If you’re like me, you probably have a massive digital music library. Much of that library may have been amassed from digitized CDs or LPs. However, chances are that today you are probably purchasing more of your music online through legal digital download stores than anything else.
So that raises the question: Where can you go to purchase high quality digital music? Years ago, there weren’t many choices. Today, however, there are some great places where you can go. I’ve assembled a list of the top five high quality music sites where you can find just about any music file that will soothe the audiophile longing in all of us.
1) iTunes: The grand daddy of them all, the iTunes store, has finally become a good place to purchase digital music. The reason why I say, “finally” is because you can now get higher quality 256k AAC encoded files that are DRM-free. iTunes has a huge selection of music across a wide variety of genres. Thought a 256k AAC audio file is not a lossless file, it is superior to an MP3 file at the same bit-rate since the AAC codec used to compress the file yields a higher quality sound file. The bottom line is that the serious audiophile shouldn’t overlook iTunes as a digital music source any longer—especially since the iTunes catalog of music is so large.
2) HD Tracks: HD Tracks has stood in contrast to iTunes on a very basic premise: the highest quality master recordings you can get digitally. HD Tracks has a much, much narrower catalog of music than iTunes; however, depending on the track, HD Track offers you a selection of CD-quality and original master downloads in lossless formats. That means, you can download content on the site in AIFF or WAV (CD quality) or in high-res (Apple Lossless or FLAC) formats. In many cases, you can even get the recordings in 96/24 or 192/24 for the highest fidelity. HD Tracks catalog is especially appealing to those who like classical music, jazz, classic rock and roll. If you’re into Top 40 music or alternative, then HD Tracks isn’t for you.
3) Amazon MP3 Store: Amazon’s MP3 store is another alternative to iTunes. Downloads are available in 256k MP3 files. Though not as good a codec as Apples AAC audio, MP3 at 256k is a decent quality file. With Amazon, you get free cloud storage for your purchased music and an application to help you download your purchases. You can then manage the music in the app of your choice (iTunes, JRiver, etc). Amazon is a good alternative for those seeking a larger music catalog but don’t want to be part of the iTunes ecosystem. Recently, Amazon has introduced a neat, new feature where if you buy a physical CD or LP, you will have the rights to also download digital versions of that song at no extra cost. The feature appears to kick in after the return period has passed for the physical product.
4) B&W Society of Sound: B&W is best known for their superlative, reference speakers. However, if you don’t have good source music, even the best speakers and the best technology will be wasted. That’s exactly what B&W has been looking to address with the launch of it’s Society of Sound online music catalog. Unlike the other services, Society of Sound is a subscription based service that gives you the opportunity to download music from the current catalog and get a new album each month. Make no mistake, B&W’s Society of Sound has a very narrow catalog; but the selection of artists and the recording quality is superb. I love this service. Classical music fans will love the recordings of the London Symphony Orchestra while classic rock fans will love cuts from Peter Gabriel, who has been a huge catalyst for the Society of Sound. Files are available in both FLAC and Apple Lossless; In some instances, newer recordings are also being made available in 5.1 surround. Unlike the other service models, a subscription to the Society of Sound is required to get access to the full catalog of music. Given what you get, it’s a very reasonable fee of $59.95 which gives you access to the full catalog plus two new downloads per month for an entire year.
5) Linn Records: Rounding off the top five services is Linn Audio. Like HD Tracks and the Society of Sound, you can buy high quality, lossless digital files though the catalog is confined to more eclectic artists. Linn carries music from a narrow set of record labels, but does have some recognized lables such as Linn itself, NAXOS, and Universal Record Group. All you Andrea Bocelli, Diana Krall, and KISS fans can rejoice.
There are other music services such as Napster and Rhapsody, they don’t offer anything more than the ones mentioned above. If you’re a music lover who is longing to get the best possible audio out of your system, you must start with the best available source recordings.
Fortunately, we are now moving in a post CD-quality world to a reference-quality digital experience through music download sites. The benefit of these sites and the digital music is not simply better quality but also much better convenience and the elimination of needing to rip music from physical media any longer.
Thankfully, we are finally at the threshold of a watershed time in the audiophile experience. So, if you’re looking to expand your library with the best possible recordings, there are finally some great choices out there that will meet and even exceed your expectations.