boxed set and Blue outtakes, unclear what formats it offers but has a badge for the dubious proprietary MQA format, and “due to territorial constraints and also different releases dates in each country you currently can`t purchase this album.”
  • Qobuz (the high-res streamingit across service also offers a store for downloads): album for only $22.09 , even cheaper at lower resolutions. The big plus is you can buy individual tracks.

So Qobuz it is, $5.18 for “All I Want” and “My Old Man.” This may seem like a lot, but I used to pay more for 45 RPM singles in today’s money (the $1 that a single cost in 1970 is now worth about $7!). Alas Qobuz has a $0.52 fee for paying with PayPal. The two songs are 70 MB each, about 10 times bigger than a quality MP3 encoding. (I remember the breakthrough when Macromedia was able to fit a song onto a floppy disk with MP3 compression.)

Sounds good…

OK, get the Roon server audio player working again on my Fedora laptop. It’s a great player for your digital audio files, but Roon’s default setup installs it as the root user😨! Roon expect you to install it on dedicated hardware, while I’m running it on my laptop so I fiddled around to install as a separate roon user with limited rights. Tell Roon to play the digital audio files through my Orchard PecanPi streamer, toggle my monstrous VTL tube power amps to their balanced XLR inputs and listen!

Ethernet plugged into Orchard PecanPi streamer plugged into VTL power amp plugged into Magnepan 3.6 speakers.
Tiny digital → huge analog

There’s still a bit of soft crackling-but-not-like cellophane behind her voice 😢, though much less behind the piano. What’s going on? I’ve heard this noise on a friend’s high-end stereo too. Is this intermodulation distortion in audio systems or is it inherent in the recording? Otherwise the digital soundstage feels wider: there’s none of the overlap of the left and right channels that you get when two angled walls are pushing a diamond on a thin cantilever from side-to-side in a piece of vinyl. The details are clearer than my vinyl, but it doesn’t have that vinyl warmth… which might just be the rolled-off treble and overlapping stereo channels. Who knows. I just want songs I love to sound amazing without worrying about the details.

Own or stream?

I really should upgrade to Qobuz from YouTube Music (formerly Google Play Music YouTube Gold Red Premium) so I can listen to music in hi-res audio without buying the track, and get a discount if I do buy it; and Qobuz integrates with the Roon audio player. Especially now that YouTube family membership is $23 a month. But then I read comments on YouTube videos about music from all the people complaining about incessant ads. By paying I never see any ads, even on a Roku TV streamer where I can’t run the great uBlock Origin ad-blocker for Firefox.

Digital taste test

I should buy the MP3s of the songs and do a blind test to see if my aging ears can tell the difference. But there are confounding factors: the higher-res audio files might be mastered a fraction of a dB higher because undetectably louder always sounds better (the Beatles on USB did this with the FLAC versions), and it’s unclear if the high-res Blue files are from the remastered album or the original.

The aluminum "The Beatles USB" apple with the USB flash drive removed.
The high-res files on this object d’art were made louder so they sound “better”

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