To Download, or Not to Download: That Is the Question

Reviewers these days face the same question most listeners do: Should we download music for listening and review or stick to the physical disc?

For me, I will choose the physical disc, and I plan to do so into the foreseeable future. Let me explain why.

Certainly, the way people acquire, store, and listen to music has changed dramatically over the past few decades. We would not be having this discussion at the moment if it weren't for the Internet, and public access to the Internet is a relatively recent development. I read just the other day that over a third of computer bandwidth worldwide is devoted to downloading files (and a lot of it pirated). More important, most of this downloading involves music and videos. Not that I'm suggesting that many classical-music listeners are pirating music; I know that classical listeners are more ethical than that. But if the young people I talk to are any indication, the idea of downloading files via torrent sites is so commonplace anymore, few people even think of it as unethical. Nevertheless, I digress; let's confine this topic to the legal downloading of music for sale from reputable sites.

Now, to my point. The way I see it, classical-music listeners who download material legitimately do it for one or more of several reasons: (1) They see it as a more economical way of obtaining the music they love, since record companies have wisely decided to give listeners a price break for downloads. (2) They see it as a more convenient way of storing their music; that is, putting it all on a hard disc, a memory card, a CD in a slim-line case, etc. Or, (3), they see it as a way of obtaining an even higher-quality recording than CD's, SACD's, or Blu-ray discs currently can afford them; for example, there are companies like HDTT--High Definition Tape Transfers--that offer FLAC downloads, among other formats, that may come closer to the sound of a master tape than even the best CD's can achieve.

Be that as it may, there are several drawbacks to downloading that I have yet to overcome. First, for me, economics do not play a part in the picture. If I want a piece of music badly enough and don't want to fork over the full asking price, I might look for it used on physical disc.

Second, the assumed convenience of downloading is not a factor for me, either; indeed, it's something of a disadvantage. In order for me to store music digitally, I would have to set up some sort of computer system either in my living room with my stereo equipment or in my upstairs computer room connected to my living room. Neither of these alternatives interests me: the first method is too costly and the second is too awkward. Besides, I really do want to own the physical product. I want to hold the disc and the case in my hand and know they are safe from computer crashes or accidental deletion. I want to have a booklet to read and track titles and timings at my fingertips, not on a computer screen, if at all.

Of course, I could always legitimately download music and burn it myself to a CD. Then I could find and print up the artwork, track information, and booklet. But, frankly, that sounds like too much bother, and the results would be nowhere near the professional quality the record companies produce.

Third, there just aren't enough record companies offering better-than-CD quality sound in their downloads. It would not be worth my while nor worth the hit on my pocketbook to invest in new equipment simply to acquire a meager few audiophile recordings.

People have also asked me if I intend to digitize my record collection, that is, to copy and transfer every album I own to a hard drive. I tell them no; not only do I have no desire to do so for the reasons stated above, but I have thousands of record albums, and I do not propose to spend the rest of my life working on so massive and unrewarding a project.

OK, I hear some readers say, he's just old-fashioned and behind the times. He'll probably have to give in eventually because record companies may not always be offering physical product. A fair-enough assessment, I admit. However, I own two desktop computers, two Galaxy smartphones, an iPad, the aforementioned above-average stereo system, and a separate 7.1-channel surround-sound home theater. Plus, I subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, MHz Choice, HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, and I use an LG washing machine and dryer with more lights, dials, buttons, and knobs on them than the cockpit of a 747. So it's not as though I'm completely tech-challenged or averse to modernity.

Yet I can also understand the point of view of the record companies. They see a huge chunk of their profits siphoned off by pirating, so they're trying to make do as best they can by offering their product at a cheaper price through downloads. I can also understand their wanting reviewers to download and review their material rather than sending out physical discs because it's more cost effective for them.

Still, I will resist this new direction the record industry is taking until I cannot do so any longer. At that point, I may have to close down Classical Candor. Until then, though, let's all continue our happy listening, whatever our inclinations on the matter may be.



  1. Well John, as Froggy, Buster Brown's pal, used to say: "There's always a fly in the ointment!"

  2. John, am teetering on the same precipice as you, for many similar reasons. Having just hauled my physical assets across the country, I vowed "there has to be a better way". we'll see how it plays out (all pun intended.) I might have to arrive at an uncomfortable hybrid (i.e., no more physical CDs going forward, and selectively downloading or converting, etc.)

    Ironically, this is now as much because of limitations my CDs will cause in the wireless speaker age as the physical space constraints. My new Bose soundsystem is miles better than what I've been used to, but alas, limits output of physical CDs to the TV sound bar equipment. Again, this has dyno-mite sound, but limited range. In contrast, with electronic, computer-based files, I could project the music into any room (and even outside, to disturb the neighbors).

    My tactile need for the physical CDs relates only to classical music, and rests mainly on my desire for the program notes and artist pictures. However, I (like you) have multiple renditions of many pieces, and it I really doubt the last 5 acquired versions of the "Emperor" concerto contained notes so valuable I needed to treasure them. These are perhaps easily the first candidates for electronic transfer.

    Lastly I'd add that the typical manufactured CD players have diminished in quality and durability in the past decade; In fact, many are just garbage. The last several I've owned have skipped on CDs, not unlike the underweighted tone-arms of the turntables of yesteryear. I'm sitting and listening to "Symphonic dances" conducted by Petrenko and every 2 or 3 minutes, the music just stops for a few seconds. If we're reduced to playing our treasures on equipment that's no longer manufactured to be "up to it", or spending gazillions to get the highest end CD player, have we really won the war?


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa