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.

Two versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit” Waveform view in Audacity. Top image is from the original 1991 CD release. Bottom image is the new 24/96 remastered version.

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?

deckeda's picture

And it's curious how it's ignored by the same people who review equipment.

But let me step right back from that broad brush I just slathered.

Michael Fremer goes out of his way to make comparisons (when able) between releases. But that's on his personal site, musicangle.com

I'd prefer Stereophile took an active role here and have hinted as such. Don't give me press releases. The web does that better. Tell me you listened to the original LP, the MFSL, that rare UHQR, the Classic, the Friday Music, the HD Tracks, whatever.

I don't want and cannot afford 4 copies of something. I want them ranked, thanks.

Who's responsible? No one seems to know. Unless a producer or an engineer explicitly has taken a stance against brickwalling it will happen by default today. Paul Simon's latest from HD Tracks is brickwalled. Yep, that's Roy Halee apparently asleep, doesn't care, or doesn't know. Zzzzzzz.

Regarding what "to do" --- it certainly ain't HD Tracks fault, nor should they filter or police this necessarily. Frankly, I don't think any retailer belongs in that position although I concede that advertising something based largely on the notion of better sound forever opens you up to criticism when the shit hits the fan. So I expect them to be my partner here and not turn a blind eye.

Raise a stink. Demand a refund or at least another title. If none is provided go to another seller if possible. Money talks.

The bigger problem---and this is a serious flaw---is that there's essentially zero opportunity to complain to the labels or even question the "quality" of the sound. Artists' sites usually offer no help and often can't even be bothered to include discographies or (and this is where it gets bizarre) mentions of vinyl when it's available. A few have forums, and that's a possibility for assistance or venting.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Let's flip this equation upside down (or inside out) and ask – in how many of the music reviews we read *wherever* do we know what the music reviewer is using to listen through? Is their room properly treated? All nodes adequatley erased? Are they upsampling, down sampling, painting the sides of their discs green (with envy), tracking with the correct amount of down force?

I know the answer for the sources I enjoy but I'll keep that to myself for now ;-)

Malcolm02's picture

On the whole I love HDTracks, but my experience with the downloads has been decidedly mixed. Some sound great; others no better than the CD. I wish there was some audit trail for the origin of the hires content. Is this a newly made hires master derived from the original tapes? Is it derived from a previously released DVD-Audio or SACD? Or (heaven forbid) was it just upsampled from a CD master, as has happened in some cases?

deckeda's picture

Malcom, it's my understanding that you can run a song file through an app and see if there's information above a certain frequency. It's late so my details are hazy.

But if something's source was 16/44 there can't be any information, good (music/harmonics etc.) or bad (distortion) above that format's Nyquist frequency of 22kHz.

So if you have a 24/96 file and it's friggin' blank above that figure, oops.

Someone will correct me if I've borked and confused the above.

But back on topic, it's the noticable lack of dynamic thump usually first noticed, if brickwalling occured.

Of course, these two phenomenon are independent offenders. Once HDTracks was made aware of a few fake-hires releases snekaing through a while back, they got correct versions from the labels involved. And although its an easy thing to test for, I doubt HDTracks actually does analyize what thery're provided.

Malcolm02's picture

Thanks for the response (and the one below). I'm judging my HDTracks downloads by ear, but I did download and install Audacity, so I'm going to use that on some of my files to see what they look like and if that correlates to what I hear.

The only drawback with this is that you can only do it AFTER you have paid for and downloaded the file :-)

It looks like the Nirvana one is to be avoided though, which is some usfeul information I'm taking away from this article.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

And its free. "Spectrum" view shows you how much energy exists at various frequencies. Here's a piece of the HD Tracks 24/96 version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit":


I agree Malcolm - knowing the original source would be useful information but it would not address the issue with this particular remaster. It appears as if the dynamic compression that we can see and hear on Nirvana’s Nevermind was applied during the remastering process to what was otherwise a more dynamic original recording.

I will also say that downloading Audacity and opening a file does not make anyone, including me, an expert in interpreting the results. While some issues are visually obvious, I see a growing tendency for people to judge musical quality by simply looking at a waveform, which makes about as much sense to me as judging a book by its weight.

jgruesen's picture

Reminds me of when CDs first came to the market. The word then was to not buy the CD version of The Police's Synchronicity and buy the LP instead, it sounded way better.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

But let's try to keep things in perspective. We're talking about a handful of releases among a few thousand? 

We also should keep focused on the issue at hand which is we have Record Companies putting out products and people wanting to hold distributors accountable for their quality.

How any sane, rational group of professionals can produce a remastered reissue that is in some critical ways inferior to the original and then pass this piece of ill-considered engineering to a distributor who specializes in audiophile quality recordings to sell to people who care about sound quality is nearly a bad joke.

What I’m trying to get at are some reasonable ideas relating to how we can avoid this kind of thing going forward. Do people believe the onus is rightfully on the distributor, HD Tracks in this case? If so, what do you recommend they do about it? And if not the distributor (the sitting duck in this equation), then who?

slim's picture

I'm convinced that deckeda is right in this respect. The only way to make clear that we don't want this brickwalled crap is not to buy it. If no one's gonna buy it from the distributor, the record company won't produce it (no loss here, because better sounding versions readily available in most cases).

So my idea for a "real world" solution: request the seller to publish a DR (dynamic range) value for each track on offer, using some de-facto-standard software.

That software would be licensed by those possibly earning revenue from it and would be free to us (consumers) so we can check - not only against the sellers' claims, but also upon alternative versions of the same music, be it a CD rip, a needle-drop or download.

So - no DR value for the items on sale (or a really poor one) means: no sales.

I know, DR is not the only measure, but the more computer audio becomes standard, the more criteria of digitally performable quality control will be developed. Audacity is surely not a bad start: Why, for example, is there energy just below and above 30 kHz thru the sample of "Teen Spirit" above? (that is the horizontal blue lines). Probably some machinery issue (no other good reason comes to my mind).

And this is where I disagree with deckeda: If there is no information beyond 22 kHz in a 16/44.1 track, I can easily conceive that same track to have energy beyond the 22 kHz limit once upsampled - just from the hardware and/or software used for upsampling.

Then again, I agree very much with deckeda's request to get different versions of the same track/album ranked or compared - but: Who's gonna do it? No money can be made on that because it will tend to curb sales on the majority of versions - which brings us back to the start ...

Michael Lavorgna's picture

If we don't buy, will the record companies get the correct message?

We are talking about the same people who release music that no one who is concerned with sound quality would ever buy which indicates to me they are either relatively clueless or plain careless about addressing this market.

Which gets us to the next question – are there enough people interested in high definition downloads to make the record labels take notice of what we do or do not buy?

slim's picture

are we enough, and maybe/probably never will, but: If we don't buy, the record companies at least won't get the wrong message.

It's getting rather late here, CEST; been cueing up the Dead's Complete Europe '72 in plain 16/44 Apple Lossless for hours - and, to be honest, could hardly care less about HigherRes at the moment; I find the folks in charge of the Grateful Dead's vault are neither clueless nor careless about quality ...

... and another 64 of 73 disks to go!

DarenF's picture

7digital has recently started to sell 24bit and 16bit flac downloads. There is currently only a few albums available but at least it's a step in the right direction. Prices are about $12.00 for an album. http://ca.7digital.com/cms/flac/flac.aspx

JonnyMidnight's picture

If less records are sold, record companies will just attribute it to illegal downloading. That's their new catch phrase. Illegal downloading probably has hurt them a little bit, but the constant reissuing and repackaging of the same material hurts them worse. And when they remaster a classic title like "Nevermind" and make it sound much worse than the original, what hope is there? I heard this reissue and it is no less than a sonic assault.

vc's picture

If the original recording is in digital, why not offer it as it is without processing?

remlab's picture

 This is a company founded and run by David Chesky, so I kind of thought that high end recording standards would just automatically come with the territory. But every time I download a 24/96 $18.00 bummer(around 30%of the time and almost always rock), it becomes harder and harder to continue taking that chance. Thats just basic economics...

   I should say though, that you almost can't go wrong with  24/96 jazz and classical recordings downloaded from HD tracks. The rock recordings for obvious reasons are by nature not "audiophile quality". If you expect them to be, you will more often than not, be dissapointed.

jazzfan's picture

At the prices HDTracks I expect them to do more than just pass through whatever files the record company sends them, in other words HDTracks should listen to and test the material that they receive from the record companies and determine whether or not it is 1) truly high resolution and not merely an upsampled CD master and 2) whether or not the music has been dynamically compressed. Anything less is totally unacceptable.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

We're looking for solutions/suggestions as to how to actually deal with them.

For example, are you suggesting that HD Tracks refuse to sell something that they feel is overly compressed? Or should they provide average dynamic range scores for an album or for each track and let the buyer decide? The latter seems like the better solution since I've seen people commenting on forums that they actually like the sound of this Nirvana Nevermind release. And as I said, I own music that is dynamically compressed that I very much enjoy listening to.

As far as your first point goes - "determine whether or not it is 1) truly high resolution and not merely an upsampled CD master" - could you clarify exactly what you mean by “CD master”?