Instant classical gratification
In yesterday's blog, I complained that the iTunes store, the leading player in on-line music retailing, only sells its music in the sonically inferior Mp3 format. So, as a classical fan, where can you go to find high-quality downloads of the music you hear on WFCR, and enjoy it again right away? Here's a list of the retailers I'm aware of. Please feel free to reply with others I may have missed.
First, a few generalities. There's an alphabet soup of digital audio formats out there, each (according to those who really know such stuff) with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some formats work with some audio software; others don't with others. FLAC, for instance, doesn't work with iTunes, though there's free software you can download and install that will convert FLAC to universally-usable WAV.
A few retailers offer a variety of audio qualities, from "near-CD quality" to "CD quality". Usually, the difference is expressed by bit rate, typically 16-bit (very good) or 24-bit (even better). Unlike the vast difference between Mp3 and lossless*, the difference between these high bit-rates, though not negligible, is subtle. Whether the extra expense of 24-bit is worth it depends on your budget and level of audophilia.
As to pricing, most retailers offer complete albums for generally 10-12. The difference among them is whether that is 10-12 dollars, euros or pounds. So shop around. In most but not all cases, you can select individual tracks rather than the entire album, though the "a la carte" price is usually a little higher.
A few retailers provide PDF files of the cover and booklet. Most, alas, do not. On the other hand, some labels (e.g., Chandos, Hyperion, Naxos) make this information available on their websites. Let's hope that those that don't join the party soon.
Finally, each retailer requires sign-up, and uses a different widget for downloading your purchases to your computer. So, to cut down on the hassle, you might want to investigate the retailers that carry several labels, including labels that have their own on-line store. Here goes:
Ariama. Operated by Sony Music, they offer both physical CDs and (usually) downloads of the old Columbia and RCA catalogs, featuring such great artists as Bernstein, Szell, Heifetz and Rubinstein. Plenty of other labels, too, from major labels like Deutsche Grammophon and EMI to smaller classical indies like Naxos, Chandos and Bis.
The Classical Shop. A division of Chandos, one of England's best independent classical labels, The Classical Shop offers lots more than Chandos, and in the greatest variety of formats. You won't find the major labels, but most of the best classical indies are here. Downsides: They're expensive (generally $15 per album, once you convert pounds into dollars). And the purchasing process is much more cumbersome than it needs to be; indeed, I have to click from page to page to page more at The Classical Shop than at any on-line retailer I've ever patronized. Still, a very good resource.
eClassical. An excellent newcomer from Gothenburg, Sweden, eClassical operates on the principle that (I quote from their press release) "YOU GETS WHAT YOU PAYS FOR." Indeed, their prices and flexibility are top-notch. They're still stocking their virtual shelves, as it were, so the selection is a bit spotty at present. But if the accomplish what they set out to do, eClassical could end up as the best source for independent classical labels.
HDtracks. "Founded by David and Norman Chesky of the audiophile-record label Chesky Records, HDtracks is a high-quality music download service offering a diverse catalog of music from around the world." They don't offer much classical, but what they have is mostly available in audiophile 24-bit sound.
Passionato. The first and formerly best classical retailer of its kind, Passionato has gone through changes since launching in 2008, including a recent merger with the Musical Heritage Society. Currently, they offer little beyond Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, which are available elsewhere.
Qobuz. They're a new French company offering classical, pop, jazz and everything else. Unfortunately, most of their classical stuff is not available for purchase in the U.S. Whether that changes remains to be seen. Also, since they're French, it would of course kill them to have an English site. So you'll have to learn your télécharger from your écoutez.
Now, onto the labels and performing organizations that sell their wares digitally on-line:
Analekta, a very good Canadian label featuring fine artists like Angèle Dubeau, Ensemble Caprice and the Gryphon Trio, not available (as far as I can tell) from any other download site.
Boston Symphony Orchestra. The BSO now makes and markets their own CDs, which they also make available for download in multiple formats. They could make the purchasing process a heck of a lot easier. But if you want to download the music, they're your only source.
Deutsche Grammophon. The venerable yellow label has digitized virtually its entire catalog for download, and also offers music from Decca, its partner under the Universal Classics corporate umbrella. Same downsides as The Classical Shop: Expensive and cumbersome to use. A lot of this music is also available, easier and cheaper, from Ariama. But what a lode of great music!
Hyperion. As far as I can tell, this amazing British classical label is only available for downloads from their own site. No problem; they're fairly priced and easy to use.
Linn. The record label of the well-known Scottish stereo manufacturer has a small but distinguished catalog of music (not just classical) which they offer in multiple formats on their site. Their on-line store has some other good labels, too (e.g., Delos, PentaTone), most of which are also available elsewhere.
Happy shopping and listening, everybody!
* "Lossless" refers to digital audio formats that compress the music into smaller digital files for convenient storage and delivery, then expand them at the other end without loss of quality. In other words, the good stuff.