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The Hold Steady break audiophile soil with HDTracks release

  • I’ve written before about the disconnect between the music played at audio shows and the REST OF THE WORLD. Headphone listening aside, Pitchfork fodder is rarely found at RMAF and you’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of hearing anything covered by Resident Advisor over at THE Show Newport Beach. Those lusting for kick-ass rock n roll or electronic weirdness at audiophile gatherings will find slim pickings. I’m becoming as much of a broken record about this detachment as those who endlessly spin Patricia Barber, Nils Lofgren and Angus & Julia Stone.

    What I’m not saying here is that my favourite artists are better than anyone else’s favourite artists, just that mine (and perhaps yours) hardly get a look in at local audiophile society meets and when they do, front row faces wrinkle and noses get all turned up. Who’s the snob now?

    I suspect this is contributing to the lack of general mainstream take-up of hi-res audio: 1) people can’t find music with which they are familiar or 2) they don’t get to hear said music during killer system demos.

    I’ve also written before about how HDTracks is slowly – very slowly – redressing the balance of content availability: The Smiths [24/96], R.E.M [24/192]., Joy Division [24/192], The Rolling Stones [24/176.4], Lorde [24/48], Elbow [24/96] and – hold onto your bassbins – Skrillex [24/44.1]. HDTracks is now offering albums that you’ll see written about at The Quietus or Drowned In Sound.

    With sample rates varying from release to release, it appears that Pono isn’t the online music store to offer music in the same resolution as was (presumably) used in the studio.

    Joining the HDTracks catalogue this week is a surprise from leftfield: The Hold Steady’s new album Teeth Dreams, available in 24bit/96kHz PCM of US$18. Like this writer’s other favourite contemporary rock n roll outfit (the Future Of The Left), Craig Finn and company crowd-funded their latest long-player via Pledge Music – a Kickstarter for musicians. The similarities to the FoTL’s career trajectory don’t end there: Teeth Dreams is a clear attempt to streamline and clarify a band’s sound after an underwhelming previous album.

    Shorn of record company interference, this fresh focus sees the Hold Steady (mostly) reconnecting with the bar-room-bawled Springsteen-isms that made their third album, 2006’s Boys And Girls In America, such a euphoric joy. Think: Kerouac meets Husker Dü. The characters that permeate Teeth Dreams aren’t quite as crisply defined as on sophomore effort Separation Sunday but the twin guitar assault of Steve Selvidge and Tad Kubler keeps the pace brisk, binding the listener tightly to Finn’s tales of post-comedown reflection; you’ll need several passes to scratch the surface of Teeth Dreams’ foggier scenes which Finn now delivers with as much croon as bark.


    As far as sound quality goes, it’s not the best sounding album ever recorded (and mastered) but neither is it the worst. So what – it kicks royal arse, so play it anyway. Play it LOUD, play it often. My other sticking point with some (but not all) audiophiles is that they allow their system to dictate their music choices. The tail wags the dog. I’m a music nut before I’m an audiophile and when faced with a choice between better gear or more music, I will nearly always choose the latter.

    With widespread critical acclaim underpinning the simple return-to-form message already behind it, Teeth Dreams will likely be The Hold Steady’s best selling album to date. A healthy dose of arena rock aspirations means it’ll also play nicely on the radio. But that’s the not the focus of this piece. It’s this: that the HDTracks release brings The Hold Steady to more audiophiles’ attention; especially to those who curate musical programmes at shows and society meets. I’m convinced that I’m not alone in this: that the silent majority want more rock n’ roll at RMAF, at THE Show Newport Beach, at the Munich Hi-end Show and at the Australian Audio and AV Show. They want more Skrillex, more Lorde. Heck, even the Rolling Stones could do with more airtime.

    If not, audiophiles are doomed to that awful cliché of being balding bores who listen to only jazz, classical and Diana Krall on $100k systems (that few could realistically afford to own).

    One final thought: infuriatingly, the UK iTunes [lossy] release of Teeth Dreams comes with three bonus cuts.

    Further information: HDtracks | iTunes UK |

    You can follow Darko’s “Enough with the Diana Krall already” Spotify playlist here.

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. couldnt agree more! – content is king! I have some great recordings that I also like very much, but sometimes I just cant listen to them for awhile. I get SICK of them! The very stuff I love so much. We need variety in our music. Its not all about the best recording at the highest master quality bla bla bla… IMO the truly creative listener can listen to and enjoy a VARIETY of music, recorded well or not, when the mood is right. True – we all tend to play the best recorded and most familiar songs when we want to evaluate our/someone else’s kit. Of course, thats the easiest thing to do. There are other things in the life though….

    2. Love your music-first approach. I appreciate good sound and quality playback equipment. And I love the Hold Steady. I felt that Stay Positive was a very poorly mastered album – and I don’t care. It’s fantastic. I look forward to the moaning and groaning about inadequate DR response that I expect will plague this latest release. They can cling to their graphs – I’ll cling to the music.

    3. Between HDTracks, HDTapeTransfers, Qobuz, Destination=OUT, Linn Records, Channel Classics and 2L, I have found a substantial quantity of albums that interest me – from the complete Studio Recordings of The Doors (almost 100 tracks) and Paul Simon, to Sam Rivers and Keith Tippett (avantgarde jazz), to Russian Romantic classics, to Penderecki, Saariaho and Ligeti Contemporary classics, to Sam Morrisson (electronic/jazz), to Carmona and Soler (contemporary flamenco).

      The downloads are not cheap, but I usually wait until there’s a 10% to 20% discount and then make my purchase.

      I agree that there is still very slim choice of music in Hi-Rez (in comparison to CDs), but it is growing steadily. After all, this is a very young movement, so let’s give it a chance to grow and mature. I, for one, welcome each and every effort to spread around the Hi-Rez downloads and can’t wait for the Pono Music Store to start its activity.

    4. You’ve been in good form lately, Mr. Darko. Liked the flow of this article (broken record or not) and LOVED your last one about telling mainstreamers to get better gear before “upgrading” to the Po(r)no player.

      I think it’s fair to say that a lot of your readers’ (myself included) musical tastes reside on similar wavelengths to your own – Ziggy, hallucinogen-rock, RA/Pitchfork/Juno material, LBGT Disco, etc – and personally, I also love a lot of the contemporary world/ethnic/instrumental music that Srajan listens to (remixing them is fun, even if I don’t get an end product), but here’s what I’m wondering about;- You mention that the lack of more “niche” material at Audio shows/meets is due to there not being anything in HD, but that doesn’t quite explain the vinyl scene. You know as well as I that there’s a f*ckton of labels (particularly electronica and post-rock) that release on 12″. Heck, some of these labels are vinyl only, as a matter of fact. But I still end up seeing the same old “tried-n-true” (polite way of saying “played to death”) records at the shows on fancier Luxman, Vega or TechDas turntables. Sad, really.

      I think it’s more to do with the so-called “comfort zone” of the old-guard audio enthusiasts. It’s these old-guard that usually have the spending power after all, so I think organizers just stick to the stuff they’re used to A/B’ing with.

      I’m docking points from this article for mentioning Skrillex though. No idea what came over you there. =P

      • “You mention that the lack of more “niche” material at Audio shows/meets is due to there not being anything in HD”. <--- not my intention at all.Sorry about the Skrillex.

    5. John, if the master is the same as the CD release, then the 24/96 or 24/192 container is essentially worthless. I would invite you to try Foobar’s ABX comparitor, and see if you can deliver anything other than guesswork for an HDTracks 24/96 file vs. the CD given identical mastering and dynamics. Even assuming that there’s anything there above 22.05, which is not always a given (see Beck’s latest), the damage done by dithering down to 16-bit from 24 and downsampling from whatever the mastering sample rate was is pretty minimal, and can be further minimized by going back to 24/96 by upsampling in software. The hardware based ASRC chips often found in entry to mid-level DACs are less successful.

      For the folks that claim that it’s the music that matters not the “charts” or dynamics, you’re certainly most welcome to flush your money down the toilet, or set it on fire. I refuse to do that. If I’m paying a significant premium for a high-res container, it had damn better well contain a dedicated, non-clipped, non brickwalled to hell master. Buying high-res files containing CD masters is a suckers game. It’s no different than vinyl that has been cut from CD, or the multitude of SACDs that were converted to DSD from 16/44 PCM and upsampled. The fools won’t know any better, give them their slop and they’ll eat it up. It’s the music that matters after all.

      Also John, a lone dynamic track among otherwise bricked tracks is actually pretty common in modern mastering. It’s usually an instrumental track, or something that’s intended to be purposefully low key instead of “punchy” and “modern.”

      • Hey Dave. I’m not saying the HDTracks sounds any better than the CD – I’ve yet to hear it – and your concerns are valid *if* the HDTracks is indeed an up-sampled take on the Redbook release. Innocent until proven guilty in my book (as per Beck). It’s a shame that HDTracks don’t comment on provenance as we don’t know how the final master tumbled out of the studio. I’d hope it was 24/96 as per the HDTracks files.

        That said, the focus of this piece wasn’t to call into question the ethics behind hi-res releases, it was to highlight a Pitchfork/DiS stalwart puncturing the predominantly audiophile world of HRA by releasing their new album on HDTracks on top of the usual channels (iTunes and CD).

    6. John, I agree that the the more popular music available on high-res formats, the better. However, my argument is really that the quality of the recording and the engineering behind that recording is 99% of the sound, and a 16/44 or 24/96 container format for that recording is basically 1%. Maybe 95/5 if I’m being generous. What does 16/44 give you? A theoretical floor of -96dB which is decent, and a maximum FR of 22.05 which is certainly not ideal, but is at least serviceable. Most of the problems stem from the pre-ringing effect from certain filter types.

      24-bit drops the floor to a maximum of -144dB, though the vast majority of DACs are only capable of 120-130dB, and most recordings begin rolling off to inaudible levels at around 25-30kHz. Given the abundance of storage available today, I have no problem with releasing to the public in 24/96, or 24/48, or whatever the mastering frequency was. There’s no need to dither and downsample if we’re not trying to fit the music on an optical disc designed in the 1970s, even if the harm caused from that processing is probably considerably overstated by the audiophile community.

      If you take an average pop music album with dynamic levels at DR5 that was mastered at 24/96, and you release it on HDTracks for $20 and on CD for $10, even if the HDTracks version is a genuine 24/96 master, the person who pays $20 for that is still a sucker, and I bet they would be guessing 50/50 if tasked with comparing a 24/96 track from HDTracks with its 16/44 CD equivalent using the Foobar ABX tool. Is being able to reproduce 22.06 to maybe 25kHz *really* worth double the money? Even if the recording is bricked, clipped, and sounds mediocre overall?

      What I’m saying is, pop using in HD is great, but if the production techniques are the same as ever, what’s the point? All you’re paying for is a bigger pipe for them to shovel the exact same crud through. Is that really worth supporting?

      • As per my previous reply, I don’t disagree with any of your technical arguments. I think it’s pretty plain from my rigorous strip search of Pono that I believe mastering to have greater impact on the end result than delivery format. And maybe there is no inherent sonic advantage to listening to Teeth Dreams at 24/96 as opposed to the CD. Maybe.

        My point is that HRA outlets’ musical offerings tend, in the main, to reflect the fairly narrow range of music played at hifi shows and store demos. It’s easy for audiophiles to get stuck in a loop with ‘audiophile music’. Having the Hold Steady – and other contemporary rock artists like them – on HDTracks could help to break that loop. Or at least knock it off balance.

      • I see the US iTunes release is US$10 and the CD is US$10 on That’s fine for US residents but down under the CD is AU$20 – roughly the same (as using a VPN) to grab the HDTracks version. Not everyone is paying double for the hi-res!

    7. I think we’re basically on the same page. When Neil Young was interviewed by Computer Audiophile about Pono, he was very cagey about whether Pono files would be dynamically any better than their CD counterparts. Chances are the Pono store will be getting basically the same stuff that HDTracks does. Some of it will be dynamic, some of it won’t. Where Pono could break from the HDTracks model is by letting people know ahead of time. They’ve said that they will vet releases to make sure that whatever format is advertised is what’s delivered. It would be extremely simple for them to also measure for and advertise dynamic levels, which would make me far more interested in the Pono store. Otherwise, I’ll do what I do now with HDTracks – wait for someone else to bite the bullet and post the results on the Dynamic Range Database.

      More than just having popular music exist on their stores, where I think HDTracks or Pono could *really* make a difference (if they make an effort) is by changing industry attitudes on production.

      A lot of people in the industry think that vinyl masters shouldn’t be compressed, or at least should be much less compressed than CD. Way back when radio stations would play singles on 45s, those were often much louder than the full LP in order to jump out and get your attention. Today there’s no need for that, nobody is listening to vinyl in their car or swapping out singles at home, so even the normally very flimsy excuses for extreme compression just make zero sense in the context of vinyl.

      The industry should take that same attitude with high-res. Chances are if you’re buying the HD version, it’s not to listen to in the car or on your laptop, or to play at a party. It’s for listening at home, just like on a turntable. So leave the compression for iTunes.

      My hope is that eventually when the market for vintage jazz releases starts to dry up, labels that are synonymous with great sound like Analogue Productions and Music Matters will start to look at the stuff produced from 1994 or so to now, that was originally ruined but may be salvageable in the right hands. It can definitely be done, in fact Earache Records is doing it right now with their “full dynamic range” series.

      Carcass’ Swansong started life in 1995 at DR8, and was then louderized in 2004 to DR6. The 2013 FDR version is DR12. I’d like to see that happen with everything released in the last twenty years.

      • That’s interesting news about Carcass.

        To directly copy and paste from my Pono piece: “Young’s source-first approach is more likely to make inroads within the belly of the music industry itself: getting fellow artists to think about how they record in the studio, how they master – which has a BIG impact on the end result – and how they deliver the that end result world. It’ll get musicians thinking about quality and that can only be a good thing.”

    8. I’m witcha Darko on the music bit…. Last 4 or 5 times I’ve gone to a gear slinger, shop event or some meet here in Southern California I endure auditioning equipment with Norah Jones, Diana Krall, or a high rez copy of some obscure 60’s jazz (how do you get high rez out of a 40 or 50 year old master tape anyway?) Although I come armed with my own library of CD’s and AIFF files, l am shamed into listening to their high resolution material. It’s discouraging and sometimes gets me thinking I am in the wrong hobby…. If I am a lone 30 something in a room full of pot bellies and blue hairs listening to Count Basie (who is great but come on!) maybe I’m not cut out for this.

      I get the attitude some audiophiles have not wanting Johnny Come Lately to barge in on your scene with his Beats Headphones and his Bose Sound dock. I had the same feeling when Green Day released Dookie in the 90’s. All of a sudden this community of people I was committed to for a decade saw our scene co-opted by Pepsi and suddenly you can buy Minor Threat and Descendants t-shirts at the Mall… You want credit for being punk rock before it was cool. You want ‘posers’ to quit acting like they know, but in punk that is the paradox. Punk was about acceptance, inclusion… a community of misfits who didn’t judge each other.

      That is what’s tough about Audiophiles. They are not community focused or at least not towards anyone new, or at the very least not towards me (It may just be that I am an ass). I’ve been to meets and shows, The LA/OC Society gatherings and shop events and they are very exclusive feeling and when you don’t feel welcome among people who share your interests and they don’t like your music then people leave and the community doesn’t grow… and maybe that is what some audiophiles want… they want it to die with them. But as a whole the community (and in some ways) the industry isn’t as vibrant and as healthy as it Could be.

      HD Tracks to me is like looking at blood work for an unhealthy organism.
      It is getting better, but the amount of cash spent on such a large library of DSD and 24/192 and 32/384 capable DACS and AMPS and Gears. Hundreds upon hundreds of components are on the market. And the ink spilled waxing poetic over said gears are not proportional to the library of music available… Which I think is an indicator that (For Some) its not about music at all… It’s about aluminum, copper wood and glass.

      But I Digress. Hat tip Mr. Darko…. you speak some true truths.
      BTW listened to The Hold Steady on your recommendation and will be chasing down the CD after work… I wanted to throw out that one of my personal favorites is Gaslight Anthem… they are very similar to The Hold Steady maybe a bit more up tempo… but if you like The Hold Steady they are worth a listen… The 59 Sound and Handwritten are both very good albums but you’ll be stuck in redbook city (where I spend my days) as they don’t have a single song on HD Tracks.



    9. @B-Dub:

      Man, that was one of the best comments about the “Audiophile World” I’ve seen in a long, long time. I am 67-years-old, but I feel the same way as you do, more or less…

      • I concur. B-Dub is echoing frustrations I’ve been habouring for some time now: the music at a lot of hifi demos doesn’t speak to more contemporary tastes. And if you try to introduce it you run the risk of being pariah-d.

    10. @ Rob D. Thank you for the kind words Rob… I was half expecting flamethrowers after I clicked submit so thank you.

      @ Darko… Sorry for my little diatribe… didn’t mean to troll your site, I’ve got nothing but respect for you. It just seems like I walk away from meets, shows, etc… kicking myself “Why do I keep doing this to myself?” Either way, if you make it this year, I’ll be at the THE SHOW probably with a set of LCD2 and an ALO portable amp turned up loud to drown out the endless array of speakers playing Diana and Norah with my Amy Winehouse, Social Distortion, Trojan era Reggae, the Black Keys and whatever else gets me through the day.


      • Don’t be silly, it’s not trolling at all. Would love to see MORE posts like that. 🙂 I’ll be at THE Show too – give me a holler nearer the time?

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