Naxos: From 320kbps to Lossless to Blu-ray

Naxos has taken a major step toward distributing higher-quality downloads of classical-music recordings. ClassicsOnline, the label's impressive download site, now offers the world's largest collection of classical-music recordings free of digital rights management (DRM). All of the site's nearly 22,000 albums, from more than 100 independent labels, are available at 320kbps.

Customers who previously downloaded tracks from the store at lower resolutions can upgrade to 320kbps free of charge. ClassicsOnline membership remains free, and includes three free downloads.

The selection of labels is, in a word, awesome. Hard-to-find specialty labels such as Albany, Cedille, Centaur, Danacord, and Wigmore Hall Live rub shoulders with BIS, Chandos, Delos, Pentatone, Signum Classics, and, of course, Naxos. More than 500 new titles are being added each month. Although some reissues, such as the Naxos Historical series, are unavailable in the US because of copyright restrictions, most are.

Even Naxos founder Klaus Heymann acknowledges the inaccuracy of the claim, in a Naxos press release, that, at 320kbps, "speed and quality make MP3 files indistinguishable from CDs."

"To the average consumer," he told me via telephone from his home in Hong Kong, "320kbps is virtually indistinguishable from CD sound. You would be surprised how many people listen to 128kbps selections from the Naxos Music Library played back through my computer and hi-fi system and ask, 'Where is the CD player?' 128kbps is not wonderful. The overtones are missing, and the bass is not well defined. But at 320kbps, I believe that 98% of people think it sounds like a CD. I personally think it is not exactly like a CD, but it sounds damn good."

Lossless and Blu-ray On the Way: Heymann promised lossless downloads within three months. First to come are Naxos's own 1000 best-sounding titles: all the big choral, orchestral, and opera projects that the company believes boast outstanding sound. Some string quartets (Heymann's love) may join the list, while solo-piano and guitar recordings will probably remain at 320kbps. "Anything big and well recorded over the last seven or eight years will become available in lossless and, eventually, surround," he said.

Naxos's first Blu-ray title will be John Corigliano's Symphony 3, Circus Maximus, which Heymann called "super-suitable for surround sound."

"The problem with Blu-ray," he mused, "is that there isn't really an established release format at the moment. We don't know as yet if we'll add pictures or footage. Except for a company to which we've licensed a few titles, there is nobody out there who is releasing a wide range of Blu-ray audio-only surround-sound discs. We're looking at eventually offering discrete surround, encoded surround, and a stereo track. Nobody else has done that. But first, we'll see how the market reacts to the Corigliano test case."

Heymann is especially encouraged by recent market trends. October saw record sales for ClassicsOnline, which he says is way ahead in sales of a host of other classical download sites. While HD-DVDs of opera and ballet were selling slowly during theta formayt's short lifespan, because in large part, in Heymann's opinion, "most people think that regular DVD is pretty damn good," worldwide sales of full-price classical CDs were down only 2.2%. Budget labels such as Naxos experienced larger declines, but digital download sales in general rose by 23%. Even in the current economic downturn, Heymann expects that music sales will suffer far less than automobiles because CDs and downloads are small-ticket items.