Primephonic's Hi-Rez Classical Downloads

Primephonic, a Netherlands-based site that prides itself on its superior classical music metadata, has launched in the United States. Currently devoted to hi-rez classical downloads in WAV (stereo), FLAC (stereo/surround), and DSD (stereo/surround), Primephonic (which attempts to stand out from the crowd by not capitalizing the "p" in "primephonic") also intends to launch the beta version of its high-quality streaming service later this year. has positioned itself to compete with the independent, which offers Red-Book and hi-rez downloads, as well as physical purchases of music in multiple genres and formats; Naxos's (formerly, which devotes itself to streaming and downloads of Red Book and hi-rez classical music;, which offers stereo/surround downloads of multiple genres in native DSD format; and even, which sells physical discs of classical music in multiple formats (including copies of out-of-print titles), and also offers MP3 downloads. There is, of course, Apple Music and all the rest, but their poor classical metadata and limited resolution put them in another, less desirable category entirely.

Primephonic has a number of things going for it. First are downloads from the Sony Classical catalog and, if negotiations proceed as planned, Warner Classics (formerly EMI) and, eventually, Universal Classics and many more labels.

Speaking via Skype, Veronica Neo, who is variously identified as the "Head of Primephonic" and the company's "Platform Manager," said, "Right now, we're focusing on everyone's latest releases to keep our promise to have recordings available as soon as they are released. But we are also working hard to add the entire back catalog. For example, recently we made an agreement to add the over 8000 titles in Sony's entire back catalog. We're very close to finalizing an agreement with Warner, and also in conversation with the other majors. Nor do we neglect independent labels with high reputations for their quality of sound. For example, Linn has just joined us, and we are in talks with Harmonia Mundi and Challenge Classics."

Primephonic's second big strength is its metadata. The easiest way to understand how the company implements metadata is to conduct a search on their store. Of this, Neo says, "Labels do a fantastic job at representing classical metadata, but the services don't pass it along or display it accurately. While they are locked into artists, we conduct our searches differently. Our classical database, which we think of as the classical musical bible of information and metadata for the industry, is solely based on works as well as composers. Imagine a human body. The composers and all the works they have ever written in their lifetimes are the spinal cord. When you search Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos, you'll find all the recordings."

A third is the ingestion period. Neo claims that ClassicsOnline, for example, is slower than they to make new recordings available. In addition, Primephonic offers news, artist interviews, reviews, historical information, and an interactive platform interface that facilitates conversations among audiophiles, hardware manufacturers, audio magazines, labels, performers, and classical music lovers. The site even has its own Primephonic "Classical Collective" magazine.

Finally, as mentioned above, Primephonic intends to make the beta version of its streaming service available by subscription in the US and UK later this year. How it will compare to ClassicsOnline in sound and pricing remains to be seen.

A comparison of various sites on multiple levels suggests that music lovers should be aware of several things. The first is that some classical labels have reserved their highest-quality downloads for their own sites. Channel Classics, for example, has given Primephonic hi-rez PCM downloads of its titles, but reserves native DSD downloads for its own site. Many other labels either do the same, or pick and choose which sites can offer some or all of their titles in which format(s).

The second factor to consider is differences in pricing. Take, for example, a highly feted recording that was Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for July 2015, Channel Classics SACD of period instrument violinist Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque performing Antonio Vivaldi's L'Estro Armonico on two discs. Not only will you have difficulty finding it on Primephonic—it does not come up under its title, and its cover doesn't appear among the 16 Vivaldi titles displayed at the bottom of the search page—but when you do find it eventually by searching under "Rachel Podger," you'll discover that Primephonic's 24/192 FLAC download costs $36.99. If you go to Native DSD, you'll find the download in its native DSD format—it was not recorded in PCM—for $24.99! Note that while offers DSD as well as FLAC and Apple Lossless downloads, it does not carry this title.

Here's another example: Pentatone's recent SACD of Dvorak's Symphony 6 and Two Slavonic Dances with the Houston Symphony under Andrés Orozco-Estrada. It costs $17.98 for a 24/96 download on HDTracks, and $18.99 for 24/96 on both Primephonic and ClassicsOnline. ClassicsOnline also allows you to stream the title to your heart's content in 24/96 for $14.99/month or $149.99/year. Primephonic offers the most format and resolution download options of this title, which include the 24/96 surround download for $19.99, DSD stereo for $24.99, and DSD surround for $24.99. NativeDSD, however, offers the DSD stereo download for $22.87, DSD surround for $23.78, and both together for $25.61.

Now compare this pricing to what some would call the old-fashioned option, purchase of the physical SACD. Were you to opt to buy the SACD through, you'd pay $18.99 plus, if you don't know how to get around it, postage. (I tried to find the price of the SACD on HDTracks, but its front-page link for "LPs, Blu Rays, and SACDs" was not working.) What this means is that if you have room for the SACD on your shelf, buying the physical disc gives you the most playback options for the lowest price, at least in this case.

It should also be noted that sites are improving all the time. ClassicsOnline has added Sony in the past few months, and already has over 300 Sony albums in hi-rez. Nimbus will be on board shortly. The sound quality of their streaming player app is claimed to have improved dramatically, mobile streaming is available (ditto for Tidal, of course), and new content is added weekly. As for HDTracks, while its search function could certainly be improved, its download app functions impeccably on my iMac.

When all is said and done, Primephonic currently offers multiple download options at competitive prices, and promises streaming by year's end. As with airlines, it pays to check both the aggregate download services and the individual sites for titles, formats, and pricing. At least, while going back and forth, you will not see prices increase, as happens with Expedia and other sites. If searching is not always easy—see the issues with Primephonic and HDTracks cited above—spending a few minutes looking around will eventually reveal all options and prices available to man and beast.

drblank's picture

I'm wondering with all of these different avenues of digital downloads and streaming music how many are going to actually become profitable enough to not go out of business or have to sell off to someone else.

Plus, all of these different formats is just getting ridiculously confusing and I'm not sure what's going to ultimately end up being the best format.

Has anyone done any comparison tests between DSD and MQA enabled content? Isn't MQA Lossless far less file size than FLAC and DSD? I know that Warner has committed to MQA, will Sony and BMG?

I keep on reading how digital downloads is waining and that streaming services is taking over, but that these streaming services companies like Spotify and Tidal aren't profitable and now we're hearing rumors of Apple buying Tidal (whether or not that actually happens).

I am not suggesting what Primephonic is doing is wrong, it's just that I don't know how long they can stick around since the high res industry is still kind of small and I'm not sure there is enough room for too many players to actually sell enough to be profitable and what the market trends are for high res listening. to me, it seems like a big crap shoot.

I'm sure in 10 years from now, things will all work it's way out, OR we'll be even more confused as to what the direction for Hi Res audio is and isn't.

MusicEar's picture
Allen Fant's picture

Excellent coverage- JVS.
the Netherlands is a real hot spot for Artists of Classical and Jazz music offering their wares via hi-rez downloads.

jimtavegia's picture

The first was a 2496 download, Primesonic: Selected Spring, that I have listened to on my computer and also burned DVD-r of it with Cirlinca and it sounds great in my DVD players. One of the tracks was 24192 and sounded great in my computer through my Steinberg UR-22 interface and I then converted it to 2496 with Sony Sound Forge so I could burn the complete album to DVD-r.

The 2nd was a Clainet/Piano release, Michael Collins: The Lyrical Clarinet, that is redbook, but was recorded and mastered so well that you might think it was highrez. I have also burned it to CD-r with Sony CD Architect and it is a winner as well. The pricing for some things will be an issue for me as I am always looking for bargains.

I love the site for downloads which are very affordable and they always say if the original format is 2496 or less, which I like. An exciting time for audiophiles.

jimtavegia's picture

To me, streaming is "radio" and for background use, at least for me. I enjoy Pandora for what it is.

These download sites are just another retail way for me to buy music and I have the choice of just doing computer listening or I can burn them for wanting to own the physical media.

I also buy used CDs off Amazon as I have also found it a way to get bargains of physical media, and also some new CDs, as well as some new vinyl. The downloads are just another way to buy music in a high rez format that I can't normally do locally. I am sure it is much easier for the labels to do this than to even think about offering 2496 copies of their catalogs on DVDs, which they could never sell enough of, like DVD-As and SACDs.

Peter_S's picture

Is it possible to purchase an SACD and copy the DSD files you your hard drive to play thru a media player?

Kal Rubinson's picture

It is possible but it is not as trivial as ripping a CD.