High Resolution Downloads. Nevermind?
The idea of high resolution downloads continues to be a thorny issue. With the release of the remastered 24/96 version of Nirvana's Nevermind, some consumers expressed outrage over the amount of dynamic compression apparently employed during the remastering process.
The sleuthing steps are fairly easy (and free) to follow - download a free analysis app like Audacity, open the music file under scrutiny and see what it looks like. Never mind what it sounds like since some of my favorite recordings both old and new look absolutely horrendous under the scope. Grinderman's "Worm Tamer" from Grinderman 2 being just one easy example that shows more clipping than Dick Cheney's EKG during a quail hunt. But Grinderman 2 was not marketed as an "audiophile" recording and I love listening to it. It's just music.
The theory behind high resolution remasters is bullet-proof—better sounding versions of music you know you love. The practice leaves a lot to be desired. But the question is, who's responsible? The musicians (if they're still alive)? The engineer? The record company? The distributor? The music reviewer? The audio magazine? AudioStream?
From my point of view, the record companies are ultimately to be held responsible for the products they produce. I'd expect that musicians and engineers would fight for the best possible sound quality but then again I'm hopelessly romantic. The music distributor is simply a pass-through. However we could argue that if the basic premise of the service is "audiophile quality" recordings, the premise implies some sort of filter and that filter should be refined to filter out the crap the record companies try to sell the eager audiophile music lover. And anyone that offers a review of said "audiophile quality" recordings should call a duck a duck and a goose a goose.
I bought Nirvana's remastered 24/96 Nevermind from HD Tracks, gave it a listen and a look in Audacity and I'd say look for the original CD or LP instead. In this case I do not see the point in paying a premium for compromised sound quality. And while I have not heard the 2009 180gm LP Nevermind reissue from the Original Recordings Group, Robert Baird gives it a big thumbs up in his article on the 20th Anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind "Here We Are Now, Entertain Us" in the November Stereophile (page 146). Better yet, buy a record from The Birthday Party and Last Exit and buy yourself a few beers with the change.
Sometimes we audiophiles can be our own worst enemies. If we place all our music-buying emphasis on bit and sample rates (not to mention buying the same recording for the umpteenth time when dressed up in the newest sonic attire), record companies are going to sell to this desire. Granted, high resolution downloads are in their infancy so we're at the perfect point in their evolution to help define what it is we're looking for and bit and sample rates obviously do not tell the entire sound quality story. If we account for the quality of the original music (and we really must) bit and sample rates do not even tell half the story.
What do you think is a reasonable solution for dealing with dynamically compressed music and sites like HD Tracks where people have come to expect some sort of quality control? Should they include a warning - "Warning Dynamically Compressed—Buy at your own risk (of being disappointed)"? How do you go about determining what is an acceptable amount of compression? Do we need to look at average dynamic range scores for an album? I'm very curious to hear your thoughts and what you believe are real-world solutions.
Of course many have beaten this path already including Turn Me Up!, JusticeForAudio.org, and the Unofficial Dynamic Range Database. For more background on dynamic compression and the loudness wars, look here.
In the end, we audiophiles already willingly pay a hefty premium for our sonic predilections. The least we can ask for and expect in return is to get the best the music has to offer. Come to think of it, why would anyone knowingly accept less?