With the recent resurgence of interest in vinyl, we are seeing the slow return of dedicated record stores. But let’s be honest: it’s still very much a niche market and the days of megastores like Tower Records or HMV are not likely to return.
That’s particularly true for collectors of classical music. Yes, a few smaller labels are, in fact, issuing some of their new releases on vinyl. And even Deutsche Grammophon has gotten into the game with the issuance of a few recent releases on vinyl. But – barring a massive paradigm shift – I think it’s safe to assume that we won’t be seeing major labels issuing much more in the way of classical vinyl LPs any time in the foreseeable future. What they do release will be in limited quantities, and costly.
We’re also seeing a renewed interest in CDs but – again – it seems unlikely that we are going to see a massive return to physical media. Most of what I’ve read recently is focused on optimizing the playback of listeners’ existing CD collections.
Let’s face it: the future of classical music recordings is virtual media, whether that means a streaming service like Tidal, Spotify or Qobuz, or purchasing digital downloads. From the perspective of most record labels, it makes total economic sense. They no longer have to invest capital in plants to produce vinyl and CDs and they don’t have to tie up additional capital on inventory sitting in warehouses. Finally, there’s no need for elaborate packaging, which drives up the cost of production. Forgive me for being a cynic, but I haven’t seen evidence of prices being reduced because there’s no longer any physical media for a given title. So, for many record labels, the transition to purely electronic media has been a way of increasing their margins.
But let’s turn back to the listening experience. For me, personally, while I do have a Tidal subscription which I use when traveling and in my car, I prefer to own the recordings, particularly when we’re talking about high-resolution digital, like 96/24 PCM, or DSD. Although Tidal does offer some recordings in MQA, using that format requires a DAC which supports it. And, while Tidal – and other streaming services – do offer a wide variety of classical music, there are definite holes in their inventory. If you’re looking for a very specific performance, with a specific orchestra and conductor, you may or may not find it. That’s particularly true for more obscure music, like, say, early Renaissance or very modern music.
And, as I indicated above, if you’re serious about digital music you will want to acquire it in the highest possible resolution and – today, at least – that’s only possible if you purchase the digital download. Moreover, in my experience, if you live outside of a major metropolitan area and your internet service is less than 100 percent reliable, you may find that your streaming service is laggy or unreliable.
So…where to look for that wealth of high-resolution classical (and jazz) music? There are many sites that sell high-resolution downloads if you’re into techno pop, R&B or other popular genres. But there are far fewer who cater to listeners of classical music. Well, gentle reader, you’re in luck because I’ve spent a lot of the past few years mining that lode. Herewith, a survey of some of my favorite sites, starting with…
Based in the UK, Presto Music offers a wide range of classical and jazz music in a variety of formats, including CDs, SACDs, MP3, FLAC and high-resolution FLAC (up to 24-bit/192 kHz in some cases). Presto represents most of the major labels including DG, Decca, BIS, Harmonia Mundi and many others. If you’re looking for mainstream classical or jazz music (and for that matter, even some more obscure recordings), Presto is a great place to start. They also offer pricing in your local currency, so whether you’re in the US, Canada, the UK, Europe or Australia, you can be comfortable that you’re getting accurate pricing.
The brainchild of David and Norman Chesky (also the founders of Chesky Records), HDtracks offers a broad range of digital downloads at a variety of resolutions, ranging from 16-bit/44.1 kHz, up to 24/192. Their catalog ranges from rock to jazz to classical and hits most of the major high notes. If you’re looking for something very particular or obscure, you may or may not find it here, but mainstream recordings are well represented. Keep your eye out for frequent sales and promotions. Also, be aware that if you’re outside the US, some recordings will not be available because of copyright restrictions.
Similar to HDtracks (above), ProStudioMasters offers an encyclopedic mix of genres and recordings, including country, electronic, alternative, classical, jazz, pop, R&B, and more. They also offer some recordings in DSD and MQA formats. For those of us in Canada, they offer local pricing that is sometimes less than other sites.
For something a little different, check out NativeDSD. Based in The Netherlands, they offer a catalog of music – largely from smaller labels – all of it available in super-high-resolution formats, up to DSD512. For example, many of Manfred Honeck’s wonderful recordings with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra are available in both 2-channel stereo, and 5-channel surround, in resolutions up to DSD512. But there are also great jazz and folk albums, largely from European performers. Some of the labels represented include Reference Recordings, Pentatone, Harmonia Mundi, LSO Live and many, many others.
High Definition Tape Transfers
And speaking of something a little different, High Definition Tape Transfers has been offering high quality remasterings of vintage classical and jazz recordings for a number of years. Based in Richmond Hill, Ontario (a suburb of Toronto, where I live), they specialize in re-releasing older recordings that have been beautifully remastered from 2 and 4-track reel-to-reel tapes. Their recordings feature some of the greatest classical performers of the 20th century, including Otto Klemperer, Leonard Bernstein, David Oistrakh, Arthur Grumiaux and many more, all in superb sound. They also offer jazz performers like Count Basie, Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk, and Sarah Vaughan. Finally, they have a small catalog of recent performances, recorded using state-of-the-art audiophile recording techniques. From time to time, they even offer promotional discounts. Definitely worth checking out.
Some of you may recall me writing in depth about Pristine Classical and its owner, Andrew Rose (in Issue 162 and Issue 163). Pristine specializes in restoring some of the greatest performances of the first half of the 20th century from artists like Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Maria Callas, Alfred Cortot, Ginette Neveu and a host of other luminaries. In many instances, Pristine has successfully transformed murky, unpleasant recordings into eminently listenable sound. If you want to hear some of the greatest classical (and some jazz) performances of the past century, look no further.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention PS Audio’s own Octave Records. While their current classical catalog is small, I know there is a commitment to expanding that catalog. And just as important, they are equally committed to finding the finest artists and recording them with the highest possible fidelity. For jazz lovers, there’s even more to choose from.
A Final Note…
One of the things that I’ve discovered in my traversal of these sites is that there is a wide variance in pricing. If you’re looking to purchase digital music, especially if your purchase is a substantial one, I always advise you to check pricing across multiple sites. Here’s an example:
As of this writing the price for a 192/24 download is:
Presto Classical: $65.00*
All prices are in USD (*Presto was converted from CAD). As you can see, there’s a significant price difference, depending on where you buy your download. Always be an educated shopper, and enjoy your music! Hopefully, this short guide will give you the tools you need to build out your collection.
Header image courtesy of Pexels.com/cottonbro.