The Audio Geek!

Music purchasing habits

Probably reflective of the wider community (except those vinyl lovers), I am buying more music downloads than CDs these days. The only CDs I buy now are second hand out-of-print discs, boxed sets, collections and rarities.

When I say music downloads, I really mean high resolution versions where the recording quality / mastering is at a level (or more) above CD quality, and not a lossy MP3 version of CD quality. Therefore, the Apple iTunes Store is not on my purchasing radar.

The reasons for going to high-res digital downloads are pretty clear to me and not limited to the fact that my CD rack is now full!

Whist I have a very good CD player, the mighty Wadia 861SE, the recording quality of the discs are almost not up to quality of the player. Highly compressed music, recorded 'hot' with little dynamic range makes the listening experience not as pleasurable as it could be.

The second reason is portability. Obviously the discs are portable but the Wadia isn't, weighing in at some 22 kilograms. Digital downloads can be played on an iPhone, iPad, iPod, laptop iMac etc, in fact anywhere and on anything that has a headphone socket.

Thirdly, the flip side of point one above, is that much (not all, buyer beware) of the high resolution download material is re-mastered up from 44/16 format found on CDs to 96/24 or higher. The sound has more air, instruments have more separation, and the music tends to flow much more easily. Labels such as Linn Records have outstanding quality recordings even at the 44/24 level, the 'Cover my Blues' album by Pete Alderton is one such fine example. I don't count iTunes downloads as high resolution, even if Apple (and others) tell you that the differences are minimal. Phooey.

And finally, as it seems by my analysis that music downloads are 'better', they are no more expensive and in some cases much cheaper than CDs so that just seals the deal.

So, it sounds perfect right? Well, no so fast. There are plenty of potential gotchas and downsides.

The first is the one that affects all things digital, the lack of tactility. Vinyl records are superb, not just for the sound, but for the feel of the rice paper inner sleeve, the look and feel of the album cover with print you could actually read and as an overall 'thing' it looked and felt substantial. All of the preceding points got dumbed down when the world moved to CD but you still had a tangible 'asset' you could hold after your purchase. Forget all of that with music downloads. Yes, you can download most of the artwork, and some of the liner notes, but depending on your software player, you might not be able to see the cover or read the notes while you are listening.

Music downloads are a bit of a copyright minefield when it comes to lending and sharing your music around. Taking CDs to parties or music get togethers was easy, the portability / format is more tricky with downloads and given some formats it is too easy for 'illegal' copies to be made. So be careful.

As mentioned above, with downloads you don't have anything to hold in your hand as it all resides on your hard drive. And we know what happens to hard drives every now and then don't we? Once downloaded, securing your tracks with adequate backups, offsite storage copies etc is vital or else your growing music download collection can disappear literally in an instant. Most if not all download sites won't replace lost music files. Owner onus applies.

Also, you need to be a bit computer savvy to leverage high resolution downloads effectively. Bit rates, word lengths, DACs, jitter, AES/EBU, gapless playback, hog mode, Toslink, USB, integer mode, up sampling, oversampling, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC etc all need to be understood at some level to know what you are buying into and to maximise the listening experience.

The final limitation of music downloads is lack of variety or range. Various labels are releasing more and more material as high resolution downloads, the back catalog is pretty limited so one needs to search diligently and be prepared to wait until your preferred artists are available. The flip side of this one is, if you are desperate for some new music, you are tempted to try something new and different, often with joyous results. Again, I am discounting iTunes as a source for quality high resolution music downloads.

There you have it. My music buying patterns, pros and cons in a nutshell.

Here is an interesting and useful resource page for high resolution music downloads courtesy of Weiss High End.