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Classical music downloading: casting a wider net
September 19, 2008, 4:31 PM
by Scott Foglesong, S.F. Classical Music Examiner


Update: Mr. Klaus Heymann, Naxos founder and CEO, has very kindly corrected a mistake in the original version of this article. The recording of "Tristan und Isolde" with Furtwängler, Flagstad, and Suthaus, actually is available on ClassicsOnline, but cannot be sold to U.S. customers due to the current draconian copyright laws in United States. Many wonderful historical recordings, available worldwide, are difficult or impossible for U.S. citizens to access as a result of these laws.

At the end of last week, I covered in a previous post the process of seeking out four albums from two online vendors: the iTunes Store, and the Zune Marketplace. Even without taking anything else into consideration — i.e., file formats, digital rights management, etc., — the iTunes Store absolutely trumped Zune Marketplace.

However, it seems to me that a broader look at online classical music download stores might be of interest. My own experience has tended to favor several stores — iTunes, Amazon, and ClassicsOnline, but I've never really put any of these to any kind of a test. They're just the three I tend to patronize the most.

With that in mind, I chose four albums that could be considered reasonably representative of the vast span of classical CDs:

  1. Well-known European label: "Bach: 7 Harpsichord Concertos" with Richard Egarr, Andrew Manze, and the Academy of Ancient Music, on Harmonia Mundi.
  2. Broadly-distributed independent: "Ginastera: Panambí and Estancia Ballets", with Gisèle Ben-Dor conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, on Naxos.
  3. New Release on a Major Label: "Fiesta", with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, on Deutsche Grammophon.
  4. Classic recording, still in print: "Wagner: Tristan und Isolde", with Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, featuring Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus, on EMI.

The test is to find out the following information about each particular vendor:

  1. Does the vendor carry the album?
  2. If it's available, what file formats and bit rates are on offer?
  3. If it's available, is the file DRM protected?
  4. If it's available, what was searching for the album like, with "1" meaning "very easy" and "5" meaning "difficult."

In choosing the vendors to cover, I wanted to be as inclusive as possible, while avoiding those stores which shortchange, or ignore altogether, classical music. That means no Wal-Mart, Napster, SpiralFrog, or other such vendors. I also avoided those sites which stream music exclusively, such as Rhapsody and the Naxos Music Library; I'm talking about downloads here. (Classical.com is a hybrid download-streaming site, so it's included.)

I also included vendors who are narrowly specialized, such as the Deutsche Grammophon site (DG only), or those sites which focus strongly on independents. I haven't included absolutely every single such site, to be sure. Some audiophile specialist sites such as Linn and HDTracks are missing, since I already knew they wouldn't have any of these recordings in stock; ditto institutional stores like the Philadelphia Orchestra's.

Here are the sites I included:

If your favorite isn't in here, my apologies.

The Results

The most fundamental test was, of course, the availability of the four albums listed above. Also important to this survey was whether or not those albums can be downloaded in reasonably high audio quality (lossless formats remain scarce, alas), if they are free from DRM, and just how many hoops you have to jump through in order to get them. Gapless playback is a topic for a different posting, so stay tuned.

I'm picking my overall winners by availability, but within that listing I'm also concerned with searchability, interface, and what I can call Classical Comfort: that is, just how attuned is the service to the needs of classical buyers.
And the champion is...

Amazon!

(So much for those amongst the readership who have pegged me as a hopeless Apple fanboy.)

Amazon came through magnificently, all four albums available, all in reasonably good mp3/256 format, all without DRM, all found effortlessly with a few search terms.

Amazon also wins for consistency: all of the selections are in the same format, at the same bit rate, without DRM, so there is no guesswork or poking around to figure out details. Album artwork is readily available, sometimes including multiple versions from various sources.

Prices are competitive, sometimes even a bit cheaper than other vendors. Classical Comfort is very high.

The iTunes Store comes in second; although I found all four albums, one of them was available only as a partial album — necessitating downloading by the track, an ugly prospect given that the album was Tristan und Isolde.

Furthermore, another album (the Dudamel "Fiesta") was offered only in lower-quality audio with DRM lockdown.

Nevertheless, searching iTunes Store is a breeze, as is browsing, shopping, and purchasing. iTunes remains the champ for sheer useability, no matter what shortcomings might have been exposed by the conjunction of these four albums. iTunes' Classical Comfort is very high.

I'm assigning Zune Marketplace third place for availability only, offering as it did three out of four albums. Two of the albums are mp3, and one is wma. As for bit rates and DRM status, that's really hard to figure out, and what info I've picked up has been contradictory. My charts below represent best guesses.

But Zune would belong near the bottom of the list in terms of interface and searchability, and Classical Comfort is extremely low. Even with the recent 3.0 upgrade, you can't search for composer + performer — standard operating procedure on virtually every other service I sampled, nor does it list albums by composer + performer; it's one or the other, making searching all the more frustrating.

Speaking of frustration, eMusic dished out a lavish helping and ranks a distant fourth, due to a lousy search engine. eMusic definitely had the Ginastera, and just as definitely had neither the Dudamel "Fiesta" nor the Flagstad Tristan und Isolde.

eMusic may have had the Egarr/Manze Bach Concerto recording, but that dratted search engine left me more confused than enlightened. Given that I discovered a lot of other Egarr/Manze-Harmonia Mundi recordings, I decided that this particular 2-CD album was probably somewhere on eMusic, but I just couldn't find it within a reasonable length of time.

eMusic's Classical Comfort is mediocre.

The remaining stores all qualify in the also-ran category in terms of availability, but many of those shine when it comes to searchability, file formats, or just plain old likeability; all of these sites rate a "very high" in the Classical Comfort zone.

I'm quite fond of ClassicsOnline, but they came up with only one album of the four — the Ginastera, but they offer it in relatively high-quality mp3/320 format. [Update: they have the Flagstad Tristan und Isolde, but U.S. copyright law does not allow their offering to be sold in the United States.]

On the other hand, I wasn't surprised that Deutsche Grammophon carried only the Dudamel recording, that being the only DG album on my list, and they also offer mp3/320.

The ClassicalShop specializes mostly in Chandos recordings, but distinguishes itself by offering audiophile-grade files. I was disappointed when their link to the Ginastera album produced nothing but a VB Script error, but at least they have one of the four, even if you can't get to it.

A few stores didn't have any of the albums, but that isn't necessarily a mark against them. Some of those stores really specialize in small indie labels (CD Baby comes to mind) and so even a Harmonia Mundi album would be a bit too mainstream for them.

It's also worth noting that audiophile-grade vendor HDTracks will be adding some larger labels in the near future, including BIS and cpo, so they definitely bear watching.

So What Would I Like to See in the Future?

This one's easy: lossless file formats offered by the major vendors, and not just the smaller specialty sites. Yes, I know they require more bandwidth for downloading and might put an impractical strain on servers. But nonetheless, downloaded classical music needs lossless more than any other genre. I don't really care as to the lossless format itself -- FLAC, Apple Lossless, WMA Lossless, etc. Let's just call a halt to this prevalent suppression of audio quality.

I would like to see DRM vanish altogether, in particular from the iTunes Store; I really dislike the current two-tier system. (My overall impression is that Apple isn't crazy about it either.)

Looking ahead a bit more, I would like to up the ante by breaking the CD boundary and hi-def audio on tap from the major vendors as well as the audiophile outfits. Those super-high-bit audio files are a compelling reason to use computerized storage and playback, given that most of us don't have SACD players.
Tables of my results can be found below.


1: Egarr/Manze/Academy of Ancient Music; Bach Concertos, Harmonia Mundi


Store Found? Formats DRM? Notes Search
Amazon yes mp3/256 no   1
CDBaby no        
Classical.com yes WMA, mp3/192 no   2
ClassicalShop no        
ClassicsAndJazz no        
ClassicsOnline no        
DG no        
eClassical no        
eMusic maybe       5
iTunes yes AAC/256 no Seach was inconclusive 1
Zune yes mp3/192(?) no   3

2: Ben-Dor/London; Ginastera Panambí and Estancia, Naxos


Store Found? Formats DRM? Notes Search
Amazon yes mp3/256 no   1
CDBaby no        
Classical.com no       2
ClassicalShop yes mp3 no the page to download produced an error  
ClassicsAndJazz no        
ClassicsOnline yes mp3/320 no    
DG no        
eClassical no        
eMusic yes mp3 no bit rate? 5
iTunes yes AAC/256 no   1
Zune yes mp3/192(?) no   3

3: Fiesta: Dudamel and Bolívar Youth Orchestra, DG


Store Found? Formats DRM? Notes Search
Amazon yes mp3/256 no   1
CDBaby no        
Classical.com no        
ClassicalShop no       4
ClassicsAndJazz yes mp3, WMA/320 no    
ClassicsOnline no       2
DG yes mp3/320 no    
eClassical no        
eMusic no     bit rate? 2
iTunes yes AAC/256 yes   1
Zune yes mp3/192(?) yes   3

4: Furtwangler/Flagstad; Wagner Tristan und Isolde, EMI


Store Found? Formats DRM? Notes Search
Amazon yes mp3/256 no   1
CDBaby no        
Classical.com no        
ClassicalShop no     found an interesting substitute 3
ClassicsAndJazz no        
ClassicsOnline no        
DG no        
eClassical no        
eMusic no     had some interesting substitutes 3
iTunes sort of AAC/128 yes as "partial album" only, by the track 2
Zune yes     had a few tracks from it on another collection 3

 

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