If the idea of high resolution sound at home or on the go makes your eyes light up and your ears sing praises, great news: more devices are coming that support this technology. Bad news, though, because if you live in Australia, the pickings are slim.
I like music, and I like it in a good quality because I like to be immersed. That’s me, and that’s a lot of people who have a love affair with sounds, buying great quality headphones and making sure the things they listen to are rich with information, putting them in the moment.
These days, that sort of moment is available not just in your home with a big stereo system and library of vinyl, but with a mobile phone supporting high-resolution lossless audio and a pair of supportive headphones, able to take that sound and do great things with it, looking at the frequency ranges and letting your ears and head feel like they are both a part of the action.
But there’s a problem.
We have the technology. We have the capability to bring high resolution audio where ever we go. We can build it better, smaller, and make it sound amazing.
But we’re missing the content, we really are.
It seems to always come back to this issue in technology where content is king, but companies are often one step behind.
Take 4K Ultra HD at the moment, where there is pretty much no media available in Australia for people to really enjoy a 4K TV at its actual resolution. You can upscale a Full HD 1080p movie, sure, but that’s not the same, and so we’re waiting on content.
Look at Dolby Atmos audio, which you’ll be able to buy in a matter of weeks, but of which there will only be four titles available for by the end of the year, and only one at launch, despite there being over a hundred movies supporting the high-end home theatre sound format.
High resolution audio is in a similar boat, with little to no online presence in Australia, despite a push by companies locally to get people on-board with the audio technology.
Indeed, we first saw LG talk about the idea when it launched its G2 smartphone last year, bringing the technology to the G3 this year, which won rave reviews from us from that feature alone (as well as a bunch of other reasons).
Even Samsung is getting in on the action, with the Galaxy Note 4 supporting high-resolution audio, and the support also appears on Sony’s Z3 and Z3 Compact smartphones, stopping us from needing to spend large wads of cash on Sony’s other high-res supporting player, the ZX1 Walkman.
There are other dedicated options, like the Astell & Kern AK240, which is particularly hard to find, but can be bought in a very expensive Blue Note Records package if you have a spare $7600 laying around (we don’t).
And high-res audio is also being mentioned by Bluesound (above), because it wants to bring a Sonos-like multi-room streaming audio experience to people who want only the highest of audio quality, plugging their streamers into speakers from Bowers & Wilkins, for example.
But while these companies talk spruik their wares and the benefits of high-res audio, none of them seem to have a solution for where Aussies can find the stuff.
You know, the actual media, the songs, the tracks, the digital discs.
A quick search online does reveal a few places, but as usual, being a resident and citizen of our lovely country has its downsides, as geographic restrictions kick in and several sites just say no.
For instance, while you can happily thumb through the over 10,000 track listing of HDTracks, probably one of the largest catalogues of high-resolution audio on the web — quite a few of these albums are off limits, with the geolocking beginning, and even if you do want to spend money, a road block appears.
We did contact HDTracks, as well as the local arm of Universal Music, to find out why so many titles were blocked, as most of the offending albums and artists tended to be on Universal labels, but neither have come back to us.
Qobuzz is another such site, operating in Europe and generally blocking Aussies from spending on the catalogue, an issue due to licensing agreements in the countries Qobuzz is set to work in, with Australia not part of that list.
Other websites selling HD audio have this problem, such as Naim, a record label from the UK that tends to sell high-res FLAC, but only if you happen to be living in the UK.
One artist grabbed our attention there, with Imogen Heap’s latest album “Sparks” being made available in 24/92, but once again, being blocked by international restrictions.
A little search of this one found it was even available in America under a different label, but while there is an Australian counterpart for Ms. Heap’s online store, there is no listing of a high-res FLAC album in the local version. Again, we’re stung with being in Australia, which is beyond frustrating since there’s no reason why geographic location should stop someone from spending money.
But in this circumstance, you can at least buy from the US store from that artist, and indeed, there are many other artists selling their wares in high-resolution audio if you look hard enough.
UK rockers Muse were one of the first we found (above), with their latest album “The 2nd Law” being made available in the format on the UK store, while US artist Dave Matthews Band has begun to release its live sessions under the “Live Trax” label in 24-bit audio, providing live music in a quality befitting of the high-resolution audio namesake.
Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is also big in this area, and also releases his albums with this option, doing so with the recent release of the “Gone Girl” soundtrack.
But that’s not the case for every big artist, and while many are slow to embrace the high-end audio world, it’s the market for up and comings where you can really find files, with services like “Bandcamp” offering FLAC for its customers after recommending to its artists that they upload in the best quality they can.
One of the company’s representatives told us that “while we have minimum upload requirements (16bit/44.1kHz), artists are completely responsible for the files they upload,” meaning those high resolution files you find on Bandcamp might be in CD quality 16-bit, or they might even be higher, with the service providing the option of download format up to the customer.
Buy an album, and you get FLAC or MP3; it’s your call.
That’s a model we like, but it’s not one supported heavily throughout the industry.
If you try to buy an album on the North American website Acoustic Sounds, you’ll find it’ll be in the high res format you purchased it in, and there are quite a few of these — AIFF, WAV, FLAC, ALAC, and DSD — so you better know what you want.
If you buy on HDTracks, the same dilemma applies, and there’s a bigger problem for each of these, with the international block in the way.
So how do we deal with this?
Why the same way we’ve dealt with Amazon in the past, and that is with something to get around the very restrictions we’re being blocked by: a temporary virtual private network or VPN, which will tell the website we’re going to that we’re actually sending it through a different country.
The program we’re using for this story is Hola, a little script that sticks to the side of Chrome or Firefox and works as an extension, activated when you need it to send your activity through a different server and make a website think you’re in a different country when you’re, well, where you are.
You don’t have to keep it on the entire time, but when you need it, simply hit the little flame for the Hola icon and power it up, sending your information to a proxy and making that website think you’re in a different place.
This works with HDTracks, for instance, and it even works with Acoustic Sounds, but it won’t work with Naim or Qobuzz, two companies that seem to have been clued in ahead of time to the sort of things we might be doing and have made their system incompatible with the workaround we’d normally rely on with Hola.
For HDTracks, however, we simply load the Hola plugin, set the service to America, and then purchase and download music, with PayPal used as the payment system. Once that’s done, you merely install the app on either Mac and Windows, and then download away, which can take a while because these are pretty large music files.
Acoustic Sounds makes you work a little more for the privilege of giving them your money — seriously, it shouldn’t be this hard — with the requirement that you’re going to have to lie about your billing and shipping location in order for an international PayPal payment to go through.
There is some good news, though, because the labels seem to be paying attention, at least overseas, anyway.
Warner Music was one such place we were able to find, with titles from Damien Rice, Tom Petty, and Neil Young offering their albums up in high-res 24-bit FLAC. The latter artists is especially important, in fact, as he has come up with his own solution to high-res audio, with a HD audio download store launching soon to go along with his “Pono” high-res portable music player.
Linn Records joins Warner Music in offering 24-bit audio, with quite a few classical musicians in the archive, but quite a few more in other genres, while Matador Records offers up FLACs for Cat Power, Delorean, Interpol, Sonic Youth, and Queens of the Stone Age.
Over in the world of indie music, there’s the aforementioned Bandcamp, but there are a few others, also, with that website joined by Kicktone, Zunior, and CDBaby. Many of the albums found at these sites are available in high resolution, though some may well be just CD-quality FLACs, so check with the website and artist if you’re at all concerned.
And there are a few other stores littered around the place, such as 7Digital, an online music presence completely unrelated to the Australian Channel Seven, and offering a large selection of music to purchase, though very little of it in high-resolution audio.
In Australia, 7Digital is rebranded as “ZDigital” which makes sense when you realise how everyone would confuse it with something operated by the Seven Network, and so far, we’ve only found an album by Radiohead, but hey, you might have more luck, and the company might even expand the high-resolution library in the near future.
Bleep is another option, catering mostly to electronic music and offering artists such as Aphex Twin, Flying Lotus, Lapalux, and Boards of Canada, to name but a few.
ProStudioMasters also offers up a collection of HD audio, and all of it appears to be in some form of 24-bit, so at least you won’t have the problem of working out if the audio is merely CD quality, but with an address field required here, you may have to go down the same route as Acoustic Sounds when it comes to being just a little disingenuous if you wish to purchase here.
Internationally, there’s another major one, with High Res Audio taking out one of the biggest collections we’ve seen, but being a European store and requiring you to use a VPN if you’re to break through the international restriction road block Australians are used to. The store here is pretty impressive, offering lots of artists in a variety of resolutions, most of which are based in FLAC.
Locally, though, the landscape isn’t good for purchasing, with pretty much no FLAC-enabled stores outside of ZDigital.
Neither BigPondMusic nor GetMusic supports high-res files, and while Sony has told us that it makes tracks available on HDTracks, it also claims its service Bandit FM has compatible files, though we couldn’t find much in our search.
Unfortunately, unless Apple gets into selling its own lossless format known as ALAC on iTunes, those of us keen to give money to artists and record labels will have to keep resorting to tactics such as those in this article to make it happen.
UPDATE (June 25, 2015): An update to this article comes as an alert if you plan on using Hola for getting around geoblocking, as it has been found the extension and service was doing some less than honest things with its users’ bandwidth, turning it into a botnet that could be used for denial of service attacks or other possibly nefarious purposes.
This isn’t a good thing, and so if you plan to use Hola, tread carefully and be aware your information may be used for not so friendly purposes. If you still need a VPN, consider paying for access to one instead of relying on Hola.