Reference Recordings Aims At Your Hard Drive

Reference Recordings, the Bay Area-based audiophile label founded by John T. "Tam" Henderson in 1976, has adopted a unique approach to computer and music server playback. Later this month, the company will begin to market what they call "HRx" discs. Incompatible with conventional optical disc players, these are data discs containing WAV files intended for playback on computer-based music servers. Each HRx is a digit-for-digit copy of an original Reference Recordings 24-bit/176.4kHz digital master. The format is slated for audition during this week's CES. It can be heard in the TAD, FIM, and Magico rooms at the Venetian, as well as in On a Higher Note's Vivid/Luxman suite at the Mirage. Actual HRx discs will be available soon thereafter.

"Like every record company, we have been frustrated knowing how wonderful our master tapes sound and what is lost when you transfer to CD," Reference Recordings Vice President Marcia Martin told Stereophile. "There are also losses when we transfer to LP, although those are different, and stem from mechanical issues you don't have with CDs.

"Now that computers have improved, and we have huge hard drives, lots of memory, fast downloads, and new servers, it has finally become possible and practical to offer the incredible sound we've been hearing all these years on the original masters. It may not be great for preamp manufacturers, but hard drive playback is the future of audio."

Reference Recordings has been at the forefront of high-quality sound ever since legendary audio designer and recording engineer "Prof." Keith O. Johnson came on board in 1978. Johnson, who co-developed the HDCD process, recorded the very first HDCD disc released by RR 16 years ago. He has also received no less than seven Grammy nominations for Best Engineered Album. The latest, for Garden Of Dreams from David Maslanka and the Dallas Wind Symphony (RR-108), could snatch Johnson and Reference Recordings a Grammy on February 10. RR has previously received Grammys for a recording of the Chicago Pro Musica and Domenic Argento's Casa Guidi with Frederica von Stade.

While some labels have opted to issue SACDs and/or DVD-As, Reference Recordings rejected that route some years back. "Everyone here thought DVD-A was the better format technically," says Martin. "It can sound close to our master tapes, which for about 10 years have been 24-bit/176.4 kHz. But the format never caught on because the DVD-A players that were being manufactured weren't really high-end. My husband Keith was asked to design a DVD-A player that would have done the format justice, but when the manufacturer, Spectral, was asked to sign an agreement that made the company liable should anyone successfully make a DVD-A copy from the player, Spectral and other high-end companies stayed away. As for SACD, our mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine felt the conversion to DSD changed the sound of our masters in a way we didn't like."

Reference Recordings therefore stuck with HDCD. Unfortunately, after Microsoft bought the rights to HDCD from Pacific Microsonics a few years back, it dropped development and support for the format. Fortunately, two of Johnson's dear friends and associates from those days, Michael Ritter and Pflash Pflaumer (who co-invented HDCD with Johnson), have since launched Berkeley Audio Design Associates, and have developed an Alpha DAC that Martin claims sounds better in some ways than Pacific Microsonics' no-longer-produced Model 2 HDCD encoder.

The Alpha DAC, which does not infringe on the HDCD patents that Microsoft now owns, will debut at CES this week. Used with a PC equipped with an expensive Lynx sound card commonly capable of outputting digital data sampled at 176.4kHz, the DAC will be used to demonstrate RR's HRx files. I asked what program will be used to play the files.

"We're only working with Windows XP, because Windows Vista is currently a disaster for audio," says Martin. "Vista tries to control and play files its way, which is not what we want. . . .Meanwhile, one of the programs we've been using is a free one called Media Monkey. It goes up to 24/176.4 without messing up and changing the files and bits."

Manufacturing HRx discs is an interim step to the eventual goal of making Reference Recordings' high-resolution masters available for direct download and for pre-loading into music servers. The download option hinges in large part on download time. Martin estimates that downloading a single album at 176.4kHz sample rate and 24-bit word lengths will take several hours. Lossless compression with FLAC is a possibility, but Reference wants to ensure that decoding programs using FLAC decoding will optimally handle their files before proceeding. In the meantime, Reference will offer HRx WAV files on disc. Most will be encoded at 24/176.4, although a few of RR's older 24/88.2 masters will also be distributed in HRx format.

The price of HRx discs has yet to be set. "Discs are a bit more trouble to create and distribute than downloads," says Martin. "We're trying to keep it user-friendly, while ensuring we make a profit and stay in business."

As far as I can tell, Reference Recordings is releasing the files free from DRM (Digital Rights Management), but this writer is concerned that the financial losses associated with unauthorized copying and distribution of files would seriously impact such a small company. [It is fair to note that Linn’s decision to make its high-resolution music files available without DRM does not appear to have had a negative effect, according to Ivor Tiefenbrun, with whom I discussed this subject just after the Christmas break.—John Atkinson]

In other developments, Reference Recordings is preparing to issue its first LPs in many a year. Paul Stubblebine is currently completing a facility that will be used for mastering the LPs, which, tentatively, will be pressed in Germany. First off the presses will be several of Reference's analog recordings that were never issued on LP. Shorter compositions may also be issued in 45rpm format. And, despite Marcia's reservations, a few SACDs will also be issued at the request of the label's Chinese distributor.