Music to the ears of audiophiles
The London Symphony Orchestra's decision to release lossless recordings of classical concerts underlines the desire for better-quality digital music
This week the London Symphony Orchestra announced that recordings of its music, from Handel’s Messiah to Mozart’s Requiem, would be made available for download. There’s nothing new about that, except that these tracks will be at a higher quality than any previously released by the LSO, and at a far higher standard, too, than the vast majority of current digital music.
The new files are recorded in Flac format, which stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. This means that the music can be played at the same quality as the original master recording. Unlike normal MP3s, it’s totally uncompressed, and contains far more detail than a conventional CD, too. Flac’s top recording rate is 24-bit, whereas most CDs are 16-bit.
The move highlights a number of developments in digital music: firstly, a burgeoning realisation among audiophiles – even in a market that will spend five figure sums on speakers alone – that digital music is inevitably going to take over from CD and vinyl. It’s also becoming painfully obvious, however, that if you’re playing standard MP3s, expensive speakers are just for decoration.
Previous justifications for the existence of MP3, which compresses music by taking out bits that are less noticeable to most listeners, were all based on the fact that the point of digital music was that it was in some sense portable. But moving around or carrying enormous files was simply not practical, especially when storage was relatively expensive.
Now, however, storage has never been cheaper. Freecom, for instance, has recently launched a 1TB drive using a new USB standard, USB3. It can transfer files at speeds of up to 5,000mbit/s, and could store, in lossless format, about 2,000 CDs. Even iPods go up to 160GB, and although Apple does not currently permit Flac playback, it is possible for users to make their own, under-the-hood adjustments relatively easily.
The LSO recordings are being made available in association with speaker-makers Bowers and Wilkins, who were behind the award-winning Zeppelin iPod dock, and who have been running an audiophile download service since 2008. The very existence of Society of Sound is symptomatic both of demand from audiophiles and of a need for manufacturers to justify the existence of their products.
Previous Society of Sound releases have included Gwyneth Herbert, Dub Colossus, former Suede singer Brett Anderson, guitarist Tom Kerstens, Dave Stewart and Ennio Morricone, and the service is subscription-based. For £23.95 for six months or £33.95 per year, users can download two albums per month and get access to a growing back catalogue. At less than £2 an album, the value for money inconspicuous, but the library is tiny by comparison to, say, iTunes.
The hifi market has long been split between the high-selling likes of Sony and Panasonic and the elite, PMC, Bowers and Wilkins, Onkyo or even more expensive brands. But the focus there was always on getting the most out of the same recordings, whether vinyl or CD. MP3s destroyed that but now as storage is becoming cheaper, perhaps the music that musicians recorded will become available to all once again.