September 1, 2009

The Digital Music Revolution: What Download Sites Have to Offer -- Part 11

Through writing about Kent Poon’s remarkable Audiophile Jazz Prologue III recording, I found out about Hifitrack.com, yet another site offering quality downloads.

Hifirack.com offers Audiophile Jazz Prologue III as a 24-bit/96kHz download in its Studio Master series. Other series are Direct Studio Master 24-bit/48kHz, Direct Studio Master 16-bit/44.1kHz, Upsampled WAV 24-bit/96kHz, and regular 16-bit/44.1kHz. Because files are WAV, you might have to use a file conversion program. I use iTunes for browsing, and since it doesn’t allow WAV files to include album covers, I converted the 16-bit/44.1kHz files to Apple Lossless and anything over that to AIFF. Overall, every download available on the site is CD quality or above. The site currently offers around 20 titles in true 24-bit HD, with more being added all the time.

All titles are DRM (digital rights management) free, so once you’ve downloaded them you can do what you want with them. You can pay with either PayPal or credit card, but the prices, which are listed in Hong Kong dollars, might be alarming at first. Just keep in mind that one Hong Kong dollar is worth around $7.50 USD, so an album listed as $150 should actually cost around $19. The prices are still a little on the high side, but they’re competitive with other sites.

The site, which is attractive and easy to navigate, allows searches by artist, genre, record label (though many of the labels will be unfamiliar to western listeners), or even by file type. So if you want to seek out all the Studio Master 24-bit/96kHz recordings, you can find them instantly.

There’s a lot to like about Hifitrack.com, but two things bothered me. First, there was no download manager and the downloads were quite slow, especially the HD ones. I don’t know how they do it, but the 24/96 downloads at HDtracks are still the quickest. Also, few albums were bundled as complete titles. I had to download individual tracks -- only to find out that they weren’t numbered. To place them in album order, I had to number each one in iTunes. Hifitrack.com argues that the majority of their customers buy individual tracks, so they don’t need the track numbers. This got me thinking. I grew up in an era when the concept album was the norm. If you listened to a Simon and Garfunkel album, you expected the songs in a certain order, which you accepted as the artists’ intention. It was even jarring to hear a greatest-hits album place songs in a different sequence. But companies like iTunes and Walmart have been teaching a younger generation to focus on individual tracks. So if you’re old school and album-oriented like me, you’ll have to work a bit to get this site’s tracks in order. Hifitrack.com has agreed, however, that it’s essential to have track numbers for multipart classical pieces, and they’re working on it.

The tracks all downloaded accurately and sounded fine. I found that the recordings tended to have a narrow front soundstage, though this varied because Hifitrack.com offers recordings from so many labels. But there was nothing I downloaded that didn’t sound at least good, and many recordings sounded excellent. The 24/96 downloads were very impressive for their natural, transparent, and focused sound. Try vocalist Wendy Robin’s Colours of the Sea or Mimi Lo’s set of Cantonese love songs, Very Personal.

One of Hifitrack.com’s greatest strengths is its library. Except for the Kent Poon jazz title, most recordings seem unique to the site; I couldn’t find any of the other titles elsewhere. For the western listener, hearing music from Hong Kong requires a sense of adventure and an open mind. The site has many traditional Chinese albums, such as White Snow in Early Spring featuring pipa virtuoso Wong Ching, and Joyful Reunion with Chinese flute specialist Zhang Wei Liang, both of which were appealing and stimulating in excellent 16/44.1 transfers. Moving to contemporary music, I found many western influences at work. In some cases, particularly in the recordings of Leo Ku and Albert Au, I noticed both eastern and western influences. To help listeners decide which sounds suit them, Hifitrack.com provides generous samples of each cut. There are also free downloads of selected titles scattered throughout the site.

Hifitrack.com’s selection of classical music surprised me. There’s not much of it, but what they offered turned out to be very good. Several recordings feature the revered Chinese maestra Yip Wing-sie. Though I had read articles about her, I had never heard her work and I was most impressed. On one track she leads the China National Symphony Orchestra in a dazzling performance of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which includes some virtuoso bass drumming in the final two movements. Yip also conducts the music of contemporary Hong Kong composers on an album called Towards the Superior, which included such interesting titles as Red Roof and Ghost City. Unfortunately, Hifitrack.com fails to mention the composers’ names.

Hifitrack.com lets you experience music that you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re an album person like me, be prepared to spend a little time on downloading and numbering tracks. But those in search of a well-recorded, unusual repertory likely won’t mind this extra task from a site that offers a somewhat exotic musical paradise.

. . . Rad Bennett
radb@soundstageav.com

 


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