Q: What is the Best Wagner Ring Cycle to purchase on iTunes?
A: Whatever you do, do NOT buy a Ring Cycle on iTunes. Here’s why:
1. When you make an investment in an opera series — especially one like the Ring Cycle, you want to make sure that you have the highest quality recording available (this also assumes it’s a clear, modern recording, too). The files you download from iTunes are NOT CD-quality.
From the iTunes website (look especially hard at where it says ‘rivals CD quality’):
Purchased songs are encoded using MPEG-4 Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) format, a high-quality format that rivals CD quality. Songs purchased and downloaded from the iTunes Store are AAC Protected files and have a bitrate of 128 kilobits per second (kbit/s).
To give you a perspective, I encode my own classical and opera mp3’s at 320kbps as this bitrate APPROACHES CD quality. Many people will tell you that 128 is “pretty close” and they are correct. As I discuss in another post, most people, using standard equipment, really can’t tell the difference above 128kb. Which brings me to my next point:
2. If you have high-end stereo equipment (or if you ever plan to purchase high-end equipment), you are short-changing yourself by not having the original CDs. It may not be as apparent for a 90s Rheingold, but wait until you listen to a ’55 Meistersinger and you’ll see the difference.
3. Archiving. I encode all of my CDs to mp3s so I can take my music wherever I go. By having the original CDs, I know that I can always have the highest-possible quality recording to fall back on if I ever need to re-record, or if a better quality format comes out. I might purchase a modern single recording from iTunes, but never an opera.
4. Burning the CDs. One would be foolhardy not to backup their iTunes library by making the legal copies of the mp3s to audio cd format. Again recall that even though you are burning the mp3s (or AACs) to CD format, you do NOT have CD-quality A far better approach would be to purchase the CDs, and then encode them using EAC/LAME to iTunes at whatever quality you prefer (not to mention that the time to backup the CDs in a Ring Cycle and label the discs will probably take as long as just ripping the original CDs to mp3).
5. Personal preference. I keep all of my pop/rock CDs in folder books with the liner notes. I keep all of my operas and classical sets in the original boxes with the original librettos/liner notes on a shelf. There’s something about having the physical box and CDs for operas and classical that I treasure.
So in summary, I advise against purchasing operas (and any older recordings) on iTunes because you are not getting CD quality, and you are therefore really short-changing yourself when it comes to sound.
There are tons of reviews of good Ring Cycles on Amazon.com — personally I own the Levine, Boulez, and Bohm rings but I started with the Boulez.