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Full Stream Ahead: Can Naxos Download the Future?

October 2, 2012

On October 2, 2012, Naxos released its first high-definition (24-bit/96 kHz) audio download. While upgrading sound quality from CD is a step forward, the decision to release new orchestrations solely for digital download — Peter Breiner’s arrangements of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Songs and Dances of Death, and The Nurseryand to delay a physical release on CD and/or high-resolution Blu-ray until 2013, makes a major statement about how the label is responding to changes in the market for recordings.

The moves come less than a week after Klaus Heymann, who founded the budget label 25 years ago, told NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas, “I think in the long run, [streaming] will be the way people consume music — classical music and other music. And if I look at my crystal ball, I would say that in five years, 50 percent of our business will be in all kinds of streaming.”

This is quite an acknowledgment for Heymann, who in several discussions with me over the years has continually affirmed his belief in physical sales, and who seemed reluctant to move into other realms too quickly. And, coming from a company whose North American branch, Naxos of America, is both the largest independent classical music distributor in the U.S. and Canada as well as the continent’s largest digital distributor of independent classical music, it’s the clearest sign possible of what to expect in the future.

“I think in the long run, streaming will be the way people consume music — classical music and other music...in five years, 50% of our business will be in all kinds of streaming.” — Founder Klaus Heymann

According to Jim Selby, CEO of Naxos of North America, the decision to offer this release solely as a hi-res download is designed to “show the market that we’re serious about digital, and that it’s a big part of our future. Naxos is moving into this world, and downloaders who want this product have a year’s head start.”

Selby also acknowledges a heavy trend into streaming services. “We used to sell millions of CDs a year; now we stream hundreds of millions of streams a year. It’s an argument of access over ownership. And by going from selling round silver discs for the Naxos price to streaming, we are no longer bound by the gatekeepers of Tower and Borders, who only stocked a fraction of our catalog.”

What This Means for You: The Download Advantage

If you are either a recent convert to digital downloads or someone who has yet to see the computer as your friend, the notion of transitioning from CD playback to a computer-based file system or a possession-trimmed streaming subscriber service may seem, at the least, intimidating, perhaps even downright frightening. But this method of home listening is becoming easier and more user-friendly by the nanosecond.

Serious collectors have every reason to begin replacing overstuffed shelves bending under the weight of too many CDs and LPs with backed-up music downloads. With the improved availability of cover art, program notes, and accurate metadata (digitized description of content) that enables you to find whatever you want in a matter of seconds; and with streaming service-subscriptions plus a computer-based sound system that has the potential to produce sound superior to that derived from physical CDs, it’s no wonder that so many young people have already made the move.

“We’re serious about digital, and that it’s a big part of our future. Naxos is moving into this world, and downloaders who want this product have a year’s head start.” — CEO Jim Selby

Take, for example, the Naxos Music Library. Although this subscription service currently streams music at the low, sonically compromised rate of 128 kbps to a subscription base dominated by colleges, institutions, libraries, music schools, and the like, it is preparing to update its sound quality and make itself far more consumer-friendly. When it does, virtually every track from over 350 labels that can be legally sold in the U.S. will become available for virtually instantaneous, 24-hour streaming.

Imagine yourself being able to compare and contrast 50 different performances, from several historical periods, of Beethoven’s Ninth or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, or, to cite a recent CD review on SFCV, Schubert’s sublime Cello Quintet: two versions that include Casals, two more with Rostropovich, and concomitant changes in performance practice over time, all available via an intelligent search and a few clicks. Frightening, perhaps, but most definitely exciting.

SFCV has already run features devoted to downloading audio, high-resolution sound, and playback options. I would add that there are a number of new products, either recently released or coming soon, that are designed to upgrade the sound quality of computers, iPhones, and the like — all painlessly and inexpensively.

If, for example, you plug a little USB or mini-plug-equipped DAC (digital-to-analog converter) into your existing computer or iWhatever, and add a pair of quality headphones, you can get surprisingly good sound for an investment of perhaps $700. Yes, that’s a lot. Then again, if you move to streaming, think of how much you can save on CD purchases, and how much you can get in return.

Naxos’ first 24-bit, 96 kHz download is available for purchase from sites as varied as iTrax, eclassical, classicsonline, HDTracks, hiresaudio.com, theclassicalshop, and Ariama, with Linn and Onkyo coming on board soon. Listen through your computer's built-in speakers, if you have yet to explore options for better sound; brace yourself for a wider dynamic range and more realistic perspective than CD can possibly deliver; and prepare for a brave new world of high-quality recorded and streamed sound.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.