Chesky Launches High-Resolution Download Store

"I thought starting an audiophile record label was hard," Chesky Records co-founder Norman Chesky told Stereophile. "That was nothing compared to this. We've spent three years developing HDtracks."

In that time, Chesky and his brother David acquired servers, hired staffs of coders and website developers, negotiated with independent record labels, and created thousands of Web pages of information.

HDtracks has now "soft launched" for PC and Mac, and it's impressive. There's no digital rights management (DRM) and downloads of CD-sourced material can be purchased as full-resolution FLAC or AIFF files. HDtracks also offers 320kbps MP3 files.

"We're going to be the first company other than iTunes to offer AIFF with the metadata intact," David Chesky said. "HDtracks doesn't just give you that information, we're an information resource on our own. We post album reviews, biographical essays about the composers, artist biographies and discographies. We also post PDF files of the complete liner notes in a size people can actually read. We even have a 'Cool Links' section that will connect people to neat tools like Slim Devices, Media Monkey, and MacFlac, which is an open-source FLAC [front end] for Apple users."

The list of participating labels at HDtracks is impressive, ranging from avant-garde Tzadik to the reissue powerhouse Sundazed. Classic recordings from the Reader's Digest label, such as Earl Wild's Rachmaninoff and MacDowell piano concertos, are now available online. Audiophile favorites Reference Recordings, Dorian, ASV, MDG, and, yes, Chesky Records are posted. Music lovers with eclectic taste, who have been poorly served by mainstream downloading services, will be confronted with an embarrassment of recordings from labels like Cryptogramophone, Fatboy Records, HipBop, Luakabop, Tang!, and Revenant. Contemporary classical music is well represented by Black Box, New World, New Albion, and Mode. Other labels offer blues, reggae, folk, Latin, Broadway cast recordings, and soundtracks.

"We've worked really hard to eliminate all the reasons people have given for not downloading music," David Chesky said, ticking them off on his fingers. "My iPod doesn't work with those files. Because we don't use DRM, HDtracks works with everything. There's no selection. I defy you to name a genre we don't offer—and I mean that. Show me something we don't have and we'll go get it! I'm not a computer expert. Our download manager is dead easy to use. Then there's the big one: I hate lossy compression. So do we. If your portable digital player has to use MP3s, we have 320kbps, which sound a lot better than 128kbps (most iTunes) or even 256kbps (Amazon.com). But we offer everything at full resolution and we're finalizing our plans to offer 24-bit/96kHz files when they're available—which most of Chesky's recordings are. That's better than Red Book. A lot better."

"HDtracks is kind of crazy, when you consider the amount of work we've put into for three years, but we had to build a download site that we would use," David Chesky said. "I used to practically live in Tower Records, talking to the clerks and browsing the bins, reading the liner notes. I learned a lot about music that way. Tower's gone; the neighborhood record store with knowledgeable clerks is gone, too. We designed HDtracks to be a place where you can hang out online."

It's an ambitious undertaking, but not an impossible one. "Not really," Norman Chesky laughed. "Starting an audiophile record label in 1986—that was impossible. In comparison, starting HDtracks in 2008 is just in time."

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