Generally speaking, audiophiles like to own their music. Borrowing from a vast and undifferentiated stream with practically limitless choices just doesn’t sit right—at least not as the only option. We tend to grow our music collections selectively with the same care with which we assemble our audio systems. Traditionally, of course, this has meant LPs, tapes, and varieties of silver discs, but the ascendance of electronically delivered content can’t be denied. Sound quality, abominable when the medium is a highly compressed format, can now be extraordinarily good. Especially with high-resolution files, defined as better-than-CD-quality, the program one hears at home, at least theoretically, can be identical to the one the artist and production team signed off on. There are now more than two-dozen online sites offering high-resolution content for listeners who have taken an interest in high-fidelity computer audio.
The availability of high-resolution (HD) downloads of classical material has been transformational. A new compact disc release can have sales of a few thousand units worldwide, or even just a few hundred if the artist or repertoire is unfamiliar. It’s hard to justify the distribution costs of physical media with numbers like that. Keeping esoteric “deep catalog” items in stock in a bricks-and-mortar store was clearly unsustainable—just ask Tower Records. HD downloads have changed all that. With digital distribution, it doesn’t matter if a title sells only a dozen copies per week.
Download sites devoted completely to classical music, both those associated with a particular label and those that are virtual download supermarkets, are flourishing. Of the latter group, primephonic is the newest player on the scene. Dirk Jan Vink and Simon Eder, respectively Managing Director and Director of Marketing and Communications for the classical label Pentatone, started the company. Primephonic is headquartered in the Netherlands but has recently opened an office in New York City. The online enterprise launched at the 2015 Munich High End show and now has a staff of 20.
With a catalog of more than 400 labels representing over 10,000 classical titles and an in-house staff of musicologists and editors that curate exclusive interviews and other features, primephonic is a resource that classical listeners need to know about. Recordings are potentially for sale in five different formats and priced accordingly: CD quality WAV stereo, 24-bit FLAC stereo and surround (Premium Studio Quality), and DSD stereo and surround (Premium Pro Studio Quality). At least one option is available for every recording and occasionally all five. As of this writing, there were close to 500 classical DSD titles listed on the site, significantly more than I’ve seen anywhere else.
Eager to learn more about the label, I recently posed some questions to Veronica Neo, primephonic’s Head of Business Development.
Questions for Veronica Neo:
At this point, do you need to seek out content providers, or are record companies coming to you?
We started with Naxos, the largest classical music distributor globally, and several independent hi-res labels. After several appearances at trade shows and presentations at industry events, we started getting more requests from other record labels and digital music aggregators offering their content to be made available on primephonic.
What material do you get from a record company and what do you do with it? Do you do any processing of the recordings at your facility in the Netherlands?
Content providers deliver us the original audio files in the highest quality they have, coupled with relevant metadata in a DDEX format. These files are processed by our own automated audio importer, which checks the quality of the audio files against the defined quality mentioned in the metadata file. This is done by producing a spectrogram with every track, ensuring that no upsampling has been done to the audio file. Our audio ingestion team performs checks and approves all matching high-resolution audio files. Albums with approved audio files then undergo a thorough metadata check where we perform our signature “classical” treatment of classical music indexation. We first group individual tracks of a work’s movements and then match the entire work to its matching piece in our library database of all classical works ever composed. By doing this, precise search results can be returned upon user queries.
Is there content that primephonic has exclusive access to?
As a digital platform offering only classical music, we understand that our consumers like to have background information as well as relevant news about the recordings, artists, and composers. As such, primephonic offers enriched content such as interviews with performing artists about their newest albums, and we often partner with labels and artists to offer exclusive pre-releases of the albums in question.
As nearly as I can tell, primephonic has the largest selection of classical DSD downloads available. Was this an intentional direction that the company took?
When we first had the idea to develop a platform that would add value to the classical music industry and serve the demands of a classical music lover, we saw that having superior audio quality was a main factor for classical music fans to enjoy listening to recordings. We also saw that hi-res downloads were seeing growth despite a generally declining download market with the rise of streaming. Having built the capability to offer the highest quality of audio files available has also pivoted us to be a premium platform offering classical music in superior quality. We do not remaster audio formats. We deliver DSD files just as they are delivered to us from the recording labels, which decide which file formats they would like to provide.
Primephonic curates enriched content around such labels as 2L, Harmonia Mundi, Pentatone, Linn Records, LSO Live, RCA Living Stereo, Seattle Symphony Media, and many more, who offer DSD downloads. We want to showcase the artistry of recording engineers by highlighting their work through interviews that we host with them—for example, Philip Traugott, Erdo Groot, or the Chandos production team.
All other things being equal, how to you feel about the sound quality of DSD vs. PCM? Is the considerably larger size of the file worth it?
DSD has a sample frequency that is much higher than even the highest FLAC or WAV formats, with ‘“single rate’” DSD clocking at 2.8 MHz. That’s MHz, not kHz. The quantization, however, is only at 1 bit, compared to 16 or 24 bits with PCM alternatives. Audio DSP processing in the DSD domain is very hard due to the 1-bit structure. To get the best results, a DSD download should have been recorded in DSD, which is referred to as “native recording.” If sound mixing is needed, this can be done in DXD, an intermediate format between DSD and PCM. We think albums that are recorded in PCM will never sound like true DSD, and the considerably larger size of the DSD file is deemed “worth it.”
Do you hear much of an advantage to DSD128 (5.6MHz) and DSD256 (11.2MHz)? Any plans to offer such downloads?
Being able to hear and identify the audio quality of audio files of such high resolution is not always easy. It depends on many factors such as the hardware set-up, environment, and the person who is listening. This topic is always a huge subject of debate at high-end audio shows.
At primephonic, most albums available in DSD are in DSD64. We do offer a few recordings in DSD128 and DSD256 from Eudora Records at the moment. However, we have yet to receive requests from customers for DSD material beyond DSD64. It really depends on which direction the hardware industry is going. Today, DSD playback still remains something for a niche audiophile consumer group.
A high percentage of your HD files are available with a multichannel option. What’s been the level of interest in these?
Multichannel files account for almost a quarter of our download sales. Multichannel audio hardware systems are increasingly available in the market at more accessible prices. The awareness of how easy it can be to enjoy an immersive listening experience has been heightened as well. As AV home systems move towards offering multichannel hardware products, the demand for multichannel audio and media files has increased. It goes hand in hand.
So why no BIS multichannel downloads? There are quite a few at eClassical.com—no surprise, of course, as that site is associated with the record label, not unlike your connections to Pentatone.
There is an opportunity that we might be able to offer them in the future.
I remember seeing that primephonic was planning to introduce an all-classical streaming service late last year. What happened with that?
Primephonic will launch its streaming player in June 2017, starting with the US and UK. We will go to market with a responsive web-based player for desktop and tablet use, as well as a native iOS app to follow with. Streaming will be offered in CD quality—FLAC 16-bit/44.1kHz, with the possibility of switching to mp3 256kbps for lower data-usage or on-the-go. Specifically built only for classical, you can expect a seamless search-and-explore journey based on search terms of composers, work titles, orchestras, conductors, or soloists.
As we start to see music consumption in streaming take flight, MQA could potentially be a more user-friendly file format for hi-res audio compared to DSD as audio hardware development starts leaning towards developing wireless network players that allow extremely hi-res playback. Let’s see!
Especially with analog source material, the timing of an album can be relatively short. Have you considered charging according to program length—less for a 45-minute program than a 75-minute one?
Yes, we recognize that timings in classical can vary a lot. At the primephonic download store, you can purchase albums, individual tracks, and the bundled tracks of a complete work. Tracks that are less than 20 minutes have tiered prices. As for streaming, primephonic will pay labels according to the percentage of the length of time their content has streamed vs. the total streamed time on primephonic for the calendar month. This will ensure a fair payout to content owners of longer works. This is a groundbreaking model that brings value back into the classical music recording industry, as compared to what the industry is now receiving from mainstream streaming providers that pay out according to the count of tracks played. This is often deemed unfair to the classical genre, as the average length of a classical track is almost twice as long as the average length of a pop tune.
What are primephonic sales like in North America right now as compared to sales in Europe?
Our store currently offers download sales worldwide, with the exception of a small part of our catalogue, which has limited territory permission. The UK and US are our main focus, as we see the sales from these two markets contributing to half of our turnover.
Does anyone at primephonic still listen to vinyl or CDs?
Yes, definitely! We have a surround sound SACD set-up in our living room here at the office and we listen to SACDs a lot. Some of us are die-hard CD and/or vinyl collectors, while some of our younger team members have never bought a CD in their entire lives. We are living in a time where music can be enjoyed in various forms, whichever way one prefers. Gone are the days where a single format of music carrier owned the industry. We celebrate the fact that the music industry can flourish in today’s times and can see growth again due to increasing sales in various formats, be it the comeback of vinyl or the rise in streaming subscriptions.