Linn Records featured in Gramophone's 'High Fidelity' May article

16 April 2012

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Gramophone May 2012 'High Fidelity'

'There's no right format for music - just the one best suited for your needs'

There's a lot of debate around how one should store music for playback using a network player, streaming client, network radio, streamer, internet music access point - you see, we can't even agree what to call the things, so the chances of finding any kind of accord on something as complex as the choice of file format is minimal!

Some will tell you that 320kbps (or less) MP3 is more than adequate and that it's impossible to hear an improvement using more data-hungry formats, while others view either CD format WAV or AIFF, or lossless FLAC or ALAC as the minima, and would much rather have their music downloaded, stored and played at resolutions comfortably beyond that available on CD. After all, they say, 16-bit/44.1kHz was out of date when CD was launched, let alone 30 years later.

Yet others will look at some of the high-resolution music now becoming available and smell a rat - how can we be sure that the shiny 96kHz/24-bit download for which we've just paid an arm and a leg isn't just a simple upsample of the CD-quality original? The answer to that one actually relatively simple: you just run the suspect music file through a piece of software such as Audyssey and look for a 'brick wall' drop-off in the frequency spectrum just above 20kHz- but I'd argue that we really shouldn't have to resort to such investigation. Instead, those channels offering 'hi-res' music should play with a straight bat; if they don't, and we all get suspicious of anything claiming to be high-resolution, then those same distributors are in very great danger of shooting themselves in the foot.

Some recent releases and moves in the high-resolution arena have thrown some of these points into sharp focus: the website of Linn Records, the former Gramophone Label of the Year, is now starting to offer hi-res downloads drawn from the catalogues of Universal Music labels Decca Classics and Deutsche Grammophon, while there's another demo-quality release from Norwegian label 2L, allowing the comparison of sound quality - and storage requirements - of various formats.

However Linn is taking baby-steps with its Universal downloads - at the time of writing, there was just a handful of titles available - those there are very good indeed.

I downloaded a few for a listen as 96kHz/24-bit files, including Berloiz's Symphonie fantastique (Sir Colin Davis/Royal Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra) and Mahler's Eighth Symphony (Solti/Chicago SO), and through my system there's definitely a power, dynamic openness and detail not available from a standard CD. I'm looking forward to this particular catalogue growing.

Also small - but capable of sensational sound quality - is the catalogue from 2L, which has just released its latest recording by the Trondheim Soloists. Well, actually the first part of its latest recording: 'Souvenir' is to be released in two stages, with the second due about the time you read this.

It was recorded in surround using the DXD format, giving about four times the resolution of standard SACD format DSD, and is available at CD quality, as MP3 files, as high-resolution stereo and multichannel at 96kHz/24-bit stereo. Oh, and as an LP, Direct Metal Mastered from the 352.8kHz/24-bit DXD files, and a Blu-ray disc combining almost all the formats.

Thanks to 2L's Morten Linberg I was able to download all the versions of the set and compare sound quality and file sizes: I am absolutely sold on the quality gains available all the way up to the 192kHz/24-bit stereo - I don't, as yet, have anything able to play the FLACs taken from the DXD version!

But, of their kind, even the MP3 files are very good sounding, so it's really a matter of trading storage space for better sound. That could be a consideration: taking one track, the opening of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for strings, the MP3 version (at 320kb/s) occupies 22.7MB for just under nine and a half minutes of music,  the CD quality FLAC 51MB, the uncompressed WAV 99.3MB, the 96/24 version 187.4MB and the 192/24 version 365.6MB. Oh, and for hilarity's sake, the DXD 'master' is 782.7MB.

There's really no right format for music: It's just a case of choosing the right one best suited to your needs. Me, I'll stick to the 192kHz/24-bit for listening at home, while the 320kbps MP3 would be perfectly adequate for an iPod through the white earbuds or in the car. But one things for sure: I really must find a 385kHz/24-bit digital-to-analogue converter, just to satisfy my curiosity!

Berlioz: Symphonie fantastiqueBerlioz: Symphonie fantastique
Mahler: Symphony No.8 in E flat - 'Symphony of a Thousand'Mahler: Symphony No.8 in E flat - 'Symphony of a Thousand'