Blue Note Jazz Classics on HDtracks (review)
John Coltrane - Blue Train
Herbie Hancock - Maiden Voyage
Eric Dolphy - Out to Lunch
Horace Silver - Song For My Father
Wayne Shorter - Speak No Evil
Larry Young - Unity
We’ve been hearing for years how the Internet has hurt the music business. Now, finally some good news.
If you’re a fan of good quality audio, it has been a difficult time. With almost the entire industry moving toward low quality mp3s as the standard, and CDs becoming a thing of the past, obtaining high fidelity music seems harder than ever. The good news is, there’s finally some relief. A website called HDtracks.com is finally offering downloads that actually sound better than CDs.
How can that work, you might ask? Well, a CD is only capable of holding a certain amount of data, and most CD players are only capable of reproducing sounds at a certain sampling rate. What HDtracks offers is files that are larger and have a higher resolution than standard compact discs. Think of your digital camera - if you bought one of the earliest models, enlarged photos looked lousy because the megapixel resolution was low. Now that the resolution has gotten larger, the picture quality has gotten a lot better. This is the same idea behind these new audio transfers - higher resolution = better sound.
Blue Note Records has just released six classic jazz albums in high definition audio from HDtracks: Blue Train by John Coltrane, Maiden Voyage from Herbie Hancock, Out to Lunch by Eric Dolphy, Speak No Evil from Wayne Shorter, Song For My Father by Horace Silver, and Unity from Larry Young. Each album has been remixed from the original analog multi-track masters, and is available in 96 kHz/24 bit resolution, which is more than double what a CD can deliver. For a few dollars more, you can also get the 192 kHz/24 bit version, for an even higher resolution. Each album download comes with the original cover art, and liner notes, plus a brand new essay from some of the top jazz writers of the day.
If you compare these versions with the mp3s available on Itunes and other mp3 sites, the results are staggering. Imagine trying to look at your favorite painting wrapped in cellophane - that’s Itunes. Now, imagine that same painting sitting on your lap, without anything in between - that’s HDtracks. Sure, you’ll pay more for these files, but if you really enjoy these albums - it’s totally worth it - and you will definitely hear a difference.
Comparing the HD transfers to their respective CDs, the differences are a little more subtle. There is still an improvement, although this varies from album to album. Will you be able to tell a difference with your $9 earbuds? Probably not. How about your built-in laptop speakers? Nope. But, any good set of headphones or speakers will be able to showcase the improved sound. The biggest change is in the “space” in these recordings - they all seem to have a presence to them, a vibrancy, that isn’t available on the compact disc. Trumpets are more crisp, percussion sounds richer, and you can actually hear the air coming out of the wind instruments.
As I compared these HD files to my home CDs, I was amazed at the quality. The drums at the opening of “Locomotion” from John Coltrane have so much more resonance to them - you can hear the skins echoing off the walls of the studio. While on “I’m Old Fashioned,” Coltrane sounds like he’s standing next to you - his saxophone full of warmth. The finger cymbals at the beginning of “Calcutta Cutie” from Horace Silver really jump out of the speakers. There’s a deep richness to Larry Young’s organ - the attack on his Hammond on “Monk’s Dream” can really be felt. Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch seemed to benefit the most from the HD transfer - you really do feel like the musicians are right in the room with you.
There are a couple of drawbacks to this format. For one, the files are much larger - which means they take up a lot more space on your computer or in your mp3 player. Although, in the case of the computer, most have adequate hard drives so that isn’t really an issue. In addition, because these HD transfers make everything sound better - they will also magnify flaws. Hancock’s Maiden Voyage is rife with tape drop outs - they either used crappy tape to begin with, or it hasn’t aged well. These flaws were there in my old CD - however, they’re more apparent in the new mix. Edits are also made more obvious. At the 4:28 mark in the opening cut, “Maiden Voyage,” there’s a splice that you can really hear. There’s an edit about 1:00 into Coltrane’s “Moments Notice,” where the instruments shift in the audio spectrum - it’s more prominent in this version. Yet, the improved sonic quality far outweighs these slight negatives.
To get better sound, you’re going to pay a little more - the albums on HDtracks cost about the same as a physical CD. But, if you really want to hear this music in all it’s sonic glory - HDtracks is for you. --Tony Peters