is This the End of the Big Classical Music Box Set?

In the past couple of decades, classical music listeners have become accustomed to seeing a number of Big Classical Box Sets (or BCBSs) released in the autumn. These sets feature many, most, or all recording- by [composer_name] or [conductor_name] or [artist_name] or [ensemble_name], and are generally sold at prices that make classical music collectors pull out their credit cards quickly.

It’s not easy to date the first BCBS, because, over time, there have been box sets whose size creeped up into Big territory. A complete Wagner Ring cycle was a big box set, or even a complete Beethoven piano sonatas, or Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas, and these were initial big in price. What changed, and led to BCBS status, was when these sets went beyond just collections of works by a single composer.

The first real BCBS didn’t come in a single box: it was the 180-CD Complete Mozart Edition from Philips. Released in 1990-91, in 45 volumes, it was more of a serial edition than a big box set, and the price for the entire set was around $1,000.

Around 2000, with the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, more affordable BCBSs were released. These were much cheaper than the Philips set, and I recall the cost of the various editions from different labels being around $200 – $300. (The Dutch label Brilliant Classics’ Bach Edition sold in the UK for £225.) While the Philips Mozart set was very expensive, the new, cheaper Bach sets allowed collectors to buy 150 or more CDs at around a dollar/euro/pound each.

In 2005, however, everything changed. While Brilliant Classic’s Bach was five years old, it hadn’t sold anywhere near as much as their new Mozart set would. The Brilliant Classics Complete Mozart set, with 170 CDs, sold in France for €99. By the time it was released in the US in 2006, where it listed at $150, it had already sold 300,000 copies. (It would eventually be sold as low as €39, but was more often available for €69. An updated edition from 2014 currently sells for €114 on Amazon France.) Brilliant Classics made a specialty of these big box sets, often with competent yet workmanlike recordings, and single-handedly succeeded in reducing the price of classical CDs.

Once the perceived value of classical CDs had dropped, all the labels had to compete. Hence the plethora of offerings every year. (You can read some of my articles about these box sets here.) The labels have trawled their back catalog, reviving conductors and artists that were formerly known only to a select few, bringing back many recordings that had long been out of print. But also bringing back a lot of dreck. In any artist’s career, there are always duds, and the market kept them hidden, so in many of these sets, you’d have, say, half the discs being Really Good, a third being Okay, and the rest being Meh.

Some artists have been the subject of repeated box sets. Herbert von Karajan, for example, seems to be covered by a new, larger box set every couple of years. Leonard Bernstein has done well, also, in part because of the massive number of recordings he made for Columbia Records (later Sony), then another massive number of recordings for Deutsch Grammophon, often re-recording the same works. And you can’t swing a violin bow without hitting a new edition of Glenn Gould’s recordings, which have been re-re-re-mastered and repackaged so many times it’s hard to keep track.

Even indie labels got into the game, with Hyperion Records assembling two large sets from long series they had released: the first was their Complete Schubert Songs set, on 40 CDs, and the second was their 99-CD set of Liszt’s Complete Piano Music.

Anniversaries are good reasons for box sets, hence the three recent sets from Universal (which encompasses DG, Philips, Decca, and others). 2016 saw a 200-CD set of Mozart’s works; in 2018, they released a 222-CD set of Bach’s works; and this year, it was time for a mere 123 CDs of Beethoven’s complete oeuvre. And this, I believe, is the inflection point. This is peak BCBS.

Most or all of this music is available on demand on all the major streaming services (if you can find it). While I have purchased the Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven sets, these are likely to be the last that I buy. I like the approach in these Universal sets, with lots of different performers, including different performers among a group of works (such as different pianists for the sonatas, different ensembles for the string quartets, etc.), and even different styles of performance (some original performance practice, others in a more standard twentieth-century style). The only two sets that I would consider in the future would be a complete Schubert, if it contained multiple recordings of all his lieder, and a BCBS of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings, even if it only covered his recordings on DG and EMI. (There are lots of others.)

I used to buy a few box sets a year, in part to get recordings by composers or artists I like, but also because of the low price, generally around one dollar/euro/pound per disc. When the only music you could listen to was what was on your shelves, these sets meant that I always had a lot to choose from. But I have recently been selling a lot of them off used, because the music is mostly available to stream, and because they take up a lot of space. I have ripped some of them, but not all, so in many cases I can listen to them without pulling out the CDs. But I do enjoy that nostalgic experience of taking a CD out of its sleeve, admiring its artwork, deftly inserting it into my CD player – yes, I still have one of those – and listening to the pristine sound of vintage digital plastic.

After mining the depths of their catalogs, the record labels have probably overloaded so many classical collections that even the most avid listeners who are not obsessed with having Every Single Recording Ever By [artist_name] will soon have no more room.

It seems as though these past few years have seen the swan song of the classical recording industry, as they dump as much as they can to the last remaining collectors who still want CDs. I’m exaggerating a bit, but there comes a point where it just makes no more sense to buy CDs that you can really never listen to when you have millions of options available to stream, even in lossless format, if you want to pay for it. Classical recordings won’t die, but I think the BCBS has reached the end of the line. In years to come, these BCBSs will be relics of a time when an industry attempted to grasp the past for one last hurrah, but the times have changed.

For more on BCBSs, check out this episode of The Next Track podcast, where we discuss CD packaging, and discuss the concept of the BCBS.

The Next Track, Episode #161 – Philip Thomas on Morton Feldman’s Piano Music

Philip Thomas has recorded a 5-CD set of all of Morton Feldman’s music for solo piano. We discuss with him one of the most interesting of 20th century composers and the unique nature of sound in Feldman’s works.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

Use Timed Lyrics in the iOS Music App to Sing Along to Your Favorite Songs

I’ve always liked having lyrics available when I listen to music. I don’t look at them often, but there are times when I want to know exactly what the words of a song are. Sometimes when I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row, and want to be precise. (I still haven’t memorized all the lyrics; but it’s more than ten minutes long.)

A nifty new feature in the iOS Music app is Timed Lyrics. When a song offers this, you see the lyrics, each line highlighted as it is sung.

You’ll probably see this in the Music app the first time you play a song that offers the feature, if you have your iOS device’s screen on with the Music app up front.

Timed lyrics1

Tap the Lyrics button at the bottom of the Music window and enjoy.

Timed lyrics2

Filming the Show: Pardon the Intrusion? Or Punish It? – The New York Times

Joshua Henry, the star of a new Off Broadway musical called “The Wrong Man,” had tried repeatedly to signal his disapproval to the man in the onstage seating who was using his smartphone to capture his performance, but he wasn’t getting through.

By the third song, Mr. Henry had had enough. So he reached into the seats, deftly grabbed the phone out of the man’s hand, wagged it disapprovingly, and tossed it under a riser — all mid-song, without skipping a beat. “I knew I had to do something,” he explained later.

Just a few nights earlier, in Ohio, the renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter had stopped playing Beethoven mid-concerto to ask a woman in the front row to quit making a video of her. After the woman rose to reply, she was escorted out of the hall by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s president, and the music resumed.

Both artists were cheered — first in person, later on social media — for taking a stand against the growing ranks of smartphone addicts who cannot resist snapping pictures and making recordings that are often prohibited by rule or by law, that are distracting to performers and patrons, and that can constitute a form of intellectual property theft.

There’s a lot of discussion around this, in part because most of the people who use their phones during concerts or plays are not regular patrons of these forms of entertainment. It’s one thing to spend your time with your camera in your hand during a rock concert, hoping to get some pics or videos, but it’s another to do so when it disturbs both the performers and the audience, as in classical concerts or plays.

I go to the theater often, notably at my local, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I’ve never seen people take their phones out during a play, but I have heard of such incidents that have occurred there. I have heard the occasional phone ring during a performance, even though people are told to ensure that their phones are off before performances begin. I not only put my phone and my Apple Watch in airplane mode, but I also put my Apple Watch in theater mode, so when I move it doesn’t light up and disturb anyone.

It’s really just a question of manners. People think that they can act like louts because they’ve paid to buy tickets, but they need to learn to respect others.

Source: Filming the Show: Pardon the Intrusion? Or Punish It? – The New York Times

Thoughts on Amazon’s New Echo Speakers

In this week’s episode of The Next Track podcast, Chris Connaker, Doug Adams, and I discussed the odd idea of Amazon announcing a lossless and high-resolution music streaming service. We mocked the idea of listening to this music on an Amazon Echo, but, somehow, none of us thought that this improved audio quality was the prelude to new Amazon Echo speakers.

Yesterday, Amazon announced an All-new Amazon Echo (3rd Generation), a $100 speaker with “premium sound.” And they also announced the $200 Echo Studio, with “Immersive sound – 5 speakers produce powerful bass, dynamic midrange, and crisp highs. Dolby Atmos technology adds space, clarity, and depth.” Like Apple’s HomePod, the Echo Studio “Adapts to any room – Automatically senses the acoustics of your space, fine-tuning playback for optimal sound.”

Echo studioAmazon is pricing this to compete with the Sonos One, and to undercut the HomePod. Amazon says:

Dolby Atmos technology turns stereo tracks into a multidimensional audio experience, adding space, clarity, and depth. Echo Studio also plays new music formats that have been mastered in 3D.

Given the setup of the speaker, it’s possible that this does produce stereo sound, with left and right tweeters, unlike the HomePod, which is a mono speaker. It has a front, whereas the HomePod is designed to work regardless of which way it points. (Oddly, that slot looks like it’s designed to hold a CD, but it is just a vent for the bass to flow from the speaker.)

One positive point is that both of these speakers have a 3.5mm / optical line-in jack, which the HomePod and the Sonos one do not have.

On the podcast, we discussed how audiophiles probably would not see Amazon as an appropriate source for music, and that there are other alternatives, though not that many offering lossless streaming. But these new speakers are an attempt by Amazon to elevate their Echo line from the tinny speakers they have long had, and it’s great for consumers to have more competition in this area.

I would expect Apple to release a less expensive HomePod in the near future, in order to compete with Sonos and Amazon, and the many other hi-fi companies selling standalone speakers of this kind. This is clearly a growth market for audio, as fewer people own stereo separates, and as the idea of listening to music without a lot of gear has become the norm.

The Next Track, Episode #159 – Has Lossless and High-Resolution Audio Finally Come to the Masses?

Amazon announced a new lossless and high-resolution music streaming service. Has high-res music finally come to everyone? We talk with Chris Connaker, of Audiophile Style, to try to understand Amazon’s logic.

Find out more at The Next Track website, or follow The Next Track on Twitter at @NextTrackCast.

Why Can’t Music Streaming Services Give Good Recommendations for Classical Music?

I regularly use Apple Music, and sometimes the recommendations I receive in the For You section are spot on. They learn from what I listen and what I love (though I don’t love tracks or albums very much), and they recommend music by the same or similar artists, or from similar genres. On any given day, I’d say a quarter of their picks are things that I really would like to listen to. And I think that a 250 batting average for this type of recommendation, which is all done by algorithm, is pretty good.

However, when they recommend classical music, they tend to strike out a lot more. Last night, I listened to an album of Schubert’s piano trios, and this morning, I see these recommendations:

Classical recommendations

It’s fair to say that I’d be potentially interested in listening to many if not most of these recommendations, but are they really “like Schubert: Piano Trios, Op. 99 & 100?” No, not really. There are two recordings of violin concertos, an opera, some vocal music (Monteverdi’s Vespers), and some solo piano music.

What would be “like” those Schubert piano trios? Perhaps other chamber works, such as piano trios by Haydn or Beethoven. Maybe some string quartets by Schubert, Beethoven, or other Romantic composers. Or some other music by Schubert: his piano music, lieder, etc.

It’s not clear why these recommendations were chosen. With pop, rock, or jazz, the recommendations tend to be based on the artists performing the music, whereas here, this isn’t the case. None of the three artists who performed the Schubert trios I listened to (Andreas Staier, Daniel Sepec, and Roel Dieltiens) are present in the recommendations. Two of the recommendations are on the same label, Harmonia Mundi, and, in classical music, that can a good reason to recommend music, as independent labels do have a specific character. But I scratch my head to try to figure out how these recommendations were chosen.

The Igor Levit set is in my iCloud Music Library, and I have listened to it before, but I don’t know any of the other recordings. The only commonality I find is that the Schubert I listened to was released in 2016, and five of the seven recommendations were released the same year, with two others in 2014 and 2015.

It isn’t easy to tailor recommendations for classical music, and I suspect that Apple Music is simply looking at what other people who have the Schubert recording in their libraries are listening to, or what’s in their libraries, similar to the way the Genius feature works. Providing better classical recommendations would require additional metadata for classical recordings, beyond just the “classical” genre. There would need to be metadata for eras (Baroque, Romantic, etc.), ensemble sizes (trios, quartets, orchestras, etc.), and styles.

The classical market is too small for the big streaming services to provide this sort of recommendation, and other players, such as Idagio and Primephonic, are entering the field in an attempt to do so. This is probably not something that can be done by algorithm, in part because of the absence of extended metadata specific to classical music.

To be fair, a bit of browsing on Apple Music allows me to find plenty of classical music, but I really would like the kind of recommendation that pushes me in the right direction, especially for composers that I don’t know well. I’m not that interested in paying for another streaming service, because that sort of fragmentation with music is just an annoyance. But I wish the big streaming services – Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon – would take classical music seriously.

Amazon Launches Amazon Music HD (and Lies a Lot)

Amazon today announced Amazon Music HD, an extension of their paid music streaming service offering 50+ million tracks in lossless FLAC format, and “millions” of tracks in high-resolution formats. (It’s also available from Amazon UK.)

Amazon, the music streaming service that is probably not used by that many serious music fans, hopes that this can get them to be a serious player in this market. But I’d expect that many if not most people who use Amazon to stream music probably use an Alexa device, in most cases devices where lossless audio won’t sound better than the MP3s that they serve.

Amazon has used all the audiophile tropes to try to sell their service, and this graphic sums them up:

Amazon music hd

First comes the stair-step graphics attempting to suggest that higher sample rates are better. Amazon has shamelessly ripped this off from Qobuz, who has been using this graphic for more than two years.

Qobuz lies

They then discuss bit rates. MP3 is “up to 320 kbps,” or what most people can hear correctly. But for the “high definition” audio – lossless, or CD quality – they say “up to 850 kpbs.” Anyone who understands lossless compression knows that the bit rate of a lossless file depends on the density and volume of the music, and higher bit rates are not better. In fact, it’s not uncommon for lossless files to have bit rates above 1,000 kbps, such as with this Clash album:

Clash bit rates

Or even well below 320 kbps, as with this album of piano works by John Cage:

Cage bit rate

And for “ultra HD,” or what is more commonly known as high resolution, saying “up to 3750 kbps — more than 10X the bitrate of standard streaming services” is disingenuous at best. If you have magical bats’ ears, you might hear the difference, but whether the bit rate is 3750 kbps or half that makes little difference if you don’t have high-end audio equipment, and especially if the music isn’t mastered well.

“So,” you are thinking, “Isn’t it time for Apple to offer something similar?” I doubt it. While providing lossless streams would fit well with the niche the company is trying to create for the HomePod (a mono device, mind you, where lossless or high-res music won’t provide a full stereo experience), most people who listen to music don’t care, and it is not very useful for mobile devices. I’m sure that one day Apple will offer a lossless plan for Apple Music, but I can’t see it as a priority.

In any case, if Apple does offer lossless streaming one day, I hope they won’t use the same type of deceptive language that Amazon is using.

My Personal Apple Music Radio Station Is Broken

Update: I heard from Apple that this was caused by a bug on their servers, and it has been resolved.


One of my favorite ways to listen to music is my personal Apple Music radio station. Apple added this feature, which it initially called “Personal DJ,” about two years ago. (See this article.)

To create it, just ask Siri, on any device, to “Play some music.” A new station is created using whatever image you have attached to your Apple Music profile (if any). (Read this article to learn how to set up an Apple Music profile.)

Personal radio station

I often go back to this station because it generally plays a good cross section of my music. It includes purchases, music I’ve added to my iCloud Music Library, music that I’ve loved, and other music that I’ve played recently or a lot. So if I’m in the car, and I don’t want to spend time deciding what to listen to, I put this on, and skip what I don’t want to hear, but am never really disappointed.

But since yesterday, it’s been broken. It only plays two songs: I Must Have That Man, by Adelaide Hall, and Bengali Blue, by Bobo Stenson and Lennart Åberg. Until just a few minutes ago, when I was about to start writing this article, it only played the first song, and since then, a second song has been added. Sometimes the first song only plays a second or two then stops; sometimes it plays, then the second song plays, then the first one comes back again for a few seconds. And this has happened to other people; I found a number of people posting on Apple’s forums, and on Reddit, who had similar issues: sometimes with a single song, sometimes with two or three.

Feel free to try it out: you can share links to your personal Apple Music Radio station.

But I don’t know how this can be fixed. Some algorithm has gone all William Gibson, and the only way to correct this would be for someone with the keys to the kingdom to reset something in the Apple Music database. It’s unlikely that any first- or second-level Apple Care technician would be able to do that. So I can’t use this personal radio station any more, unless somehow the algorithm figures out that there’s an issue.

Because you cannot delete Apple Music radio stations. Not this one, not any that you create based on songs, albums, artists, or genres. This has long been an annoying, but in most cases, you just shrug it off and move on. They pile up in your Recently Played list, but you can ignore them, because you can just create others with other songs, artists, or genres. But this radio station is special.

If I could delete it, then I could recreate it, and that might fix the logjam – or, the broken record – and it would work as it should again. So, for now, I will no longer have one of the best features of Apple Music at my disposal. This makes me sad.