Cedille Offers 24-bit Downloads

Cedille Records, the label of The Chicago Classical Recording Foundation, has just released its first three high-resolution FLAC downloads. Available in 24-bit/44.1kHz sampling rate format (as well as 16/44.1 and 256 kbps MP3), complete with accessible liner notes and cover art, the titles are a treasure-trove for classical aficionados and collectors.

First up is Winging It: Piano Music of John Corigliano. Performed by Ursula Oppens, who has achieved legendary status as a new music virtuoso, the CD includes the world premiere recording of Winging It (2008), which the Pulitzer Prize-winning Corigliano wrote for Oppens.

Even newer are Capricho Latino, a disc from violinist Rachel Barton Pine of rare Spanish and Latin American music written solely for the unaccompanied violin; and The Pulitzer Project, performed by the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus under Carlos Kalmar and Chorus Director Christopher Bell. Pine's disc includes Alan Ridout's Ferdinand the Bull with narrator Héctor Elizondo, and 13 other works by composers familiar and obscure. You can sample a few of the tracks before purchasing.

The Pulitzer Project is a mind-blower, in that it contains world premiere recordings of Pulitzer Prize winning works by William Schuman and Leo Sowerby. Even though Schuman's Secular Cantata No. 2, "A Free Song," a setting of excerpts from Walt Whitman's Drum Taps, earned the very first Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1943, it somehow escaped being recorded until now. The same goes for Sowerby's The Canticle of the Sun, which received the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945. Aaron Copland's familiar Suite from Appalachian Spring, which belongs in every collection, completes the program.

Is 24/44.1 Worth It?
I confess that when I first received the press release touting Cedille's downloads as high-resolution, I considered them half-ass high-res. Wondering if they were worth the extra expense and download time—not that $12 for a 24-bit download or $10 for a full CD quality download is excessive—I shared my concerns with Stereophile editor John Atkinson. John's response was most practical: "Take a listen."

First I used Max to burn both the solo piano title track and the two-piano rendition of Corigliano's Chiaroscuro from my CD copy of Winging It to a late model MacBook Pro running OS 10.6.7. Then, using Amarra 2.2 as the music server, and taking advantage of its "cache" (memory play) feature to liberate playback from the compromises of iTunes, I used Wavelength's Wavelink USB-to-S/PIDF converter box and Nordost's Blue Heaven USB and Odin BNC cables to send the signal to a Theta Gen. 8, Series II DAC (upgraded to 24/192 capability) supported by Magico QPods.

Next I downloaded the same music in 24/44.1 format, played it back similarly, and went back and forth comparing. Amps were Pass Labs' beautiful-sounding XA100.5 class-A monoblocks, and speakers Eficion F300s equipped with Stillpoints, Nordost Odin jumpers, Stein Speaker Matches, and Bybee Golden Goddess Speaker Bullets. Extra fine-tuning was accomplished by carefully positioning Daisy Mae Doven, our 20 lb. Jack Russell mix, on the carpet.

The differences were subtle, but unquestionable. With 24-bits, most noticeably, a veil was lifted. The piano became more present, the sounds crisper and a bit weightier in a positive sense. Notes projected farther out from the background, as they would in live performance. In addition, the separation between the two pianos in the second composition, which was hardly noticeable in 44.1, became more evident. No, I didn't experience the increased sense of air and larger, wider soundstage that come with higher sampling rates. But there was no question that 24 bits, in and of themselves, provided a major sonic upgrade compared with the CD's 16.

Why only 44.1 kHz?
I posed the question to Bill Maylone, Cedille's Recording engineer since the label's inception in 1989. Maylone began with some sad history. While Cedille began recording all sessions in 24/44.1 format some 11 or 12 years ago, at a time when CDs were all there was (short of vinyl, which some consider very short indeed), they never preserved the 24/44.1 masters once they had converted the material to 16-bit Red Book format. Hence only Cedille's most recent recordings have been preserved in 24-bit format.

Even when Cedille began recording in 24-bit, it kept the sample rate at 44.1 kHz. By way of explanation, Maylone states, "You will eventually have to sample-rate-convert it to 44.1 kHz to make the CD. Once you do this, it will sound no different than a recording that was originally made at 44.1 and kept that way through the production process... Because of this, we have typically mastered everything at 44.1 kHz."

Nonetheless, despite concerns over bandwidth and storage space on the consumer end, Maylone promises an eventual upgrade to 96kHz. Higher than that is questionable. After Maylone declared, "I don't hear an advantage to sampling rates higher than 96kHz," I extended an invitation to visit my reference system, which I assured him would clearly convey differences between sample rates of 44.1, 96, and 192.

Cedille's first 24/96 project, slated for release in 2012, is a Bach and Beyond recording with the excellent Grammy-nominated violinist Jennifer Koh. Koh, for whom composer Jennifer Higdon wrote her recently recorded violin concerto, "The Singing Rooms," is lauded for mixing the classics with contemporary compositions.

Cedille is in the midst of recording a four-volume set of the complete Shostakovich Quartets, paired with contemporaneous quartets by Schnittke, Prokofiev, Weinberg, and Myaskovsky. The players are the superb Pacifica Quartet, winners of the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music recording and Musical America's 2009 Ensemble of the Year. Although the first volume is in 44.1 kHz, Maylone may consider switching to 96 kHz or greater for the remaining volumes. Given the reported excellent acoustics of the recording venue, the great hall of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, here's hoping Cedille makes the switch.

scottsol's picture

I'm afraid your 24 bit/ 16 bit test was not valid because you were not just comparing a 16 bit file with a 24 bit file. You were also comparing a download with a rip. The sound quality you get from a rip varies a great deal depending on the quality of the ripping software and the optical drive used.

In my experience 16 bit FLac downloads are likely to sound better than CD rips, so there is no way of knowing how much of what you heard was because the downloaded files were 24 bit. You need to download the 16 bit files and then compare THEM with the 24 bit files.