Sunday, 25 March 2012

Classical music download stores in 2012

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a blog post asking the following question: why are music download stores so useless? It had the particular perspective of a classical music loving Mac / iPod user who cares about high quality, of which more, much more, later. In the intervening years, the landscape has changed quite a bit and a new survey is probably overdue. Sadly, while in general it has to be said that things are better, for my money they are still astonishingly far from where they should be. All too often, trying to buy high quality classical downloads is a more frustrating experience than it has any right to be.

To be honest, given the choice, I'd now buy all my music as a download at CD quality or better (and I've not picked up a couple of new releases from labels that, for reasons passing understanding, refuse to sell their material in this manner). The three main reasons for this preference are the potential for better quality, more or less instant gratification (compared to waiting for a CD to arrive in the post) and no shelf-space required, which is a not inconsiderable issue for me.

Quality will be a major feature, or bugbear, depending on your perspective, of this post. If you're happy with 320 mp3 or 256 aac, as many people seem to be, then the download market is well served by the likes of Amazon and Apple. Many people seem almost proudly to claim that they can't hear the difference, yet for some reason the same issue doesn't dog the likes of blu-ray or the HD video downloads Apple offers. That is arguably a rather spurious apples to oranges type comparison, but for me the difference is normally similarly night and day with HD audio.

This issue of quality excludes many stores from this survey. By way of illustration, take Apple's iTunes. There has been no change here since my last survey. Apple's continued refusal to offer no more than 256 AAC means I don't purchase from them. This puzzles me, given they sell films in HD, are so concerned about quality in most aspects of what they do and have their own lossless audio format. Here's what I said three years ago:

Let us start with the big beast of online downloads, Apple and their iTunes store. This being Apple, everything is easy and works. Search works fairly well and typing, for example "Ravel Abbado" will bring back Abbado's recordings of Ravel (not the case on all sites). Often you are not allowed to download every individual track, but since I'm only interested in complete classical works this restriction doesn't bother me. Buying is simple and the download goes straight into your iTunes library (and then straight onto your iPod when you plug it in). True, it wasn't always DRM free, but it is now. It's simple. It is perfect, it's exactly what music downloading should be. Why would you want to buy anywhere else? The answer, of course, is that there is a but, a very big but: sound quality. 256kbps AAC is not really good enough (especially when using the Amazon marketplace it is often possible to source the CD cheaper). With the exception of a live Mackerras concert from Sydney (where there was no way to get the music losslessly) or for some Radio 4 comedy, I have therefore never used it, and will not until they address this. It is a shame, because with every other download site, once the music is on your computer, you then have the extra step of importing it into iTunes.

Reading that quote back, one nice point to note is the mention of DRM. While digital rights management crippled early download stores, making life difficult, it is now basically non-existent (would that Apple's video download service or any of the various major ebook providers would similarly see the light). Indeed, as I go on to survey the various stores I have used lately, the term DRM will not appear once.

One final point (on iTunes): it does seem that Apple may finally be inching towards higher quality. While the recent launch of mastered for iTunes (read trying to make 256 aac sound better) seems on the face of it to be going the wrong way, articles like this indicate that things may be moving in the right direction after all.

Until then, here's my roundup of stores offering CD quality or better.


Hyperion Records

I'll begin with a store I haven't written about before, and one which comes so close to perfection: Hyperion. It has one fairly obvious limitation in that it contains only recordings on their own label, rather than being a general store, however I do not count this against them. It's pretty difficult to ever find Hyperion physical CDs at a big discount (even on Amazon's marketplace) and in a world where downloads often don't seem to offer nearly the savings that by logic they ought to, the Hyperion site is a refreshing change. Take, for example, my most recent purchase: Marwood, Volkov and the BBC SSO's new recording of Britten's violin concerto. From the site the CD will cost you £13.99, or to download £7.99. By contrast the lowest Amazon price (taking postage into account) is £9.99 for the CD. This is fairly typical of my experience with the site. Interestingly, Hyperion charges the same price whether you opt for mp3 or CD quality. CD quality downloads used to be restricted to the flac format (great unless you're an iTunes user), but recently they've added Apple Lossless (alac). This may be a result of Apple's decision to open source the codec at the end of last year - hopefully more sites will follow Hyperion's lead on this. Another nice point about Hyperion's store is that it remembers your format of choice, so now every time I go there it offers me alac without my having to select it. Contrast this with The Classical Shop where every single time I must override the default mp3 choice (doubly annoying since the CD quality price is not displayed there by default). Hyperion also offers a percentage discount scheme the more you spend (10% over £20, 15% over £40 and 25% over £59) which can prove expensive.

Purchasing is smooth, as is downloading. When the store first launched, you had to either click and download each track manually or they recommending using a third party download manager. This is fine if like me you are comfortable installing such Firefox add ons as DownThemAll, which works well with the site. For the less technically adept, this is problematic. Fortunately Hyperion now offers its own download manager, which will open (or install if you're using it for the first time) in a few clicks from the download page. It's built in Adobe Air so should work fine on PCs as well as Macs. It smoothly downloads all the tracks and, in a nice touch, also downloads the booklets automatically. A lot of other sites provide the booklet, but normally you have to download them separately. Hyperion rightly assume that listeners like me might want it by default. Once downloaded (and you can specify any folder you like to download to), it's just a few clicks to get the files into your player of choice. At which point comes the vexed question of tagging. I'm sure all classical music fans have evolved their own slightly different systems for tagging music files and so no store is going to be quite ideal. However, in general I've found Hyperion files require very little rework.

I really have just one criticism of Hyperion: they do not offer downloads at better than CD quality. Offer me studio masters and they will have the best store out there (given they have a good store, they might also consider building it up and bringing in other labels). A hopeful sign is that when I raised this with them via Twitter, they indicated higher quality might be coming. And, indeed, as I was preparing the final draft of this piece, Hyperion announced studio master quality downloads. This is excellent news. Only a few are available so far but doubtless this will increase with time. Prices seem reasonable compared to HD recordings on other stores and Hyperion are unique in offering these HD downloads in alac format. I haven't tested any yet, so cannot comment on sound quality (mainly because none of the few releases so far has been one I have wanted to own, or rather the ones I would like I've already bought at lower quality), but I doubtless will in due course and will update this post when I do.


eClassical

Another store I didn't cover in my previous roundup is Swedish site eClassical. A big chunk of their catalogue comes from their compatriots at the BIS label, but others can be found there (though often the range from these other labels is far from complete). Rather unusually, they have opted for a per second pricing model. This can have an advantage in making shorter discs (such as many from Neeme Järvi's rather fine Sibelius cycle) much more attractively priced. It also means you don't get penalised if you just wish to buy individual tracks or works. Pricing is all in US$ but once converted into UK£ it seems pretty reasonable.

Unfortunately, searching isn't as effective as it should be. This is mainly in terms of the order of the results not being very helpful, rather than failure to find discs altogether. Type in, for example "Suzuki Bach 30" and the top result isn't, as you might expect, volume 30 of Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan's survey of the Bach cantatas (a fabulous disc, in large part due to the presence of Carolyn Sampson). It does find that disc, about two thirds of the way down the page, but a bunch of Suzuki's other recordings head the list for no readily apparent reason. The only possible explanation I can see for its selection appears to be that those listed first were released on the 30th day of a given month. It seems a bizarre thing to prioritise, to say the least.

Downloads are either in mp3, CD quality flac or 24 bit flac (at a range of sample rates depending on the recording). The sound quantity has been excellent on the 24 bit recordings which I have downloaded. When buying a full album it comes as a single zipped file so downloading is fairly easy (I haven't tried purchasing individual tracks so can't comment on how simple that is). If you buy several discs at once you must manually download each one. Booklets are offered but must be downloaded separately. They do offer a download manager, but it is PC only so I haven't tested it.

Since they don't offer alac, if you use iTunes there is an extra step before you can import your music. This is my biggest criticism of the site. And now that alac is open source there is no reason not to offer it. For me, conversion is just a slightly annoying extra time and effort, however it may put off those less technically confident. My other gripe is that tagging can be problematic, to such an extent that once the new disc is imported into my library of over twenty thousand tracks, it can take longer than it should do to find it. For example, on many of those Järvi discs, the conductor's name was misspelled. (That said, there is a fairly easy solution to this problem - see the end of the article.)

On the whole, though, eClassical offers a good experience, and with a few minor tweaks it would be great.


The Classical Shop

One of the older specialist classical download sites is Chandos's The Classical Shop, which came in for something of a grilling in my original post. It was subsequently improved after a relaunch about two years ago. How does it fare in 2012?

On the plus side, it offers a comparatively wide range of labels, and is the only place I'm aware of where you can download the likes of the LSO's and the Halle's house labels at CD quality (this isn't quite true as a few LSO Live discs are now starting to appear on HD Tracks, of which more anon). Annoyingly, new releases from third party labels often take longer than they should to appear, though the label may be to blame for this. There is a reasonable range of download choices: mp3, flac, aiff and wma. I find the site's defaults on these matters frustrating, and it has no memory of my past choices, unlike Hyperion. They offer a reasonable number of discs in studio master 24/96 quality and some that I've tried, such as Louis Lortie's Années De Pèlerinage sound absolutely stunning.

Unfortunately, there has also been a big step backwards. Back in April 2010 you could choose to get your music as a single zipped file, making for a slightly simpler download process. They have now replaced that with a download manager. Fine in principle (see Hyperion above), but their execution of this would politely be described as inept and delivers a user experience so poor that it is hard to imagine it has actually been tested. Fortunately, Firefox users comfortable with DownThemAll (or equivalent) can simply use that. Otherwise, you must use theirs. It is Java based, so runs in the web browser rather than as a stand alone app, but it is badly flawed. If, like me, your music is stored on an external hard disk, tough: you cannot choose to download the music straight there. (Actually, subsequent testing of another download manager based on Java indicates I may be wrong about this, however if it is possible it is only in such a roundabout way that I missed it completely. For obvious reasons I am not keen to test it again.) Worse, the manager hijacks your web browser for the duration of the download. You cannot switch tabs, open a new window or do anything (I have found this in whichever Mac browser I've tried). If you don't have your own download manager, the best workaround is to use a separate browser just for shopping there. Otherwise, if, like me, you have numerous tabs open at a given time, and are in the middle of various things when you decide you'd like to download something, it can be infuriating. And if you're downloading a large HD quality album, it could be some time (especially as Chandos's servers aren't all that quick).

There are a couple of other gripes. It offers aiff downloads which will play in iTunes with no conversion, which might be seen as a plus. However, they are much, much bigger than flacs, so will take longer to download and run you up closer to whatever download limits your internet provided imposes. I download flacs and then convert. Ideally they would replace aiff with alac.

Arguably more annoying is their tagging, which again isn't all it could be. One particular horror story involved Louis Lortie's complete Beethoven piano sonatas. Many of the tracks were mislabelled, and I don't simply mean not to my taste, I mean one track was titled as another. It took several frustrating hours to sort out. I realise tagging will never be perfect, but it needs to be better than that.

A final irritant is pricing. Generally this is fairly reasonable, but occasionally things are insane. Take, for example, their Percy Grainger edition. The physical 19 disc set is £53, which is exceptional value. But what if you want to download? Sorry, you can't. Well, that's not quite true, you could download each of those 19 discs individually. But you'd only do that if you have more money than sense, since that would cost you £189.81. I did query this with Chandos a while back. Their response:
The bargain price is only applicable to the CD box set. Individual volumes in the Grainger Edition series can still be downloaded from The Classical Shop, but at the usual download price.

In other words, we're aware of this absurd situation and don't appear to have any problem with it. A somewhat disappointing attitude, to say the least.

In short, Chandos's offer is not bad, but could and should be better. Some of their catalogue is on eClassical, sadly though not everything (if it was, there would be little reason to use The Classical Shop).


Linn Records

Linn Records is an offshoot of Linn, a Scottish hi-fi manufacturer. There is a logic to this: having dedicated substantial effort to reproducing recordings as well as possible, why not make them too? Of particular interest to me, they have for several years now had an association with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which includes several recordings with the late great Sir Charles Mackerras. Indeed, their recordings of late Mozart symphonies are among the gems of Linn's catalogue. These are far from the only highlights though: listen also to this fabulous disc of Mozart wind concertos, featuring soloists drawn from the orchestra. They also stock several other labels, such as Resonus Classics (a fairly new digital only label whose catalogue includes some excellent recordings by the Eroica Quartet).

Also of note, especially considering the abysmal quality of Universal's own store (see below), recently items from both Deutsche Grammophon and Decca were added. They launched with only five discs, though both Linn's announcement, and also the catalogue numbering, suggests that more are to follow (and, indeed, since I first drafted this paragraph, they have already reached figures). The initial five were not a massively attractive set to me. Solti's Mahler 8 will doubtless appeal to many, and it is a pretty decent performance, though the recording, at least on my CD version, is not absolutely ideal - Sinopoli and the Philharmonia (also Universal) surely make for a better showcase of the work in high quality sound. On the one hand, it's great that Linn have got this stuff out of the vaults of the majors, but on the other it's puzzling that Universal show no inclination to release it themselves. Especially given the markup. I bought Colin Davis's Concertgebouw recording of the Symphonie Fantastique and the £18 price tag, as against the £3.97 for which Amazon are selling the CD version at the time of writing, should surely have record label executives salivating madly. For the record, the Concertgebouw are beautifully caught on the disc. It's also a pretty compelling performance of a work that I'm extremely fussy about (though despite the high definition sound, it will not replace Markevitch's account as my favourite, and buyers looking for a high definition recording of the piece may wish to wait for the April release of the SCO's new recording). Part of me wishes I'd waited a day, by which time Jochum's Carmina Burana and Britten's own recording of Peter Grimes had appeared. Indeed, the Britten is particularly fine: a great performance, and it is good to hear the extra detail in the likes of the sea interludes.

The store ticks most of the boxes: searching and purchasing is pretty straightforward, tagging of files is pretty good, it appears to be well curated and most recordings are available in very high quality (up to 24/192, though I haven't tested the highest quality files as my equipment will not support them). Like Hyperion, they provide an Adobe Air based download manager that easily installs and, once there, in a few clicks easily downloads all the music files, art and booklet to a folder of your choice. You can just as easily use your own browser based download manager if you prefer. Sadly lossless downloads are limited to flac or wma, so no alac, meaning conversion is necessary. My only other quibble concerns pricing. A studio master quality album goes for £18 which is not especially cheap. This is significantly more than the physical disc, and given the physical disc is an SACD (and thus high quality) that seems hard to justify. Another puzzle is that as the price rises, from £8 for mp3, to £10 CD quality flac, and so on, it then stalls at £18. 24 bit flac at 88.2khz is priced exactly the same as 24 bit at 192khz, despite the latter being significantly higher quality and a bigger download. This seems rather confused. A top £18 price for a 24 bit lossless recording also seems a little on the high side compared to eClassical. Generally, though, the site is a pleasure to use and if it would only offer an alac option as well it would be more or less perfect. The addition of Universal albums makes it especially attractive going forwards.


Passionato

Passionato launched with some fanfare in 2008, amid headlines that included "classical music downloads done right". This was never entirely my experience, not least as too much of the catalogue was below CD quality. Yet it was the one place where EMI downloads could be found at CD quality. Sadly, as was revealed as a result of our reporting last year, the site is now all but defunct, with just items from Universal's catalogue remaining (despite claims on the website to the contrary). In fact, a further check while writing this post shows it is now totally gone and no downloads, not even from Universal, are available, the page now pointing to one that offers physical CDs. In response to my article James Glicker, president of Passionato, indicated that the terms requested by the labels were such that the site wasn't viable. In the case of labels like BIS this seems odd (as their content can be found elsewhere), but for the majors I find this only too depressingly easy to believe.

Hopefully Passionato will one day return in an improved form, but I will not be holding my breath.


Universal (Deutsche Grammophon and Decca)

The Universal labels, primarily DG and Decca (which now includes Philips), have for some time had a download store that can be accessed via their online catalogues. I think it existed at the time of my earlier write up, however it did not offer better than 320 mp3. That has since changed to include CD quality flac as well. The front end is slightly different depending on which site you access it through, but you can search the entire catalogue on both, and almost everything is available, though there do tend to be some puzzling omissions among recent issues. Why isn't the recent box of Giulini's Chicago recordings available when the roughly contemporary set of his Los Angeles ones is? I asked why this might be the case, to which I received the following unhelpful reply:
The requested item is only available in a cd format not a download. Certain items on the web store will have both formats available or just one available.

Which didn't actually answer my question (a further e-mail pointing out that fact went unanswered). Bafflingly, the set is available as a lossy download elsewhere and is on Spotify, but not in flac on their own store.

Sadly such puzzling gaps in their catalogue are the least of their problems. As evidenced by the Giulini / LA link above, the flac download prices are not always reliably below the cost of the physical CDs as they clearly should be (Amazon will let you have it for £12.99 as against £28.99 for the flac download, and indeed the £26.99 that DG will charge if you buy the physical discs direct from them). A much more significant problem comes with the tagging of the downloads which is basically non-existant. I bought Helmut Walcha's recording of Bach's Well Tempered Klavier (for reasons passing understanding it is no longer available on CD). Things start off well, in that you get a single zipped file containing all the tracks, but it unzips to a single folder of all 96 tracks, the metadata on each of which consisting of just the title and the artist. The titles do contain the track number at the start, but this isn't separately encoded, meaning that what imports into your library is all the track ones, then the twos, and so on. Getting it into a proper order so that you can actually listen to it is the kind of experience that leaves you badly in need of some of just the sort of soothing Bach with which you're wrestling. Things were better when I downloaded Adrian Boult's mono survey of Vaughan Williams' symphonies with the London Philharmonic, the zip file unpacking into separate folders for each CD so they can be imported one at a time and thus making it marginally easier to sort everything out. However, there's still far too much time to be spent comparing the timings of the imported tracks against the website to get them sorted out. (At this point you may be wondering why I was looking at the web and not the supplied digital booklet, which is because Universal don't bother to include one.) But it could be worse, I could have bought Ruldolf Serkin's Mozart piano concerto recordings with Abbado and the LSO (as @higgis did): with seven tracks titled simply allegro and six andante and so on, well, you get the idea. As if that wasn't enough, I made the mistake of downloading Neeme Järvi's second recording of Sibelius's symphonies. To add to the problems mentioned came an additional one: the last ten seconds or so of several tracks was missing. This was most glaring at the end of the third movement of the second symphony, thus totally ruining the transition into the finale.

That was at the end of November. I contacted Universal to request they issue the corrected files. Shortly thereafter I was rather surprised to find my card refunded, which wasn't what I asked for. I wrote querying this. The same unhelpful chap who answered my earlier question was no more illuminating:
This download has been deactivated as our Technical team are currently looking into the problem of what is wrong with this download once the problem has been rectified we will notify yourself via email.

That's directly copied and pasted from his e-mail, if you're wondering about the lack of punctuation. I await the promised e-mail. I could have fixed this problem in half an hour. But Universal is a multinational company, bless them, so I suppose it's understandable that nearly four months later it hasn't been rectified and I still haven't got the things I tried to buy..... Finally, in mid-March I did receive this response (rather annoyingly addressed to "Dear Customer", instead of using my name):
We have found out the cause of the bug that led to some of your tracks being cut off by a few seconds. It results from the migration of a key system a few years ago in our supply chain. For some albums in a specific set of circumstances a muddle to do with between-track pause times caused the encoding of these tracks to be these few seconds shorter. We are currently finding out exactly how many albums this applies to and re-delivering them to our shop.

In the meantime the digital product you purchased has been removed from the DG Web Shop. Thank you very much for reporting the bug!

So hopefully it will be resolved soon. But I'm not holding my breath.

More recently, I discovered that Mercury is now part of Universal. This was rather good news, as I wanted to pick up Kubelik's 'Living Presence' recording of Smetana's Ma Vlast (which comes as part of this very attractive box). Despite all of the above, my desire to acquire this disc (no longer available on CD) was such that I tried to download it. Sadly, despite several attempts, their site refused to complete the purchase. Or rather, did so but then gave an error message that implied it hadn't gone through. Unwisely, I tried again, which you shouldn't do because you'll just get charged again but again receive no goods. The wording is at best misleading and getting my money back took far longer than it should have (sadly they were unable to provide what I really wanted, namely the download).

I wrote to Universal again, in particular querying whether it was safe to buy anything from their store. Again, their response was vague and didn't really answer my questions.
As you may be aware, we have switched our platforms for distribution to Universal Music. Whilst doing so, the service has encountered a few temporary technical issues that require slight adjustments. We don't envisage that the issue will take much longer to resolve, and we thank you for your continued patience.

Worryingly, the set is still listed for sale as a flac download, yet they have not confirmed to me that it is safe to purchase it. My view is that at present it is simply not safe to purchase items from Universal's download store and until I receive a reassuring response from them, I have no intention of doing so.

You could be forgiven for thinking that companies like Universal don't actually want to sell any music. Still, if they don't want my money, I can always head off to eClassical or Chandos and pick up the Naxos reissues of the recordings (though I'd prefer to have issues taken from the original masters if at all possible).

On the one hand it's nice that Universal are vaguely trying - you can't get legal CD quality downloads of a disc on Warner or EMI classics anywhere that I am aware of (though the latter may, I suppose, change as Universal are acquiring that bit of EMI). And yet their efforts fall so far short of what can and should be achieved that it is almost comical.


Society of Sound

Another hi-fi manufacturer, Bowers and Wilkins take a rather different approach with their Society of Sound download store, basing it on a subscription model. Essentially you pay $60 a year (or $40 for six months) and get two, or sometimes more, albums a month. As this article is primarily concerned with classical music, the classical offerings are limited to releases from the London Symphony Orchestra's house label LSO Live. The other monthly disc can be more or less anything and can often be a very pleasant discovery, but if you're looking for classical music only it probably offers poor value for money. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the LSO are starting to add their catalogue to HD Tracks (an odd choice over, say eClassical, for reasons outlined below). Personally, I rather enjoy it, but most of the gems haven't come from the LSO. Highlights include the discovery of Dub Colossus, via their superb album A Town Called Addis, Peter Gregson's Terminal and Thomas Dolby's A Map of the Floating City.

With the LSO releases there are certain problems. First, they don't in general seem to have issued any of what I would regard as the crown jewels of the LSO Live catalogue. There has been a fixation with Gergiev's Mahler (some like it, I know, but I am not among them). We've had a couple of releases from Haitink's Beethoven series, but sadly not the exceptional disc of 4 and 8.

A bigger problem is that the sound quality on LSO Live is often poor. In part this is down to a poor acoustic at the Barbican, but their skill at taming it is more variable than it ought to be. Society of Sound is in part marketed on sound quality, thus it is baffling to see releases like Haitink's Bruckner 4 there, the sound quality of which is terrible. I found it a little frustrating that last month's download of Gergiev's recording of Ravel's Bolero was a video rather than just HD audio (though I suppose some people may prefer this).

The user experience is pretty decent. It uses an Adobe Air based download manager which manages things nicely. Files are in flac. There is an alac option, but annoyingly only for CD quality, quite why this should be I don't know. However, they are very responsive to feedback: one LSO Live disc was tagged as two separate CDs - why hold to the physical restriction with a download, I asked? Next time round, they numbered it as one continuous recording.

I enjoy Society of Sound, more than anything as it introduces me to new things, and will probably renew my subscription when it comes due, but not for the LSO offerings. Whether or not the subscription offers value will be a very personal calculation.


HD Tracks

I mentioned HD Tracks once or twice above. It looks great in principle, but I have purchased little there. A lot of the classical content can be found at better value on some of the stores already mentioned and their search facility is, to put it mildly, not very effective. To start with, it is not clever enough to search multiple criteria but can only check one thing at a time. It defaults to artist. Thus, typing in "Gergiev Debussy", say, which is the way I would normally search, will get you nothing, even though Gergiev's LSO Live Debussy disc is available there. Searching under artist for "Gergiev" will get you to a page that then links to the album, but this represents too many clicks required compared to any other store I've ever used. You might think that if you searched under album for "Debussy La Mer" it would get you there a little quicker. But you would be wrong. In fairness, it should be noted that typing just "La Mer" does work. However, this discrepancy is indicative of how unsatisfactory, unreliable and unintuitive the search facility is. And if you can't find something you can't buy it. Given that rather basic truth, it's surprising HD Tracks haven't developed something better.

Let's try another tack and browse by label. This too would be a mistake as too often it simply brings you to a page saying "coming soon" (even when they have items from that label available). You might be forgiven for imagining that a surefire route to success would be to click on one of the items promoted on the front page. Sitting there very enticingly is The Who's Tommy, which I would dearly love to own in HD, but which, when you click on it isn't actually available. Or rather, it appears not to be available. There is a partial solution: if you use Google's site search rather than HD Tracks' own useless search facility (i.e. into google type "site:hdtracks.com [your actual query]") you can find things, though still not as well as on a store with a decent search facility. In short, the site's search is unusable and the curation is very poor indeed. Before even attempting to buy anything the store has produced an immensely unsatisfying user experience. So much so, that were it not for a desire to make this piece more comprehensive, I doubt I would have done so.

But try I did. Alas, I did not meet with much more success than I had when attempting to search. Bitter disappointment set in immediately: on attempting to buy Tommy a message was displayed that it is unavailable to buy as I'm in the UK. The same is true of Miles Davis's final masterpiece Doo-Bop. In fairness to HD Tracks, they blame the record labels who are clearly as much a bunch of morons as Universal and apparently have no desire to actually sell things and make money. It is insane: after all, I can order a CD from the states via the Amazon marketplace with no problems. I should note that this problem doesn't apply to all of the HD Tracks catalogue: the LSO's few HD issues are available to purchase if you're in the UK and doubtless some other stuff too. Annoyingly, the only way to discover is to try to buy them.

Finally, though, I found a disc I wanted to buy that I was allowed to buy. Again, I must note that were it not for the fact that I wanted to include a full write up of the site, I would likely have given up before this point. I picked up Miles Espanol, a successor to Miles Davis's masterpiece Sketches of Spain featuring many Davis compositions and former sidemen.

Pricing is not especially compelling. HD Tracks does have a download manager, but it is a pretty sparse Java based affair (it run outside the browser so at least doesn't lock it up like The Classical Shop does, which is a plus). It is possible to download files to an external disk, but only with some difficultly and in a way that isn't very intuitive. Servers are pretty slow. However, once the files are there, they do sound very fine. Still, for all the reasons outlined above, until there is a marked improvement in their service (or unless they have some must buy disc that I actually can buy), I am unlikely to purchase from them again in the near future and cannot recommend their service.


Highresaudio

Highresaudio, a German site, also looks tempting at first glance. One interesting point is that they list a number of the same Decca and DG recordings as Linn and quite a few others. This suggests that such gems as Erich Kleiber's Figaro could be arriving on Linn soon (though still not at the time of writing - I am reluctant to buy it from Highresaudio as it lists the wrong number of discs, giving me concern that theirs is not a complete issue).

Sadly, this is another site with poor usability. Perhaps it's just my browser, but every time I set the site to English, it jumps back to German on the next page. I also object to having to agree to be sent marketing emails when I sign up. Purchasing for the first time isn't exactly easy. You must first register, then click the confirmation link in the e-mail. Doubtless this was just bad luck, but once the e-mail had come and I'd clicked it, their site had fallen down. I can't recall an online store that doesn't let you register and complete the purchase all without leaving your browser. Unhelpfully, you are not then taken back to the thing you were trying to purchase. Clicking the link doesn't in and of itself log you into the site, so if you then make the mistake of thinking you're good to go and search back the album and try to purchase it, you'll once again be told you need to log in. Of course, you're now armed with a working log in, which, when used, once again doesn't take you back to the album you were trying to purchase. One begins at this point, actually some point way before this, to question whether they have any interest at all in selling any music. Finally you add the item to your cart, but you aren't then taken to the cart and asked if you want to go to the checkout, instead an extra click is needed. Indeed, the process is such that you could be forgiven for thinking that clicking the link to buy hadn't actually worked.

Prices look a little steep at around €21 for a 24/96 album, but actually when paying by Paypal (at the time of writing) that converted to £18.15, so roughly equivalent to Linn. When it comes to actually downloading, they have native download managers for Mac, Windows and, impressively, Linux. Sadly, it's clear they aren't real Mac users since they haven't opted for a simple drag and drop install. Indeed, the install process is both poor and annoying. In comparison to the smoothness of Linn or Hyperion it leaves an awful lot to be desired.

The download manager is functional but ugly. Setting it to download to an external drive is convoluted. The way the progress markers display is highly unintuitive, so you could be forgiven for thinking the album wasn't actually downloading at all. However, it does download art and (if applicable) the booklet automatically. That said, if I was buying again, I suspect I'd stick with DownThemAll.

Overall, Highresaudio is not as bad as HD Tracks, but it is still hard to recommend.



The Rest?

If you're in France, qobuz looks great (and @meltsheep thoroughly recommends it). It has a vast range at CD quality and some stuff at higher qualities. Sadly, as I don't have a French postcode, it won't let me purchase any of them. As such, this survey does not cover it and I cannot recommend it. So much for the free market.


Bandcamp deserves a quick mention. Intended for artists to sell their own music direct to listeners, it is the place to go if you want to pick up Peter Gregson's Terminal or Philip Sheppard's soundtrack to Bobby Fischer Against the World. It allows the artist to set a minimum price, normally pretty low, which you can top up should you feel inclined. It offers a range of download formats, though here I have a gripe: it doesn't always specify what quality of flac you're getting, and sometimes the flacs are higher quality than the alacs (so if the alac file size indicated looks too good to be true in comparison to the flac, that's because it is). The download is a single zipped file, and overall purchasing is fairly smooth.


Since this survey is primarily about classical downloads, it seems perverse to mention a site called Non Classical. Founded by composer Gabriel Prokofiev, the non has more to do with breaking classical out of the standard concert hall environment. I've only used it once to download Prokofiev and Gregson's recent EP Jerk Driver, but it was fine to use. My only quibble would be that the download was limited to CD quality.


Finally, there are a couple of services I included in my original post that I have not used since. The online shop on the Philharmonia orchestra's website is still limited to 320 mp3 and thus too low quality. Their catalogue is available losslessly via The Classical Shop, so there is now no reason to consider direct purchase. Similarly, I have never felt tempted to go back to emusic. The combination of low quality (just 192 mp3) and a frustrating subscription model that isn't to my taste is not enticing. It used to have some utility for more cheaply trying out recordings I wasn't sure about, but for this sort of purpose it is in every respect (including sound quality) absolutely trounced by Spotify.


Speaking of which, Spotify offers two subscriptions, £4.99 a month gives you unlimited listening without adverts. For £9.99 you get that plus 320 ogg (up from 160) which is not a million miles from CD quality and better than iTunes and Amazon (you also get the ability to save tracks for offline use and use of the phone app). The catalogue is good, though there are some frustrating absences, in particular Chandos. I find it invaluable for trying before I buy. Often, after one hearing, I've decided not to waste my money. Probably more often, though, I've tried out something that I might not otherwise have considered and then gone on to purchase it. You can purchase tracks through Spotify. Annoyingly, though, this is at 256 or 320 mp3 rather than the superior 320 ogg at which content is streamed. I presume there's a logical explanation for this......



Conclusion

There you have it: some good things, and in general progress in the right direction. Still, I can't help feeling these are things that it is not as difficult to get right as some of these companies make it appear. Of late, I have particularly enjoyed using both Hyperion and eClassical. Indeed, in recent times my purchases of items on labels such as BIS and Hyperion have increased while my purchases from the majors have fallen. That isn't a coincidence, but rather in part because they offer me a better service. Hopefully things will improve further and this post will soon become redundant....

In the meantime, if there is anywhere else I should be aware of, please let me know via the comments. I'd be especially interested to find somewhere I could buy EMI and Warner issues at CD quality or better (not to mention a usable outlet for Universal recordings).


Flac into iTunes

I have a bit of a love hate relationship with Apple. They do make some fantastic kit and software. At the same time, they exhibit an infuriating pigheadedness on some issues, chief among them for me being their refusal to support flac, which is the dominant format for high quality downloads. Given it's open source, there's no good reason not to support it. It's not even as though they're leveraging their own sales by only supporting their own equivalent, since they won't sell high quality downloads.

There are workarounds that will let you play flac files directly in iTunes, but having played with them they are somewhat temperamental. More reliable is simply to, albeit reluctantly, give into Apple and convert the downloads to Apple Lossless. This best, and pretty simply, done with XLD (X Lossless Decoder). This is a free piece of software that converts between different formats. It will also rip discs to a higher standard than iTunes, but that gets a little technical.

Simply bring up the preferences, set the output format to Apple Lossless and choose an output directory. There is also an option to add the converted files to iTunes directly. A particularly useful feature is that they can be added to a specific playlist, meaning that it's then easy to find the discs in your library and fix the tagging.

Once in iTunes, I set the 'group' tag on all my high quality downloads to 'lossless', and then have a smart playlist to pull them all together, thus giving me effectively a separate browsable lossless library of discs I may want to play through my hi-fi (separate from the low quality rips for my iPod).

A final piece of the puzzle comes via Bit Perfect. This application integrates with iTunes and ensures bit perfect output, cutting out any processing that Apple's software might be doing, thus giving maximum quality digital output direct to your DAC. It also blocks out any other sounds, such as system alerts, skype calls, or whatever, that might interrupt your listening. It is available from the App Store for the bargain price of 2.99.


Of course, another option would be to use Songbird, since that would play flacs directly, and I did use this previously, but on the Mac at least it is a horribly buggy piece of software. It is also full of annoyances: for example, it stores album art in the cache folder, which it shouldn't do as this isn't a place for permanent data and means, say, when you upgrade the operating system, you lose dozens of CDs worth of album art and have to replace it all. Another irritation with Songbird is the frequency with which it fails when bulk retagging files. Except that the files show up as tagged successfully, even though they aren't, making it very difficult to fix. In short, I've found moving my lossless files to iTunes makes for a far more pleasant user experience.

26 comments:

  1. Excellent review/overview. I might add that I personally hate Itunes with a passion and why is the search facilities of so many online download retailers - and indeed Spotify - just so appallingly? And don't even getting me going with the many tagging issues that exist.

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  2. Thanks.

    Search can be very frustrating, especially on Spotify which is not helped by incomplete tagging (or out and out mistagging with Barenboim showing up as Rattle much of the time). Sorry, didn't mean to mention tagging, oh the hours I've lost to that......

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  3. As a Linux user, I find the array of custom downloaders annoying, as they seldom run smoothly on Linux. Take Hyperion, for example. I also find them to be the finest download site available and, when coupled with their outstanding catalog, they have become my primary place to discover and purchase music. However, their Adobe Air downloader does not run on Linux, so I'm forced to run Windows in a virtual machine to accomplish the download. (Yes, I could download tracks individually or use a Firefox plugin, but it doesn't name the files properly. This week I purchased the complete Schubert song cycle and I wasn't about to wrangle 812 tracks individually.) Like yourself, I require lossless and gapless downloads or I will not purchase. The availability of FLAC downloads is the only reason I've turned to downloading music over purchasing CDs.

    One other addition to your notes is that Hyperion also adds the 700x700 png cover art and full program notes as comments in the files (at least in the FLAC files.) I love this and it is right in line with their attention to detail and consistently high standards.

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    1. I'd actually prefer they embedded smaller jpgs in the files and simply gave a high def PNG as a separate file.

      There are too many people inserting multi-MB album art that is as big as the music file itself.

      When music is transcoded for use on portable devices you can run out of space due to large embedded album art. It also slows down wireless streaming as systems typically wait to get all the album art before they start playing the first track.

      I use MP3tag to remove enormous album art and replace it with smaller jpgs for better portability and wireless streaming.

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    2. I view a FLAC file as a reference file. I use it on my home media server, where size is not an issue. For portable devices or streaming over the web, I convert it to either Ogg Vorbis or MP3 and I downsize the cover art as part of that conversion. I agree that using 700x700 lossless coverart in an MP3 is inappropriate, but it still feels legitimate in a FLAC file.

      I'd be fine with a png file separately from the FLAC (although, I'd probably update the FLAC tags to include it), but I definitely appreciate the availability of such high definition cover art.

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    3. I stream FLAC at home too but oversize album-art does slow things down.

      Having to manually downsize cover art is a bit of a drag, especially for portable devices where this doesn't happen as part of the sync transcode process.... unless someone knows of sync software that will do this automatically.

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    4. I scripted some commands myself that make it all hands free. So, with a single command I can convert an entire FLAC collection (or just a subset) to MP3 or Ogg Vorbis with downsized cover art. I share your frustration that none of the existing tools accommodate this out of the box. In fact, many of them don't even transfer cover art, let alone downsize it to a specified size.

      To be honest, that's just the beginning of the issues with tagging. My number one frustration is the lack of proper support for multiple artists. FLAC tagging supports multiple artist tags, but I don't know of a single media player that properly displays and searches multiple artist tags. So, multiple artist tags are never used. Instead, we get artist names such as "Stephen Hough; Andrew Litton". That's ridiculous. If you have a media player that indexes based on tags, you end up with a library full of "Stephen Hough; Andrew Litton", "Stephen Hough; Lawrence Foster", etc. Morevoer, you can't find all your recordings with Susan Tomes on piano where she plays either solo or in the Florestan Trio. In fact, even searching on Hyperion's website doesn't return any of her Florestan Trio discs. This multiple-artist tagging problem is massive with a pianist like Graham Johnson. Do you really want a music index with 50+ combinations of Graham Johnson and some singer? Argh...

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    5. Yeah I have other collaborative artists who appear in a huge number of combinations, and some composers like that JS Bach guy who generate incredible numbers of combinations.

      I also like to use the Genre tag to add months of purchase to my collection.

      Windows Media Player, for all its many faults probably does the best job of handling multi-valued tags, although it frequently stumbles on breaking the tags properly.

      Sonos has been giving many people the steaming dribbles for its complete evasion of the issue.

      Then there are the sites who stick all the performers AND composers AND people who ran the studio catering service in the Artist tag.

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    6. Thanks for all the comments.

      That's an interesting point about download managers, Darin. I'm afraid I didn't really consider Linux users in my post, but I suppose that's another reason to dislike Adobe Air.

      That said, I've not had any problems with file names when using DownThemAll (although I don't really look at the file names much), and the tags generally seem fine, art too.

      Art is an interesting point. It's always struck me that the process of attaching the picture to each file, and thus adding to the size of each file, is a really inefficient way of going about it, especially if the art is the same for all the tracks on an album. Indeed, the problem is even worse for some classical music: I have plenty of discs with 30 tracks or so. You would have thought there would be a solution that had just one bit of art which all the tracks could reference.

      In the absence of that, I think my preference too would be for a lower res image embedded in all the files and a separate high res image if I really wanted to admire it (especially as I don't think I really need the high res on my phone or in the small 'now playing window' on my computer.

      My tagging solution is not very ideal - I tend to do conductor/orchestra or soloist/conductor/orchestra with orchestras abbreviated to initials. In many respects this is a habit that dates from the days when iPod screens were small and if the name was too long it just got cut off (and didn't even scroll). But things do get less good when you have lots of artists involved, and so my tagging just tends to prioritise one or two.

      To some extent, at least in iTunes smart play lists can be a solution, so, you could have a 50+ different artist and Graham Johnson combinations but then get the playlist to pull together all Johnson's Schubert recordings.

      Out of interest, Mike, what setup are you using to stream FLACs at home?

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    7. I'm using Sonos at home, but their lack of support for large collections (hardware memory issues), lack of support for multi-valued tags, and other issues means that I'm looking for another solution now. Their latest firmware + software controller update has also attracted a lot of ire. I think they've decided to go after a different market to the maybe more audiophile-oriented one it attracted before.

      I've been collected CDs for nearly 30 CDs and started digitizing them in the late 90s so my track collection is quite sizeable. There's no comfortable way for it to be indexed by Sonos which has a hard ceiling of around 65K tracks, but tends to run out of juice much sooner if your tags take up too much system memory. Since Sonos doesn't let you see all the tags at once from a track (e.g. I'm looking at a recital or concert program and can't tell which composer wrote "Etude No.17" or "Symphony in B-flat". So I over-tag by also adding composer surnames to the Title tag. This forced redundancy means less index-space, and so you get a vicious spiral of less usable system...

      Recent firmware updates also seem to be chewing up index space, and with the hardware memory capacity being non-upgradeable (and no sign that newer hardware is any more capacious) it's a dead-end. Sonos are silent on these issues.

      Re art: On Windows platforms you have the option of having a single file "folder.jpg" to stand in for an entire album in a folder. There are some complicated options tied to unique file-names, but a lot of software (including Sonos) will use that if embedded art is not available.

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    8. ^^That's "30 years", not "30 CDs".

      I don't even include audio-books with their hundreds of chapters, podcasts and radio serials in the library that Sonos indexes. That would just blow the roof off the system. It's bad enough having lots of discs of Scarlatti sonatas and similar track-heavy repertoire.

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    9. Thanks, that's interesting.

      I have several thousand CDs, but in the main play them via my CD player. I did start digitising them about ten years ago but only as low quality AACs for use on the move. With hindsight I rather wish I'd done them at higher definition and some of them I'm now doing again, but my lossless collection is mainly downloads.

      At present, my computer is actually in the same room as my hi-fi so I just use an optical link, but I'm thinking of moving this round so will need another solution.

      I do use Apple's Airtunes to stream to other rooms but it's limited to CD quality. I also use Subsonic but mainly for streaming when I'm out and about, though it can be a pain to set up and I haven't really played too much with using it at higher qualities.

      Thinking about it, when I used to use Songbird for my lossless audio, I think it did reference a separate image file in that way (though at first I kept deleting the files and then wondering why the art was vanishing, since I was expecting iTunes behaviour, which just embeds and gives you no choice - not ideal).

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    10. Hi Tam,

      Thanks for your article and thoughts on this subject. I agree that tagging each file with art is wasteful, but I'm not really concerned about the size of the FLAC files. Many media players will look for a cover.jpg or cover.png in the directory of the files, but that means the files must exist in that directory structure. I prefer to have files that are atomic instead of having meta-data scattered on the filesystem, which doesn't work for streaming purposes either. The key is to keep lossless artwork with lossless files and lossy artwork (downsized) with lossy files. That's been working for me over the years and seems to be sustainable.

      These discussions are fun. Even with the challenges of tagging and codecs, I find the download era to be thrilling. My hope is that recordings can be available indefinitely without the out-of-print problems of printed media. For as long as a record label exists, they should be able to retail their complete catalog as downloads. Once a label ceases to exist and their catalog becomes abandonware, it will be interesting to see if legitimate copies of those files will be allowed. Either way, the (almost) indefinite availability of recordings is awesome.

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  4. Qobuz doesn't restrict by postcode or other geography. I buy from them quite happily in Australia. The main problem is that France releases most material months later than neighbouring countries. Want some ECM releases? Faster to order the CD from the UK, and even then you'll have 3-6 months to enjoy it before any French digital store offers it. Even a lot of French artists show up in French stores waaay later than in the UK or Germany.

    Still Qobuz do offer lossless and studio masters, frequent discounts and special offers, and redownloadable purchases. You can also be a streaming subscriber.

    On the other hand, those of us who don't live in an area served by geo-locked Amazon and the rest have very little choice about buying online. Having access to iTunes doesn't mean the catalogue is the same everywhere - it differs wildly even within Europe or within English-speaking countries. Most UK releases aren't available digitally in Australia (unless the artist's name is spelled A-D-E-L-E) and conversely hardly anyone sees Australian releases in any stores outside Australia.

    Classics Online (huge catalog) and Toccata Classics (single label) are other options.

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    1. Unfortunately my recent attempts have all resulted in a pop-up message saying the item isn't available in the UK when I click to purchase it, though it may just be bad luck on my part that all the ones I've picked have been unavailable.

      It is frustrating that you get these sorts of catalogue issues with digital downloads, given one of the great strengths is that you can sell to pretty well anywhere in the world with an internet connection (unlike on a bricks and mortar store).

      I'll have to check out Classics Online and Toccata Classics - thanks for pointing them out to me.

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    2. I sent their support folks a message to get some clarification, but after rummaging in their knowledge-base I found confirmation that "Certaines maisons de disques restreignent pour le moment le téléchargement à la France. (Some record companies currently restrict the download to France.)"

      Yes, the piracy-hating record labels do their damnedest to stop people giving them money. Long live Bandcamp!

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  5. Some other good online stores are

    * CDBABY which has been around for a long time - it leans a bit more towards self-published artists but there are a few majors in there who find it a good outlet.
    * Bedroom Community - an artist collective of mostly Icelandic composers, but notably includes Nico Muhly

    A Wikipedia run-down of features of many stores:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_online_music_stores

    I'm still looking for a non geo-locked site that sells lossless ECM (without waiting 6 months for a French release)

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    1. Thanks for the list.

      I've used CD Baby a few times in the past though only ever for physical CDs. Last time I looked at a download it was only MP3s, has that changed?

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  6. Tam, was on holiday when you published this. Well done on providing such a comprehensive review. It puts most of the mainstream music magazine's paltry efforts to shame.

    Another word on Qobuz.

    They are planning to roll out other countries but right now you need to fake being French to use them. I managed to do it with a fake French postal code when asked to provide evidence of my residence there!

    Qobuz now offers a flac streaming subscription, and they have music players for android, iOS, macOS and windoze. The Android player for example will sync your playlists as mp3 on your phone and will download your purchases too. I think they're in public beta right now but I've found the software to be very stable.

    Everything they have done so far seems to be very well thought out from their player solutions, to streaming to the usability of their website. Their technical solution for a desktop player uses a Chrome browser framework - one example of smart thinking on their part. The flac streaming is very reliable and they have a far superior range of titles than Spotify.

    I think they will emerge as a serious competitor to iTunes particularly for Jazz and Classical. Given they have the best selection of hires recordings, I urge people to check them out.

    I don't work for Qobuz but I probably should!

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    1. I don't see where you are asked to "fake being French". I just set up a new account and it didn't ask where I was.

      I'm already paying with an Australian PayPal account on my existing account. And if you specify a credit card it doesn't ask for an address either!

      I just wish they had equal access to current recordings, but there is something about the French market that mandates being later with everything.

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  7. Hi Mike,

    Whenever I try to buy anything it tells me it's not available in the UK. Faking being French appears to be one way around this. It seems they're checking IP address so clearly there are different restrictions for different countries - glad it works in Australia.

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    1. Ah well, it's so easy to do a geo proxy now (even by free browser add-ins) that I don't let IP address checks bother me now for web purchases.

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  8. Thanks for this overview. I wanted to add a link to www.prestoclassical.co.uk . They offer MP3 and FLAC, good prices, and I was able to get PDF of the booklet for a Naxos CD (Bernstein's Mass) - lack of booklet being an annoying point with Amazon. I use Linux and playback with VLC Media Player [www.videolan.org]. No comment on the iPod experience!

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    1. Hi Phillip,

      Apologies for the huge delay in replying.

      I haven't got round to trying presto properly yet (to the extent of buying anything, but will do at some point. My main annoyance is that it seems to be only a very limited selection of their catalogue that is available as download. Hopefully this will improve with time though.

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  9. Hyperion is fine, and I've downloaded lots of excellent discs from them, but one rather irritating development on their site is that the cover art/digital booklet no longer (as of early 2014) includes proper CD inlays (i.e. with spines). I can't help feeling that a lot of people, like me, download FLACs and burn them straight to disc, in effect creating a CD at a substantial discount on the actual CD price, and not being able to create a CD inlay from the Hyperion booklet download is a severe disincentive to downloading. Maybe that's what they want (a CD costs 50% more), but if so, why go to the bother of producing a 'digital booklet', which in fact looks exactly like the one that comes with the CDs? Does anybody actually print out these 'booklets'? I had some correspondence with the Hyperion people, but their view was that 'downloads shouldn't be seen as a poor relation of CD'. Seemed pretty well missing the point to me. It wouldn't be too much effort to make a CD inlay downloadable, would it?

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    1. Thanks for the comment. (Sorry for the delay in publishing it.)

      I can see why that would be frustrating. Personally I've never printed (or wanted to print) out the inlay or booklet. In terms of HD downloads there's not much point putting them to CD as you lose quality. But even for standard definition I have a computer connected directly to a Digital-Analogue converter in my hi-fi.

      I always download the booklets but have them saved for reference and either view them on my PC or my iPad.

      I'd be interested in knowing how widespread demand for printing is.

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