Sometimes it's not just the destination, it's the journey, whenever it is that you finally arrive. Trust me, this is, in fact a review of Naxos' Classics Online HD•LL Streaming Service, but a little background is in order, so please bear with me....
I know myself pretty well, and, let’s face it—I can get pretty obsessive about things. Late at night, when my wife is typically engaged in the latest mindless reality TV schmaltz, I’m frequently at the computer, deeply involved again in some fruitless, ridiculous search for the unobtainable. And by unobtainable (at least, this time) I’m referring to that most elusive of digital music files, Proprius 7770, Kor, which in my most humble estimation is the absolute pinnacle of recorded choral music. One of my earliest submissions to PF covered that mania in nauseating detail; for those of you fortunate enough to have avoided it, but nonetheless curious, you can satisfy that longing here. Now that I’ve been deeply entrenched in the whole computer-based audio thing for the last couple of years, I just can’t give up hope that the holy grail of recorded choral music will magically appear in some computer-friendly format that will possibly retire my warped, crackly LPs for good.
My contact at Proprius Music had always been Trygge Palmquist (a truly splendid fellow!), and with him being in Sweden and myself stateside, I’d always assumed that he was just some mid-level promotions guy at the label who, in typical Swedish fashion, was being especially courteous to a particularly persistent Yank. But over the years, we touched base regularly, and he plied me with what seemed like an endless stream of new releases, many of which I did ultimately review. But when he wrote to let me know that he was leaving Proprius, and that their distribution was being taken over by Naxos, I was, of course saddened by losing such a good friend (and close contact!), but I also felt that any chance of getting that elusive music file was probably also coming to an end. I recently learned that Trygge Palmquist was, in fact, the head of Proprius Music—I was more than just a touch astonished that he’d even bothered with me at all for such a very long time!
And, as expected, the early Naxos era of Proprius distribution—from my perspective, at least—was just about a complete bust. While Trygge had given me a couple of contacts with Naxos Sweden, they were standoffish, to say the least, and not at all interested in my petty little problems. This is where I pause for a moment to take stock and reflect on all the good fortune my association with Proprius has brought me over the years (and where Doris Day is supposed to come in singing, Que sera, sera!), and to enjoy the fruits of what was and is, and to not focus too heavily on what will apparently never be.
Meanwhile, back to that late night surfing: a couple of months ago, I’m on the web, doing my usual maniacal quarterly search for Proprius 7770, when I’m struck by a novel idea—why not go to Naxos’ website and have a look around? A cursory search yielded not too much, but I then noticed a link on the site to the Naxos Music Library, encompassing more than 1.6 million music tracks of all genres, and where you could get a free 15-minute trial. What the heck, let’s take a look! The clock was ticking, so I couldn’t futz about—time was of the essence! A straight search yielded nothing, but then I tried an advanced search, which yielded about a dozen pages of possible matches, and about midway through the listings (this is where the angels start singing!)—hallelujah, there it was! I quickly clicked on the link in an attempt to play some music—foiled, right out of the gate—there must be a setting on the player that needed tweaking in order to get sound. About that time, a message box appeared, prompting me that my fifteen minutes had expired, and please insert the credit card of my choice to continue my session. Dammit!!
Not one to give up so easily, I continued my close examination of the Naxos site, and at some point, found a link which offered an extended trial subscription to media types and industry professionals—well, surely, I’m one of those media types, right? I fired off an email, with hopes that someone would respond within a couple of days, and surely he did, Nick from Naxos, telling me that he’d gladly put me in touch with the right person to make it happen. Several days passed with no response, so I sent out a follow up to see if perhaps I’d fallen through the cracks. Almost instantaneously, I received an email from Kelly Rach with Naxos, gathering some background information and asking whether I had any interest in reviewing any Naxos titles, etc., their new streaming service, etc. She wanted to take a look around at the PF site, and would be getting back to me in very short order. I thanked her for her time, and expressed that I really looked forward to hearing from her at her leisure. OK, who am I kidding? Within minutes, I fired off a very apologetic email, explaining to her that I shamelessly had this ulterior motive, that I’m kind of on this super-obsessed, “Quest from God” kind of thing, sent her a link to the original PF piece, just basically, totally spilled my guts. I now know that at least CD-quality, digital files of Proprius 7770 do, in fact, exist somewhere in the Naxos system—there’s got to be someone there at Naxos who’s sympathetic to my plight. And yes, I’d love to review the new streaming service, and anything else you have to offer. About thirty minutes later, I get another email from Kelly, telling me that she thinks she might have what I’m looking for—just click on the enclosed links and the download would begin. OMG!! Could this really be the moment I’ve been waiting for? Santa Claus comes early this year? Wow—talk about being truly overwhelmed with emotion by a most generous gesture! I gushingly responded with a thank you email—what a rush of emotions.
So what does one do when he finally has that which he’s been tirelessly crusading for, for a decade plus? Well, you unzip the WAV files, load the Meta data and upload to your server, then listen countless times, comparing endlessly between the well-worn LP and your new digital prize. I had prepped myself for total disappointment, but to my great surprise, the WAV files sound just short of incredible when played back through my DAC into the big system. Yes, it has definitely been worth the wait. And now we’re waiting for Naxos to confirm my trial subscription to the new streaming service…
That took about a week, but finally – Voila! – we have streaming music via Classics Online HD•LL. I’m pretty sure the HD is for High Definition, and the LL is for Loss Less—which is pretty much what you’ll find across the board on this excellent streaming service. They employ adaptive bit-rate streaming technology, and no buffering, which by design should provide an optimal streaming experience. That has definitely been the case so far in my perusal of the vast collection of classical music at my disposal—the sheer number of labels and offerings is almost bewildering! While the service seems to be heavily based on lossless, CD-quality music files, I’m constantly amazed by just how many higher resolution files are to be found, with many of them up to 24/192. And they all play perfectly! Some of the higher profile, higher-end labels at your disposal include 2L, 2xHD, Yarlung, BIS, First Impressions, Harmonia Mundi, Linn, Chandos, Reference Recordings and Tacet – and most of these offer much of their catalogs in HD sound. And about two weeks into the review period, they added Sony/BMG Classics—talk about an overwhelming offering of selections! The streaming service includes sophisticated filters that allow you to tailor your listening choices based on file quality, genre, sub-genre, label—you just about name it, and you can build your preferences easily to suit your mood. And there are literally hundreds of smaller and boutique labels with a selection of offerings that simply boggles the mind! And back to the Proprius label for just a moment—there’s an unbelievable representation of offerings available—nearly two-hundred by my count, with a shockingly good selection of them offered in 24/96 quality! There’s so very much to explore here, and I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg in my very short time with the service, and new titles and labels are added on an almost daily basis.
The price is $14.99 monthly for the streaming service, and a goodly portion of the literally countless offerings on the site is available for purchase and download in a variety of formats with commensurate pricing. Now, this is where I'm beginning to see the genius of paying for a streaming subscription, and let's think about this, really. At the risk of repeating myself ad nauseum, the selection is staggering to comprehend, and if you, as a consumer, buy only one current or new release classical music title in any given month, that's going to set you back probably about twenty bucks with shipping. At this very moment, I'm listening on HD•LL to Eiji Oue's remarkable traversal of the Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances on Reference Recordings—at 24/176, no less—and the sound is truly breathtaking. If I wanted to purchase this recording on any of a number of high-res download sites, the price is about $30 to own a copy. I can listen to it at will – along with just about anything else on the Reference label—for only $15 a month. And have access to many, if not all, of their new releases, as well—for $15 a month! If you waste anywhere nearly as much time and effort as I do (on an almost daily basis) either scouring through used CD bins or searching the internet for bargain-priced discs of hard-to-find music, well, hello! Make life easier on yourself, and get out that credit card!
At this point, I only have a couple of quibbles with the service, and none of these are deal breakers as of yet. Upon first installing the Classics Online HD•LL application on my PC, it took a couple of re-installations to get the application to work properly. For some reason, the player would not offer me an option to select the digital to analog converter that I wanted to use as my playback device, and I couldn't get any sound. After about a week, the application suddenly started working properly. This could very well be a “Windows” sort of thing, and I went round and round with the tech support people at HD•LL—who were very prompt, and efficient, by the way—but it did eventually start working. I experienced the exact same thing when I made the recent transition to Windows 10, and it required a complete re-install of all my music related applications to get any of them working properly. So I really doubt that it had much to do with the design of the HD•LL interface. I think it's a really good idea that if you're planning on doing much streaming of high-definition music sources, you'd better have a pretty good internet connection!
Secondly—and this is just me paranoidly pontificating about the nature of streaming services—are the Naxos folks going to be able to keep the system populated with its current level of album selections, for perpetuity? Look at the popular video streaming services, like Netflix, for example, who constantly change their lineup. A lot of these higher-resolution music files are darn-nearly as large as a movie—does Naxos possess the wherewithal to maintain the library? I find this especially of concern, because the whole principle is to get us to let go of our hard copies, and embrace streaming, right?
And here’s my personal main gripe concerning the service, and let's return the to convoluted path that led me here in the first place—the search for Proprius 7770, which I now know is available on the Naxos Music Library. That's a completely different subscription service from HD•LL, and while it encompasses a much larger catalog, all the offerings are only in near-CD quality, so it really isn't appropriate for the serious listener, right? And Kor is available there, but it's not included among the offerings over at HD•LL, the higher-resolution site for the discerning listener. And virtually every other Proprius catalog offering is there. So let me reacquaint you with my mission statement: while I've (most thankfully!) gotten what I wanted, I still want the whole world to have the opportunity to experience the joy of the greatest recorded album of choral music to ever grace the planet! And while you're at it, maybe even in 24/96 sound?
Many, many thanks again to Kelly Rach from Naxos for her generosity and the opportunity to explore Classics Online HD•LL. I think I just might have crossed over into becoming a believer and embracing the streaming model for music delivery. Very highly recommended!
Classics Online HD•LL
$14.99 monthly subscription fee