Jim Richardson is the managing editor for home audio/video and pro audio learning content on Crutchfield.com.
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A: HDtracks is an online music store founded by David and Norman Chesky of the audiophile record label Chesky Records. HDtracks offers digital music files that, when played on a properly configured computer audio system, sound much better than the compressed files sold at the iTunes® store or most other online music stores. In fact, many of the HDtracks downloads sound better than CDs.
Initially, HDTracks offered mostly jazz and classical music from small audiophile labels. Recently, the company has expanded its catalog to include dozens of titles from major rock and pop artists, such as The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, and many more.
Q: What kinds of high-definition audio formats does HDtracks sell?
A: There are two stores within the HDtracks website. The original store sells "regular" HDtracks in three different formats — FLAC, AIFF, and high-bit-rate MP3.
The FLAC and AIFF files sold in the original HDtracks store are "lossless" files that have CD-quality sound.
The MP3 files available at HDtracks are "lossy." That means the amount of compression used to achieve smaller file sizes yields sound that is not CD quality. However, at a rate of 320 kbps, the sound is closer to the CD benchmark than what you'll experience with downloads from mass market online music stores.
The new store within the HDtracks store is their 96khz/24bit Store. (That name's a bit misleading, actually, since some of the files have a sampling rate of 88kHz, and some go as high as 192kHz.) The 96/24 store sells FLAC format files only. If you have the right setup, these files sound better than CDs.
Q: Will HDtracks play on my computer?
A: Absolutely. Depending upon which file format you choose, you may want to consider installing a new media player application.
- AIFF files will play in iTunes on your Mac or Windows computer.
- FLAC files will not play in iTunes (at least not without third-party "plug-in" software). Music player software such as Winamp, Media Monkey, and Songbird will play FLAC files.
- MP3 files will play in iTunes or most any other music player software.
- To play the better-than-CD files offered in the 96/24 store, you need a media player (such as MediaMonkey or Songbird) that is compatible with both the FLAC format and high-resolution files. You will also need a digital-to-analog converter that supports high-resolution audio. These high-res files will not play in iTunes unless you first convert them to AIFF, using a programs such as Max (Mac).
Q: What kind of audio gear do I need to get the best results from HDtracks?
A: HDtracks will not sound their best if you're listening through low-fi gear such as your iPod's® stock earbuds or your computer's built-in speakers. We recommend that you connect your computer to an outboard digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Then connect your DAC to a high-fidelity audio system or a good set of headphones.
Q: Will HDtracks play on my iPod or smartphone?
A: HDTracks MP3 files will play on iPods and on most any smartphone.
All iPods except the Shuffle will play HDtracks AIFF files. CD-quality files will quickly fill up a low-capacity iPod. Files from the 24/96 store will not play on an iPod at their full resolution (even when converted to AIFF).
Q: Do I have to connect my computer to my home audio system in order to play HDtracks?
A: Not necessarily. Some network music players, such as Logitech's Squeezebox Touch, will play high-resolution FLAC files.
Q: Can I play HDtracks on my car stereo?
A: Most car stereos will play the 320k MP3s from a disc, iPod, or USB thumb drive. If you have HDtracks AIFF files on your iPod, you can play those over a car stereo. But we haven't yet found a car stereo that will play the high-res FLAC files.