The best Hi-Res albums to try on your system
When good digital becomes great digital
Whenever we review a digital product, you’ll see us solemnly intone its format handling – almost like a ritualThis varies slightly from product to product but one characteristic is present on pretty much anything we test and that is that it can handle resolutions and sampling rates that are far in advance of that on a CD – a thirty plus year old benchmark that we seem curiously reluctant to part with.
There are reasons for this. The first is that as benchmarks go, it’s a pretty solid one. A well mastered CD can sound staggeringly good and the notional thresholds of human hearing are something that are well within reach of a 16/44.1 file. The second is that music has first had to go backwards to go forwards. We’re coming out of the compressed music era – the limits that existed on bandwidth and storage no longer exist so the ‘big deal’ is we’re back up to CD sized files for streaming.
But if there is no technical need to have more bandwidth and information than CD, why bother? The answers to this are an article in themselves but the long and the short of it is that the extra information – if handled and decoded correctly – can be used to create a signal that we perceive to be more natural and less processed. On a more basic level, the effort of creating these files means that more effort goes into their mastering which in turn generally improves performance too.
As such, there’s no better time to dip a toe in the waters of Hi-Res. There’s a bewildering selection of choice available in terms of genres and sample rates and some of it you don’t even need to pay for. This list is far from exhaustive and it has no DSD titles on it. The reason for this is simple enough. These ten albums will work pretty much regardless of the hardware and equipment you have so they can be recommended without concerns over whether they will work or not.
Jimmy Eat World – Bleed American
Where from HD Tracks UK
Jimmy Eat World has hovered around the peripheries of being a properly big band for over twenty years (they are still releasing material and their last album Integrity Blues is a fine effort) but Bleed American is both their highest moment and came from their lowest ebb. Dropped by Capitol Records, it was recorded with the band’s own money and eventually released on the Dreamworks label. In the UK, it actually managed to get air time – helped in no small part by The Middle being both catchy and having a video that was easy enough on the eye. This isn’t an album to consider the meaning of life to but it’s punchy, anthemic and entertaining.
Taking an album like Bleed American and releasing a 24/192 version might seem a bit like getting Heston Blumenthal to make you a Big Mac but the results are quite surprising. Fundamentally, this is still a big, ballistic rock effort but compared to the 2001 CD, it’s more spacious, and simply sounds like it was created for a HiFi system rather than a transistor radio. It effortlessly shows off that behind the hooks, this is a quartet of seriously talented musicians.
David Bowie – Blackstar
Where from Onkyo Music GB
There’s very little I can add to the countless thousands of words that have already been written about Blackstar. Bowie’s last album is as bewildering and extraordinary as anything else in his extensive catalogue but it has to be viewed through the prism of it being a parting gift from someone who knew their time remaining was limited which adds a poignancy and meaning to some of it that might otherwise be missing. Like almost everything Bowie released in his later years, it does you no favours to ‘dip in’ to Blackstar. You need to sit down and let it happen to you.
In contrast to some of the albums on this list, I don’t see this as ‘a high res version’ of Blackstar. The 24/96 version feels like the definitive take on it – the feed from the desk, as intended and utterly unadulterated. I honestly prefer this to the vinyl release – not least because it doesn’t require you to flip over between Lazarus and Sue in a Season of Crime. This is pretty much a must-own album and this is the best version of it to own.
Neil Young – On the Beach
Where from Neil Young Archives
Neil Young has a catalogue that is bloody enormous. He’s been releasing material on a fairly regular basis for nearly fifty years. Some of that catalogue is very famous, some of it is very, very odd (check out Trans which is Young having a Kraftwerk phase which is at least as weird as you might expect) and some of it is just gorgeous. On the Beach, is firmly in the latter category for me. A whisker under forty minutes long, it is a simply superb listen of Young’s ability as a songwriter and performer. Standout track is the mighty Revolution Blues which fuels my inner agitator every time I listen to it.
Young is a quality obsessive. He’s been an implacable opponent of compressed music and his abortive Pono player was bold if somewhat ill thought out. He’s put his money where his mouth is and has put almost his entire back catalogue online in high resolution and for free. Register at the site and you can enjoy a superbly clean and energetic take of On the Beach at no cost to yourself. Can’t say fairer than that really.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Where from Qobuz
Daft Punk can’t really be seen as the most prolific act going. There was a gap of over a decade between Human After All and Random Access Memories with only the (admittedly superb) TRON Legacy to keep us going in the meantime. The album itself is pretty much everything you could want from a Daft Punk album. It’s funky, uses guests to improve material rather than fill in holes and it is beautifully recorded and mastered. Sure that track has been played to death but give Motherboard a fresh listen and tell me it isn’t a great piece of music.
In a manner similar to Blackstar, the high resolution version of Random Access Memories feels like the right version. It is effortlessly spacious and natural and played via a decent digital source, it is completely free of anything detrimental you could pin on it and say was down to it being digital. This is another example of a great album being given the right treatment and it is much the better for it.
Kraftwerk – 3-D The Catalogue
Resolution Dolby Atmos (approximately equivalent to 24/96)
Format Blu Ray
Where from Amazon
At first glance, 3-D is a device to part idiots (me) from their money. It isn’t new material, simply the original seven albums (in other words, less the original two which are a bit ‘wild’ in Kraftwerk terms) rejigged for the latest tour. The nature of those revisions is impressively extensive though and the result is worth having even if you own the originals already.
Let me go on record and state that I hate surround music. It rarely sounds anything other than gimmicky and I’d usually go for the stereo version every time. Given the root and branch revisions to 3-D though, Kraftwerk has managed something unusual in that this is a genuinely impressive use of Dolby Atmos and something that is a good deal more challenging than most film soundtracks. The result isn’t something I’d want to own instead of the stereo boxset but I’m glad (if poorer) that I have both.
REM – Automatic for the People
Where from Tidal
Automatic for the People is the moment in REM’s long recording history where they balanced commercial sensitivities and their own general weirdness just right. It’s an accessible record that doesn’t compromise on what made REM, REM. It’s a meditation on aging and death but despite that it feels curiously uplifting. Parts of it have rather suffered from overuse but if you genuinely feel nothing at all when you listen to Everybody Hurts, you’re a monster.
Tidal has been augmenting their Masters catalogue with considerable diligence (it is possible to listen to many of the albums on this list as Masters if you wish) but this is a jewel because it is seriously close to the commercially available high resolution download and doesn’t cost the eye watering sums that seem to be being asked for that. The differences to the original are subtle – a lowering of the noise floor and a greater sense of space and flow but it’s enough to make a great album greater.
Peter Gabriel – So
Where from Bowers & Wilkins
The point where Peter Gabriel stopped being ’the weird bloke from Genesis’ and became one of the biggest acts of the eighties, So needs little introduction. It’s an album with pop sensibilities, immaculate production and some seriously good tunes on it. It’s also always been a showcase for digital (as were the proceeding two Gabriel albums) and you only get the correct track order when you listen on digital (In Your Eyes should be at the end of the album but can’t be pressed well to the inner grooves of a record so it is earlier in the track order). Lastly, you can listen to the sensational Don’t Give Up and consider that Gabriel’s first choice for the female vocals was Dolly Parton. No, really.
This download has a slightly more complex origin story than some of the others on the list in that it was originally a DVD-Audio (remember that?) mix. Some further prodding has created this two channel version. Despite its convoluted creation, it sounds brilliant though – adding a bit more punch and body to the original CD. You also get the extra digital tracks including This is the Picture (Excellent Birds) which is a blinding piece of music.
Underworld – Dubnobasswithmyheadman
Where from HighResAudio
There was always a little bit more to Underworld than Born Slippy and this together with the subsequent Second Toughest in the Infants showcase this bewildering mix of talent and weirdness to great effect. This is more than ‘dance music’ (although, give me beer and I’ll lose my decorum to Cowgirl any time you like) and at times it plays like a soundtrack to an especially bleak film. Tracks like Dirty Epic take the listener on a proper journey rather than simply exploding in your ears and moving on. It was also lovingly produced – even the original CD version sounds good – so unlike many of its contemporaries, it makes sense to give it some special treatment
That special treatment really is something though. The high resolution version sounds tremendous with weight, presence and scale in spades. The end result feels like it has been created by people that loved the original and simply wanted to capture everything about it in the most perfect way possible.
Talk Talk – The Colour of Spring
Where from HD Tracks UK
Sweeping statement time – this is the best album of the 1980s. No other band so effortlessly blended so many different influences without sounding conflicted and this is the fulcrum in their catalogue between pop and the extraordinary proto post rock of the last two albums. Should society collapse to the point where I would be in line to appear on Desert Island Discs, this would be one of my choices. The opening three minutes of Happiness is Easy can tell me more about a piece of audio equipment than the entire Coldplay back catalogue can.
High Res Version
In truth, the production qualities of The Colour of Spring are so immaculate, there are no bad versions but if you want it to sound as good as it gets, you need this version of it. The pared back Chameleon Day has proper, meaty dynamic range to it and the whole thing will make you feel like you’ve finally had the chance to give your equipment a bit of headroom.
Nils Frahm – All Melody
Where from Bleep
If the words ‘modern’ and ‘classical’ are enough to have you running for the hills, you’ll need to hear me out on this one. Frahm is a composer, performer and general genius who has been producing music for over a decade. Best known for innovative use of the piano combined with sampling and feedback, the resulting albums are vast, complex soundscapes that are quite extraordinarily lovely things to listen to.
Brand spanking new, the 24/96 version of All Melody plays like a studio master. Instruments sound incredibly weighty and vivid and once again, there is a sense of dynamic range and scale that can elude normal recordings. This isn’t an album to work out, make out or even eat to. It needs you to spend some time with it and for you to concentrate but the reward is an experience rather than simply noise to fill the void.
So there you have it. Ten albums with no Pink Floyd, Dire Straits or The Eagles. High resolution is finding its niche in the landscape and while I cannot ever see it being a replacement for plain old 16/44.1kHz, you might be surprised what there is out there and just how startlingly good some of it sounds.
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