[Update - 2012-03-26: Please note that the landscape has significantly changed since I wrote this piece and it is now outdated. My survey of classical download stores, written in March 2012, can be found here.]
Last June I had a bit of a rant at the expense of online download stores. None of which, if you want lossless classical music and use iTunes/iPod on a Mac, delivered as good a user experience as I felt should be the case.
Fortunately, Chandos have now updated The Classical Shop (which features not only their own label, but many others besides). Dowloads are DRM free and they offer a variety of lossless CD quality formats, not to mention some discs in studio quality (24 bit, 96 kHz). This is as before, though the high resolution downloads look new. The problem was never formats, but usability. If you were a windows user, or only wanted lossy MP3s, it was fine, you could in a few clicks download a single zip file containing all the tracks on the CD. The problem is that getting a WMA file to play on a mac is tricky, and requires a level of technical jiggery-pokery beyond the ken of the average user. While Chandos did offer FLAC (which is problematic for iPod users as for reasons passing understanding Apple don't support it, and even getting them to play in iTunes is tricky), WAV and, best of all, Apple friendly AIFF, this one click (ish) option wasn't available for these formats.
That, has now all changed. So, I headed over to the site and picked out a disc I've had my eye on: Gerald Finley's collection of Opera in English arias with Gardner and the LPO. Then it's a simple matter of selecting between MP3 and lossless (studio quality isn't available on this one), at the top of the screen, selecting the desired tracks (or all, via the add all button), clicking to buy and following through a fairly standard process. The price is a pound less than the physical CD on Amazon, or £4 less if you choose MP3.
When you get to the download screen you can select your chosen lossless format. One minor criticism is that the recommendations for what works with a mac/ipod could be clearer - otherwise some unsuspecting person might download FLAC and have problems. You then click the icon for that format below, click the zip box next to it, and then the zip box at the bottom of the screen and Robert is your mother's brother.
It isn't quite that simple as apparently they don't routinely store everything as AIFF, so the files have to be generated and then zipped up, however you can go away and leave the computer to do that. Once it's done, you click to download the zip file. Another minor grip here is that Chandos's servers are rather slow - I only got a download rate of 200KB while my connection can handle 1.7MB, as a result if you download anything in studio quality you'll be waiting a very long time.
That said, the big gripe before was that you had to click to download each track individually. As such, buying a full CD of AIFFs was a cumbersome operation that took several hours. Now, while it still takes a little longer than it ideally would, it only requires a few minutes of attention, after which the computer can be left to get on with it.
Once downloaded, there are another couple of minor gripes. I had to redo all the tags on the tracks once I got them imported into iTunes: apostrophes were missing from all titles that had them and each started 'CD01 TK01' (and so on - I can't think why anyone would want that), which had to be removed. Also, composer's first and surnames needed to be reversed so they'd index properly on the ipod. However, given that one has to rewrite the tags somewhat for just about any CD listing one gets out of the Gracenote database and anything one downloads, this isn't the end of the world. It isn't helped that there isn't a good standard way of tagging and I, like many others, have evolved my own that works for me. On the plus side, it should be noted that decent resolution artwork as well as a PDF of the booklet are also provided (and anyone, e.g. someone who owns the physical CD, can download these without purchase).
In summary, I can now recommend Chandos as the first port of call for classical downloading where I couldn't before. I think it very likely I'll be using their services again. This is a great upgrade that could prove expensive. Well done them for listening to feedback and correcting flaws in their service. If Passionato would offer AIFFs too, they'd get a similar recommendation.
What about the Finley disc? It's great and a review may follow when I get the time.
One big bugbear in all this is Apple's lack of native FLAC support in iTunes/iPod - if you feel the same way, why not pop over to their site and send them a feature request (for all the good it's likely to do).
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