The Download Upgrade - ResidentialSystems.com

The Download Upgrade

Recent reports that Apple is in talks to bring 24-bit downloads to the masses may have been met with a resounding “meh,” but don’t take that as evidence that no one cares about high-quality digital downloads.
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A Review of the Best High-Resolution Music Available on the Web

Recent reports that Apple is in talks to bring 24-bit downloads to the masses may have been met with a resounding “meh,” but don’t take that as evidence that no one cares about high-quality digital downloads. You need only look at the recent boom in the DAC market as proof that audiophiles are embracing the digital domain. But if you want to really flex the musical muscle of a Sooloos System, or Wavelength Cosecant USB DAC, or PS Audio PerfectWave, or even a just an amazing set of audiophile computer speakers like Meridian’s MM-1, then you’re going to have to dig a little deeper on the interwebs than iTunes. Thankfully, you’ve got a few options, most notably iTrax.com, the brainchild of AIX Records impresario Dr. Mark Waldrep, mostly for his breathtaking highresolution digital recordings. HDTracks.com also has been getting a lot of press recently for its release of the entire Rolling Stones catalog in “high resolution.” If you really want to hear the best that HDTracks has to offer, however, opt instead for any of the beautifully recorded digital offerings from Chesky Records. Before we get to those, though, let’s check out the iTrax cuts first.

The Carl Verheyen Band: Rumor Mill (iTrax)

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You can almost feel the windings on the phosphor bronze strings and the resonant reverberations of the rosewood guitar body as Verheyen’s fingers rip up and down the fretboard on the third track of Rumor Mill from The Carl Verheyen Band.

As I’ve said in just about every review I’ve ever done of an AIX release, if you’ve never heard one of Dr. Waldrep’s 96 kHz/24-bit recordings, they can be a bit disconcerting at first. “Chinatown,” the third cut from this riproaring six-string romp, is a perfect example of why. Our brains have a preconceived notion of what recorded guitars should sound like, and if you’ll pardon the rusticism–this ain’t it. No, this is what an actual guitar sounds like. You can almost feel the windings on the phosphor bronze strings and the resonant reverberations of the rosewood guitar body as Verheyen’s fingers rip up and down the fretboard. With no compression or equalization to get in the way, the rich midrange of the axe rolls out of the speakers like a sheet of crushed velvet, with the sparkling jangle of the higher strings laid out like shimmering jewels on top.

Lisbeth Scott: Charmed (iTrax)

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Cue up the sixth track, “I Fall,” on Lisbett Scott’s Charmed, and you’ll swear that the bulk of the bits in the recording are dedicated to the air in the room itself.

The haunting verisimilitude of Rumor Mill carries just as beautifully over to this amazing collection of tracks from the voice featured in John Williams’ incredible score for Munich. Here, Scott takes a minimalist approach–it’s just her angelic voice and delicate piano accompaniment, but those two elements alone are enough to make for one of the luscious collections of 1s and 0s you’re liable to hear anytime soon. Cue up the sixth track, “I Fall,” and you’ll swear that the bulk of the bits in the recording are dedicated to the air in the room itself. Scott’s loping piano lines hover in the room; it’s a ghostly, ephemeral aural entity that ebbs and flows and is deliciously dynamic. And her vocals reverberate with delicate, lifelike echoes that seems wholly detached from the speakers from which they emanate, even when her voice climbs to a goose bump-inducing falsetto crescendo. Opt for the lossless 5.1-channel Stage Mix if you’ve got the playback system to support it, but even in stereo, this simple mix positively fills any room.

Monty Alexander: Calypso Blues: The Songs of Nat King Cole (HDTracks)

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The 192/24 tracks on Monty Alexander’s jazzy collection of Nat King Cole covers are an absolute high-res revelation.

In contrast to the elegant simplicity of the Lisbeth Scott, this jazzy collection of Nat King Cole covers is a veritable explosion of sounds–a dense mix of shuffling piano licks, frolicking bass lines, and frenetic percussive riffs that’ll leave your feet tapping and your speakers gasping for breath. The Chesky recording is available in 96/24 or 192/24 from HDTracks (as well as standard CD quality), but don’t cheap out on this one. The 192/24 tracks are an absolute high-res revelation; each individual cymbal crash scintillates, every thumped bass string penetrates, and every chipper piano chord dances back and forth in a precarious bubble of perky, peppy sound that you’ll have to fight the urge to reach out and pop.

Sam Yahel, Mike Moreno, Ari Hoenig, Seamus Blake: The Jazz Side of the Moon (HDTracks)

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The Jazz Side of the Moon offers a dreamy, hypnotic cover of Pink Floyd’s “Time,” available in 192/24 FLAC format from HDTracks.

I’m not usually one to go for Pink Floyd covers, but for this innovative, instrumental take on Dark Side of the Moon, I’ll make an exception, especially for the dreamy, hypnotic version of “Time,” available in 192/24 FLAC format from HDTracks. Don’t be surprised if you barely recognize the melodies of Pink Floyd’s original in this interpretation. Yahel and company experiment more with this track than any other, seeming more interested in weaving captivating textures of sound than slavishly mimicking the source. The word that best describes the mix is “aquatic”: Yahel’s mesmerizing organ undulates at the edges of the soundstage like an aural ocean, through which Blake’s iridescent sax wiggles and swims, while Hoenig’s rat-a-tat percussion punctuates the mélange like little bursts of fireworks. Yes, underwater fireworks.

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