I rarely start threads, but I thought my experience lately with high-res downloads from HDtracks and some SACD releases (out-of-print Columbia Jazz and Telarc Soundstream) might prove useful. So here goes...
I downloaded some albums from HDtracks over the holidays and all I can say is that I'm underwhelmed. Here's the list:
Getz / Gilberto - 96 / 24
Jazz Samba - 192 / 24
Blue Train - 192 / 24
Allman Brothers Live At The Fillmore East - 96 / 24
Mellon Collie and the Inifinite Sadness - 96 / 24
The files were burned to DVD-R media using a trial version of DVD-Audio Solo. I compared using the loudspeaker setup as well as through the ER-4S (system details in my profile).
Here are my impressions so far -
Jazz Samba (in particular) sounds worse than the CD (Verve Master Edition V6-8432, paper gatefold). The 'high-res' files feature a less vibrant mix with all instruments seemingly obscured by a wool blanket - very boring sounding.
Getz / Gilberto is passable, but very close in quality to a Japanese import compact disc (Verve, POCJ-2452) to justify a price increase. That CD copy was mastered at 96 / 24 and I'd be hard-pressed to detect a difference between the 'high-res' and the Redbook version. Again, the Verve Master Edition (V6-8545, paper gatefold) seems to trump both with a warmer tone that still preserves detail. I have a feeling that Verve did not offer up their best source material to either HDtracks or the Japanese engineers for Getz / Gilberto or Jazz Samba.
Blue Train may be worth the price of admission since it sounds much smoother than the 'RVG' Blue Train, though switching to an older CD release - the Ultimate Blue Train (Blue Note, CDP 7243 8 53428 0 6) also tames the bright sound of the newer reissue. I go back and forth on whether I prefer the slightly more 'audiophile' sound of the 'RVG' issue or the HDtracks version.
I haven't had time to compare the last two with a Redbook version, but given the current track record, I can't say that the results would turn out any different. One thing to note about the Allman Brothers album - there is a double CD release with more than twice as much music as well as excellent sonics (Polydor, 314 517 294-2).
However, for examples of great hi-res done right, I'd look to the SACD out-of-print releases of the Columbia Jazz catalog: Thelonious Monk - Straight, No Chaser and Dave Brubeck Quartet - Time Out are good examples. Even when compared against the Japanese import "Master Sound" DSD remastered CD releases, the SACDs come out on top. The tone is warmer and richer without sacrificing inner detail. Monk's piano sounds much more realistic - the Redbook version has an unnatural glare when the hammer strikes the string of more forcefully played notes on 'I Didn't Know About You'. This is gone in the SACD reissue. The Verve SACD release of Getz / Gilberto (Verve, V6-8432) is another standout. Milton Banana's cymbal work and Stan Getz's saxophone sounds more fully fleshed out. This can easily be heard in The Girl From Ipanema - the cymbals have a realism that can be matched by the HDtracks or the CD version that I have.
Telarc's historic first recordings where on a digital system that featured a 50 kHz sampling rate. They claim that DSD remastering now lets you hear the original recordings in their full sonic glory since the sample rate conversion from 50 to 44.1 involves some tricky mathematics and leads to comprises in audio quality. I have to admit that I was skeptical, but I now have both the CD and hybrid SACD release of Saint-Saens Symphony No. 3 "Organ" (CD-80051 and SACD-60634) and much prefer the latter. The orchestra was recorded in a church alongside a Skinner organ and the reverberant acoustics sometimes overpower the performance. Not so with the SACD. Now the orchestra and the organ are now blended more successfully in the recording space. Could it be that the engineer screwed up on the original CD mix? Perhaps - and I haven't listened to the Redbook layer of the SACD to see if the differences remain. One value-add of the SACD disc, though, is that it actually contains *two* previous Soundstream CD releases. So that makes the higher price somewhat justified.
However, I think DSD is no panacea - I much prefer the CD release (Mercury, 088 170 069-2) of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? vs. a SACD stereo release (Lost Highway, 088 170 358-2). On 'Down to the River to Pray' the SACD version loses the tactile quality of the banjo picking and Allison Krauss' voice is portrayed with less delicacy and air. I also think that the sonic differences between the CD and SACD release of Norah Jones' Come Away With Me are too close to call to justify a move to SACD unless you really want a multichannel experience. My amateur guess is that either these are not fully DSD remastered instead converted from PCM files or the studio effects obscure any resolving power that DSD has.
So in the end, I guess that high-res in general is a mixed bag though there are pockets of excellence, mainly on the SACD side. I can't say that I've been too pleased with HDtracks, though I do give them credit for trying.
Hope this has been helpful...