Technics Tracks offers audiophiles new download choices
By Jim Bray
A new digital music download service aims at attracting audiophiles with high resolution tracks it says are aimed right at that particular demographic.
It's called Technics Tracks and it appears the service isn't about to eschew more mainstream customers, since most of what they offer (at least so far) are more conventional, CD-quality tracks, though supposedly remastered at high bit rates.
Nothing wrong with that, other than the question of whether or not the world needs yet another download service - and the free market will surely by the judge of that. But in a market in which most people are apparently downloading MP3 files that, thanks to their nature, could offer audio quality that's all over the map, the Technics Tracks people are stressing the higher quality of even their "non-high resolution" wares.
Here's how the Technics Tracks folk describe the concept, according to a press release announcing the service. "Canadians take the quality of their entertainment seriously. (snip) Yet, when it comes to music, nearly all Canadians still access music exclusively from MP3 providers and streaming services, which offer lower listening quality than vinyl once did. In short, Canadians have traded music quality for convenience, because - until now - the two could not co-exist."
Technics Tracks offers hi-res audio downloads the company says "will have Canada's largest collection of 24-bit FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) audio tracks. Music lovers can now select from hundreds of thousands of 24-bit/192kHz tracks and millions of 16 bit/44.1kHz songs with no compromises, and all the convenience of digital downloads."
Therefore, they say, audiophiles no longer have to choose between quality and convenience. And isn't that great?
Well, I think it is, if the service is up to its hyped snuff. So, after their invitation, I signed on for a demo and they let me download five tracks initially. After my experience with those tracks, I was intrigued enough to ask permission to download the high res version of one of my "desert island discs" so I could compare it in its entirety with the various other versions I have - both high res and non. They agreed, and I've been spending the last couple of sessions in my home theatre going back and forth between them. It has been, shall we say, an "ear opening experience."
The tracks I downloaded initially included a high res and a "regular res" FLAC version of the title track from The Who's masterpiece concept album Quadrophenia. I also scooped the end title track from John Williams' new score for Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens (high res), a "low res" recording of Frank Sinatra's My Way (because unlike most of Sinatra's beautifully recorded body of work, this one sounds terrible on my CD versions) and a high res copy of the Kinks' 20th Century Man (to A/B with my SACD version).
One way of trying to ensure top quality is to ensure the quality going into the file is top notch as well - the old "garbage in, garbage out" saw. This, with luck, will start with the original digital mastering or remastering process and continue right through the chain to your ears. Alas, it's true that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so the best way to ensure top sound is to have top components all the way.
I have very good equipment, not ultra-high end but excellent mid-high end - and that made me a prime tester for Technics Tracks. My big system is powered and controlled by Rotel, with Definitive Technology speakers (5.1 channels, though my tests were all in stereo). I also have a Rotel/JBL system in the family room (stereo, currently). The big system boasts 500 watts per channel and the "small" one cranks out 350 real watts per channel.
My playback units are from OPPO Digital, their outstanding BDP-103D and BDP-105, both of which are networking universal 3D Blu-ray players that can handle pretty well anything you throw at them, including a vast array of digital file formats. They played Technics' FLACs without breaking a sweat.
As expected, as good as Technics Tracks may be potentially, they can't make a silk ear out of a sow's purse (to make an old saw more audio-relevant). This was brought home by the Sinatra track, which sounded about as awful as my CDs (thereby wasting one of my promo codes…). The Kinks' 20th Century Man sounded awesome, though; it was billed on the website as a remix and it was, indeed, compared to my SACD copy: the stereo channels were reversed and the beginning shortened. But the sound!
I had been quite satisfied with my SACD version of 20th Century Man, but now (even with the remix) I can't go back to it; the Technics Tracks track is appreciably better - louder, cleaner, more dynamic, just plain nicer to listen to.
Then I got to the two versions of Quadrophenia, the tracks I really wanted to compare.
The Quadrophenia album (or, as I like to call it, "Townshend's Last Masterpiece - so far") has been my white whale, as it were, for years. As a diehard Who fan since the late 1960's, I bought this album on vinyl the day it was released in 1973 and probably went through three or four copies (I wore them out) before abandoning the analogue world in favour of the new digital technology.
The problem was that, while the vinyl version of the album absolutely thundered, the CD versions (even the "remastered ones") sounded flat and thin by comparison. That surely would not do! So I've spent the last couple of decades searching in vain for a version that would rival how I remember the vinyl version.
I tried various remastered versions as digital files and I even got the SHM SACD version - an expensive, high resolution audio format supposedly one step above regular hi res SACD's. The SHM SACD was the best of the bunch, but it still didn't really thunder like the vinyl version did. So I bought the audio-only Blu-ray of the album when it came out, a disc that offered high resolution lossless versions including the original stereo mix from 1973 as well as DTS-HD Master Audio versions in surround sound (the way it should have always been available - it is "Quad"-rophenia, after all!) and in stereo.
The BD version beat the SHM SACD and was the best I'd heard to date, though the BD's original stereo mix was rather thin even in its lossless format. I also had issues with the 5.1 remix, but that has nothing to do with the overall audio quality (it was their mixing choices I didn't like). But, audio and Who snob that I am, the Blu-ray still left me wanting - and that's why I jumped at the chance to try the Technics version.
I didn't figure it would be any better. How could it beat a state-of-the-art Blu-ray? So I plunked my prodigious posterior into my home theatre chair and fired up all the versions I had, including Technics' "regular" FLAC version. The results were such that I dragged my audiophile son and my best friend over to A/B/C/D (etc.) the track and form their own opinions.
I played the three best versions back to back twice, changing the order in which I played them. And it was unanimous: the Technics Track was the best, appreciably so. It thunders!
It was gobsmacked enough that I begged the company to let me try the whole album so I could see if the track I'd heard was an anomaly or whether it would translate to the entire experience.
Remember, the Who, Kinks and Sinatra tracks are all songs I've heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times, so I know how they should sound. And Technics may be onto something here with their FLAC files which, unlike the highest quality MP3 file's bit rate of 320 kbps (according to Technics Tracks) boast bit rates of up to 9216 kbps. Think of it as being kind of analogous to the difference between regular TV and HDTV, or HDTV and 4K UHD.
Bottom line? Technics Tracks' version of Quadrophenia is, indeed, the best I've ever had - and as a Who fan, I'd call that a bargain - even though this high res album (including more extra tracks than there are original tracks) sells for $39.99 Canadian
You access Technics Tracks via their website and you can choose entire albums or individual tracks. The downside I found when downloading the Quadrophenia album is that I had to grab each track individually instead of there being a "download all" option - unless I missed it. And it's possible that I did miss it because the site is rather clunky in operation and you have to repeat some of the steps (such as clicking "download" more than once, on subsequent screens) before the high res harmonies high tail it for your hard drive.
And sometimes you can only buy the entire album instead of individual tracks. I didn't download any of these, so perhaps you can scoop the entire album at once in those selections, though I doubt it. Individual hi-res tracks start from $0.79 and albums from $10.99 Canadian. Files do not appear to have copy protection, which is a nice convenience.
The service lets you download your track(s) up to 10 times. I thought that was kind of silly until a couple of my downloads got screwed up in the downloading process (a common problem with downloads) and I had to re-grab them. I now have them stored on my networked hard drive, with the rest of my digital files, and archived onto a burned DVD for safekeeping when my hard drive, inevitably, crashes.
Once you sign up for the service you can also opt to receive a newsletter.
If the name Technics sounds familiar, it's because it's the name of Panasonic's higher end audio arm. And to help ensure you can get the most of their Tracks, the company has also introduced a pair of high res stereo systems. The Premium Class C700 series and the Reference Class R1 Series retail for approximately $6,000 and $70,000 respectively, which is quite a disparity. Technics also plans to launch additional audio equipment this year.
I've never associated Technics with stuff worth 70 grand, but I have been impressed with quite a bit of their offerings over the years and am very curious to try their new systems. I'll let you know if that happens.
You don't need Technics-branded equipment to play Technics Tracks FLAC files, of course. The folks at Technics aren't so silly that they'll refuse your money if you don't have their equipment. You just need to ensure your equipment will play FLAC files, and that's a pretty common feature these days.
The folks at Technics Tracks may be onto something when it comes to offering audiophiles digital tunes that are worthy of carrying the audiophile label. That decision may limit their audience somewhat, so hopefully there are enough people in audiophileland who care about audio quality to make the service profitable. As always, time and the free market will tell.
So have I found my white whale with Technics Tracks' ultimate digital version of Quadrophenia? Well, it's definitely the best digital Quadrophenia I've heard, but I still think the vinyl version may have sounded warmer, a little more real. On the other hand, maybe I'm remembering this favoured album through "rose coloured ears"; maybe it's true that you really can never go home. If so, that white whale may not even exist.
But in the meantime, I'm quite happy with the Technics Tracks' Quadrophenia and hope their high res offerings prove to be popular.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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