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  1. #1

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    Default HDTracks.... Is it a scam?

    HDTracks is a website owned by David and Norman Chesky, two well respected names in the audio industry, that sells "hi-rez" music downloads in 24-bit flac format. Typical album prices are in the $18-$20 range, with many costing more than that. You are paying a premium price compared with purchasing a physical cd, in order to receive what is supposed to be an audiophile recording of higher quality than is available on cd. I have personally purchased many titles from HDTracks that I play on my Squeezebox Touch.

    I recently read several articles online discussing the questionable quality of the downloads from HDTracks, with accusations of many titles being mere up-samples of 16-bit recordings. Curious about this, I downloaded a software package called Audacity which is capable of performing various analysis routines on the music files. I was not happy with the results....

    Take, for example, the "In Session" recording by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King. Here is what the first track looks like with clipping detection enabled (the red lines indicate clipping). This recording appears to be highly compressed, precisely opposite what one would expect to find in a true 24-bit recording:

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    Here is a frequency analysis of the same track, showing a complete rolloff at ~22khz:

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    I have noticed similar issues on a large number of the titles that I have purchased from HDtracks. In the articles I read, it did appear as if HDtracks has admitted to some problems existing where upsampled music was accidentally sold, but that steps would be taken to ensure this did not happen again.

    (continued...)
    Good music, a good source, and good power can make SDA's sing. Tubes make them dance.

  2. #2

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    However, I have also purchased some quite new releases from HDTracks, "Naked" by Talking Heads as an example. This album became available on HDtracks only very recently, and is still listed on the "New on HDtracks" link. Here is the waveform analysis of the first song from that album, "Blind":

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    While this recording does not show any clipping, it still appears to be highly compressed, with little evidence in the waveform of any preservation of dynamic range, which one would hope to see with a 24-bit recording. And then looking at the frequency analysis, we see yet another "brick wall" at ~22khz:

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    Next, please consider some similar analysis from "Hotel California" by the Eagles, starting with the waveform:

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    Evidently this recording contains a tremendous amount of clipping, however the frequency spectrum analysis does not indicated a ~22khz brick wall:

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    (continued...)
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  3. #3

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    SACD baby, the only way to fly.
    'Political Correctness'.........defined

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    Now consider some 24-bit recordings that I have acquired from sources other than HDtracks. As an example, I extracted the 24-bit audio myself of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" from the BluRay audio included with the recent "Immersion" box set. Here is the waveform analysis of "Us and Them":

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    This is a markedly different shape than any of the examples I have provided from tracks acquired from HDtracks, and is of a form that I believe to be consistent with preservation of dynamic range. Here is the frequency analysis from the a sample of the same track, showing no evidence of a sharp drop off in the ~22khz range:

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    And finally, here is a similar plot of "Stuck in a Moment?" from the binaural "Open Your Ears" released by HeadFi and HDTracks:

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    This is representative of what I understand a well-mastered recording should look like, where care is taken to maximize dynamics as you would want with a 24-bit recording. Similarly, here is the frequency spectrum analysis, showing a smooth rolloff out to ~42khz:

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    Good music, a good source, and good power can make SDA's sing. Tubes make them dance.

  5. #5

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    The above is pretty much cut/paste from an email that I sent to HDTracks questioning the integrity of their hi-rez titles. I received a reply from them as follows:


    Our standard policy is that we do not upsample anything or accept
    upsampled material.

    What you're presenting are audio results which have been compressed,
    or have been mastered
    with the intention of being used on high-end systems.

    Record labels usually do their own mastering with collaboration from
    the producer, engineers or artists.
    I know in some instances, it is a judgment call to go with a compressed sound.

    I think in most cases of spectral analysis, they are not telling the
    whole story. We certainly don't
    accept any 'fake' high-res material and we thoroughly test everything
    in the pipeline.
    Good music, a good source, and good power can make SDA's sing. Tubes make them dance.

  6. #6

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    I then sent them the following reply:


    Thank you for your reply. However, if you read the information from HDTracks own website...

    "Compressed Albums - reduces the difference between the loudest and softest sound
    for playing music in noisy environments like cars or radios"


    ... and then your own explanation of the heavily compressed examples I sent you...

    "What you're presenting are audio results which have been compressed,
    or have been mastered with the intention of being used on high-end systems."


    ... you'll see that you're contradicting the HDTracks information - compression is used for noisy environments like 'cars or radios' - while you claim that compression is used with the intention for use on high-end systems?

    I don't believe high-end systems are listened to in 'noisy environments like cars or radios'. Further, compressing dynamics to the extent I showed you, and then marketing the albums as 'audiophile recordings' and 'better than anything out there' is highly misleading for the consumer.

    From Steve Guttenberg: "To the casual listener, dynamic compression can sound "good," because it makes music louder and punchier, and once music's natural soft-to-loud dynamics are squashed flat, music is easier to hear in noisy environments like cars, planes, and buses".

    My point is that the level of compression I showed you is not indicative in any way of an 'audiophile recording'. And yet that's how HDTracks markets all their music to justify the high prices. While dynamic compression sounds good to a casual listener - that is NOT who HDTracks market their products for. There is no self-respecting audiophile who would look at the compressed examples I sent you and say they were of 'audiophile' quality.

    I appreciate that compression can be fine if it is used with caution, but please go back and check the examples I sent you and you'll see that some of them have virtually no dynamic range remaining. How can HDTracks continue to describe their catalogue as 'audiophile quality' when the compression level is that bad?

    I would appreciate a more detailed response to my queries in light of the vast amount of money I have spent on heavily compressed albums that were marketed as 'audiophile'
    Good music, a good source, and good power can make SDA's sing. Tubes make them dance.

  7. #7

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    Nspindel, some music on HD Tracks especially of the Rock genere is just recorded like garbage. Check out titles like Tommy by the Smithereens or Stevie Ray Vaugn and you will see a completely different picture. They sound awesome. That being said, so much of this stuff remains unregulated that I have to concur with old man F1Nut. I only buy HiRez that has been tested and thoroughly vetted by other audio nuts. Honestly, just do what I did and get an awesome record player. You won't ever worry about bit rates or compression ever again.
    Last edited by SolidSqual; 01-10-2012 at 09:33 PM.

  8. #8

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    Quote Originally Posted by F1nut View Post
    SACD baby, the only way to fly.
    I don't know about that, though, Jesse. I don't think the problem here has anything to do with format. I also don't necessarily know that the problem is inherently because of HDTracks. I think the labels are pushing inferior upsamples along as supposedly being hi-rez, and HDTracks simply fancies themselves a music store. I clearly saw that there are some titles that I downloaded from HDTracks that are excellent, with dynamic range preserved and smooth frequency response out to over 40khz. In cases where an inferior "hot" compressed master is used to produce a supposed hi-rez 24-bit album, why would you think that anything other than that is being used by the same labels to produce an SACD? It's all about the master used, not the format. If time is not taken to produce an audiophile quality master with dynamics preserved in 24-bit space the entire time, then any 24-bit format is a waste, SACD included. In some respects, SACD is even worse because you can't capture it to a hard drive and perform the kind of analysis that I've done here. So in essence with SACD, you're just running on faith, you don't really know what you're listening to.
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    It appears what they were saying is that the record companies have done the compression on the high-res tracks, not them.

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    Absolutely ever modern release I've seen has a waveform like that Talking Heads! If that's what the label gives them, that's what they have to release. What the artists and the production side of the business do to music to "shape" it into what they want to release is all before it goes to the final medium. Those downstream can't go back and get more.

    Bandwidth can be a suggestion of the mediums used in the process and the care that they have for final quality. But bit depth and speed have much to do with quality and less bandwidth doesn't necessarily mean all quality is gone.

    You should try looking at other types of music beyond pop. Quality can really shine through with artists and labels that care about these aspects.

    One thing I've found kind of funny is that people pop up in similar posts on other forums acting like original source material being analog, as in some of the stuff from the 50's and 60's, can't have high quality just because the medium wasn't digital. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. Just because the electronics didn't have bandwidth to 50k or beyond, doesn't mean they didn't have really good quality recorded!

    What you're seeming to suggest here is that somehow HD Tracks would benefit from processing, tuncating or modifications of the material. I can't see how that would benefit them. If you look to one of the few other high rez places, like Linn, then note that they have much greater control over what they have and aren't just accepting from labels with no relationship. So I'm curious what your suggesting with simple freeware screenshots? The quality of what I've gotten has been quite a bit above Redbook and yes, on rock, you can tell it's been recorded and produced with more than minimal, audiophile microphone techniques and then processed. But quality is well above what we received in the past due to simply there being more information making it thru the pipeline. But the production quality and style is still the production.

    CJ

    PS...all kinds of additional posts and info while I was typing.
    Last edited by CoolJazz; 01-10-2012 at 09:52 PM.

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    I'm not suggesting that HD Tracks should be doing any processing at all. But what I am suggesting is that they should not be representing a recording as "audiophile" and "hi-rez" when it may not be that at all.

    Look, I'm not professing to be an expert here. I sent all of the information I presented here directly to HDTracks, and asked them for information. What I got back were statements suggesting that compression is intended for high-end audio systems.

    I agree with what you're saying about Linn. I've not purchased from them, but from what I've read they sell extremely high quality downloads, however most of what they sell is classical.
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    I'm also not suggesting that all the quality is gone as a result of the shape of some of these waveforms. But my understanding of the advantage that 24-bit has over redbook is that you can preserve dynamic range without having to record at very low volumes. If the recording uses a highly compressed master, without dynamic range preserved, then the end result is no better than redbook, but is being sold as a premium price as something that is supposedly audiophile quality.
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    Nspindel, I see what you are saying, but in the end you have to know it is all marketing. Are you holding HD Tracks to a higher standard than we hold practically every other audio company? Anymore, the word "audiophile" bears about the same weight and meaning as the word "reference". It's simply all perspective and marketing. This is a buyer beware type of product . . . as sad as that is. With that being said, if a download bears a tag such as "HRx", then you know what you have paid for is high quality recording material.

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    Quote Originally Posted by BlueFox View Post
    It appears what they were saying is that the record companies have done the compression on the high-res tracks, not them.
    That's precisely what they are saying. I don't debate that. That was my point to Jesse. If the record companies are using compressed masters to produce recordings headed for 24-bit downloads, then why would you think they are using anything other than the same compressed master to produce the same SACD.

    I'm not saying that HDTracks is guilty of taking high quality 24-bit material and reducing the quality, and I'm not saying that they themselves are taking lower quality recordings and upsampling them and calling them hi-rez. But from what I can see, they are taking material from labels that is of inferior quality and marketing it as if it's something that it isn't. If they want to earn a reputation of being the premier distributor of 24-bit audiophile recordings, then shouldn't they hold the labels accountable to supply them with true hi-rez material?
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    I think if you compared even something the producers squashed as much as that Talking Heads and compared it to 44.1, you'd find that higher data rate and more depth still gives you more info.

    For me it's not a debate as to if SACD or other hi-rez has more quality, I want ALL the better quality I can get. Doesn't matter if it's DVD-A, SACD or LP...I wanta be able to enjoy it. I just try to be selective as to what music and that includes production quality I spend my hard earned money on. And I'm sure that's where your headed to! To me it's hard to tell from the 30 sec clips about quality.

    But I loved DSOTM and I wanted to hear it even better. So I've gotten it in several higher quality forms now and that was worth it several more times...no regret. But not everything is something we want to buy multiple times...even if the labels want us too.

    Eventually I think HD Tracks may have to comment on source. Maybe that won't reveal all as to production technique but give us an idea of the real fidelity. But I don't equate 24 bit with the artist and his producer applying no dynamic reduction. That's part of a lot of musicians music today.

    CJ

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    Quote Originally Posted by nspindel View Post
    If they want to earn a reputation of being the premier distributor of 24-bit audiophile recordings, then shouldn't they hold the labels accountable to supply them with true hi-rez material?
    HD Tracks has a weak bargaining position. They are lucky to even have the rights to sell these pop albums. I suspect that if they started making demands from the producers, their licenses would simply not be renewed.

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    That all makes sense. You can't get better than the source. But selling high end should be able to limit itself to high end and avoid inferior recordings that don't have great dynamic range.

    I'm guilty of buying DAK cassettes in the early eighties due to their marketing pitch. Regular TDK's were better in my opinion. It's great that you exposed this. I would stop short of calling it a scam, but it may be really bad business.

    Oh my, on another note my wife made an anology just now about things improving with time, "just like your speakers"
    What makes that special is that she hears it improving still, not knowing a thing about the inductors. Ha ha!

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    I think all formats are at risk if the sources are crap - good thing you called it out to HDTracks Neil. I've spent enough money on there to feel a bit cheated if this is going on w/ some of their albums. I will say there are a number of them that seem to be good (the R.E.M. albums for instance). But still - hopefully they will be careful going fwd.
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    Excellent job. I agree, at their prices you'd expect a higher quality product. Those waveforms show classic "loudness wars" squashed dynamics---they shouldn't be marketed as audiophile recordings.

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    Unfortunately it also shows that regardless of the format, we are at the mercy of recording engineers.

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    Nice job Neil, I think HDTracks should provide some grading/rating and let the buyer decide but I suspect that would put revenue at risk and they don't want to do that.
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    Many of today's so-called "remasters" are nothing more than squashed re-recordings in new packaging. I bought the "remaster" Boston first album---tossed it in the trash; my original Boston CD sounded better. Now I do some resarch before buying remasters.

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    Quote Originally Posted by steveinaz View Post
    Unfortunately it also shows that regardless of the format, we are at the mercy of recording engineers.
    Correction Steve, we are at the mercy of the mastering engineers.

    Quote Originally Posted by steveinaz View Post
    Many of today's so-called "remasters" are nothing more than squashed re-recordings in new packaging. I bought the "remaster" Boston first album---tossed it in the trash; my original Boston CD sounded better. Now I do some resarch before buying remasters.
    I have been burned a couple of times with remasters and a couple have been good. I mostly avoid them. I truly hate the effect that the "loudness wars" have had.
    Last edited by vc69; 01-11-2012 at 10:13 AM.
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    nspindel, thanks for bringing this info to light, and for your hard work on this subject. I definitely learned from it. Let us know if they respond again.
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    I buy mostly used cd's so I'm not out that much when I am disappointed in the recording.

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    Quote Originally Posted by steveinaz View Post
    Unfortunately it also shows that regardless of the format, we are at the mercy of recording engineers.
    What bothers me is that these guys are, apparently, deaf. Either that, or the record companies hire people who never listen to the genre they are mastering. If I had that job I would be trying to make something that sounds great on my stereo, not sounds terrible.

    However, I suspect they are just doing what their bosses tell them to do. Either make it loud, or find another place to work.

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    Quote Originally Posted by steveinaz View Post
    Many of today's so-called "remasters" are nothing more than squashed re-recordings in new packaging. I bought the "remaster" Boston first album---tossed it in the trash; my original Boston CD sounded better. Now I do some resarch before buying remasters.
    Agreed. The word re-master makes me cautious. That being said there are exceptions.

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    Found this over at CA, might be useful before buying online.

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    We should start compiling a list of poor recordings over at HDTracks. I've bought several good albums from them, but have bought a couple poor recordings as well. I'll start the crap list with the following 2, both are 24/96 and both are (still) very poor recordings.

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    27" iMac w/Amarra, AudioQuest Dragonfly 1.2, Focal XS Book, Schiit Valhalla, Cypher Labs Theorem 720, Philips Fidelio X1, Sennheiser HD600, HiFiMan HE-500, B&W P7, LG 47LM7600, Sony PS3, Apple TV

  30. #30

    Member Sales Rating: (22)

    Join Date
    Oct 2008
    Location
    Directly over the center of the earth in Olathe Kansas
    Posts
    5,825

    Default

    Looks like others a CA agree.

    http://www.computeraudiophile.com/co...-Remaster-2496

    http://www.computeraudiophile.com/co...racks-Download

    THe stuff off Linn recordings is nice.
    Speakers: SDA-1C (most all the goodies)
    Preamp: Joule Electra LA-150 MKII SE
    Amp: Wright WPA 50-50 EAT KT88s
    Analog: Marantz TT-15S1 MBS Glider SL| Wright WPP100C Amperex BB 6er5 and 7316 & WPM-100 SUT
    Digital: Mac mini 2.3GHz dual-core i5 8g RAM 1.5 TB HDD Music Server Amarra (memory play) - USB - W4S DAC 2
    Cables: Mits S3 IC and Spk cables| PS Audio PCs

    Ofc: Wright WLA12 preamp: Anthem Amp 1: Pio Elite DV-79AVI: Airport Express: CAL Sigma II DAC: PA LS90 sonicaps and mills

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