Disrespecting artistry: Beck’s Morning Phase as a hi-res download


Beck’s Morning Phase won the Grammy for ‘Best Album of The Year’, a result that didn’t go down too well with Kanye West, a rapper who’s no stranger to mouthing off about who should win what at award shows. We only have to look back to the 2009 VMA’s to recall how West stole Taylor Swift’s moment in the sun by snatching the mic and delivering his now infamous “I’ma let you finish but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!” speech.

At this week’s Grammy award ceremony, West looked set reprise his role as serial interrupter before a last minute change of heart saw him stepping back from stealing Beck’s acceptance speech thunder. It was a case of almost-but-not-quite.

West’s shade throwing was implicitly vague until a post show mouthing-off brought clarification: “Beck needs to respect artistry and should’ve given his award to Beyoncé.” Yikes.

This caused Shirley Manson (ex-Garbage, ex-Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie) to pen an open letter to Mr. West via her Facebook page in which she says, “You make yourself looks small and petty and spoilt”. “You are making yourself look like a complete twat”, continued Manson.


However, had Kanye West known of Morning Phase’s inherent technical weaknesses he might have laid a more legitimate complaint at Beck’s door. I’m talking about what lies beneath the recording’s surface.

Using Xivero’s MusicScope software to perform a spectral analysis (as I did with Björk) on each of Morning Phase‘s tracks exposes a questionable digital audio lineage that highlights the pitfalls of recording an album over several years in various studios, each with their own digital audio encoding policy.

HDTracks isn’t one to normally comment on the provenance of its files and customer queries about quality usually solicit a boilerplate response: that the HDTracks hi-res download store is simply selling that which was provided to them by the record label. Yours is not to question why.

However, in appending the download page of Beck’s Morning Phase (24bit/96kHz, US$17.95) with a note that reads “Tracks 4, 5, 7, 10, 11 contain elements of 48k tracking, mastered in 96/24” you know there’s seriously something amiss.

Before I pull a Kanye myself, let’s remind ourselves of what we should see from the analysis of a half-decent 24bit/96khz file. Here’s Track 1 from the Pono Music store’s 24bit/96kHz edition of Beck’s Sea Change under the MusicScope:

01 The Golden Age.flac_report

Despite anomalies at 30kHz and 45kHz we see information extending up to within a whisker of 48kHz – that’s the Nyquist frequency for a file sample at 96kHz. With 1 bit of data depth equating to 6db of dynamic range, the 144db seen above reflects our file’s 24bit status.

Here’s Track 11 from HDTracks’ 24bit/96kHz version of Morning Phase given the same MusicScope treatment. Brace yourselves:

11-Turn Away.flac_report

The party pretty much ends at 16kHz suggesting MP3 compression has been applied somewhere in the chain. The album’s mastering engineer Bob Ludwig exonerates himself via Michael Fremer’s Analog Planet here.

For comparison’s sake, here’s the MusicScope analysis of the same song as found on the CD version:

Redbook_Turn Away.flac_report

We see the same MP3 compression seen in the hi-res encode.What can we conclude here?  No more musical information is contained within the hi-res version than the Redbook equivalent. The spectrals of the album’s remaining cuts can be found at the end of this article and you can draw your own conclusions.

With no physical product to consider, the hi-res version must be judged solely on its sonic merits. No that the album sounds bad per se, but I hear zero difference between the 24bit/96kHz HDTracks version of Morning Phase and the CD-ripped to FLAC in 16bit/44.1kHz; a conclusion explained by the MusicScope analysis.

Beck is a celebrity endorser of Pono. He can clearly be seen criticising the lifelessness of MP3 in this Pono promo video and yet MP3 compression has somehow made it into Morning Phase’s chain of creation . Who’s disrespecting artistry now?

Ponying up for the hi-res release of Morning Phase just isn’t worth the money. More troubling is we have to buy it to find out. The door slams after the horse has bolted. How do consumers know what they are buying before they buy it? How can they be confident that a hi-res download will sound better than the CD?

One could level similar criticism at vinyl: that there’s no way of knowing prior to purchase just how good the pressing or what source has been used: the master tapes themselves or a 24bit/96kHz reading thereof? But vinyl’s physicality, its sleeve art and collectability provide some compensation for noisy pressings or 24bit/44.1khz source files (as was the case with The Beatles’ Stereo box set).

Morning Phase might be as Beck intended – who am I to disagree? More worrying though is the growing number of hi-res industry players whose marketing departments have repurposed this phraseology as a gold stamp of quality. Beck’s Morning Phase exposes the emptiness of the phrase “as the artist intended”.

Without an agreed standard playing support to artist intention, it’s little more than a smokescreen behind which (a lack of) audio quality can remain hidden from review until the dollars go down and the files arrive.

Morning Phase is an extreme example but one that shows the importance of quality checking on the part of hi-res audio retailers. Why don’t HDTracks verify the quality of the product before placing it on sale? The additional notes found appended to the Beck release don’t go deep enough with detail. Why no mention of the 16kHz filters exacted by MP3 compression? That’s a rhetorical question.


It isn’t just Beck. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light was only corrected recently after complaints came from several quarters that the previous 24bit/96kHz download was a direct mix-down of the 5.1 version found on 2005’s DVD-A.

Throwing the record label under the bus after the fact is a questionable business practice. Imagine your local supermarket passing the buck to the farmer in the face of complaints about rotten fruit. It just wouldn’t fly.

I should also add that there are good number of excellent sounding releases to be found on HDTracks and, more lately, the Pono Music store.

The problem is one of quality control.

The message coming loud and clear from Pono – and to a lesser extend HDTracks – is that hi-res audio is the new frontier of audio and we’re all heartily encouraged to jump on board. However, if the audiophile community itself has trouble navigating the complexities of download provenance (and mastering!) within the hi-res audio space – and by association its audible benefits – what hope for the mainstream?

Tackling journalists who poo-poo Pono, and by implication hi-res audio, is to treat the symptom and not the cause. Asking people to jump from smartphone streaming to hi-res downloads that (mostly) only sound good on a second portable device is too much too soon.

In trying to convince the mainstream of the merits of better sound quality, why it matters and how to get there, why not hold the hi-res talk back for a follow-up conversation? Few go from couch potato to marathon run success overnight. Intermediary steps are required. Fitness is a journey and so is the path to better sound.

A common retort here is that if you don’t like it, don’t buy it – that’s not an option with hi-res downloads – but more concerning is the damage done to the audiophile world’s reputation in the eyes of those who don’t spend thousands of bucks on metal boxes and wires?

The ubiquity and forcefulness of the hi-res conversation, particularly from Team Pono, paints the audiophile world as a soft target in the click-hungry eyes of Gizmodo, Yahoo and other less audio-centric tech publications. However, to dismiss them out of hand as publishers of click-bait is to ignore their deep-seated, legitimate complaints: that hi-res releases are expensive in light of the relatively small sound quality lift over and above Redbook. In the case of Beck’s Morning Phase, even the latter falters leaving the hi-res release naked but for its Emperor-inspired clothing.

I don’t mind that Beck’s Morning Phase is all over the place source-wise; just don’t try to sell me the hi-res version when the Redbook version will easily suffice.

You know why Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine made garbage pails of cash selling Beats headphones? It has nothing to do with hi-res audio. Their message was simple: “Here are headphones that look great and will make your existing music collection (streamed and stored) sound waaaaay better”. In the context of the previously dominant little white earbuds, the Beats by Dre line delivered big time. Pivotal to its success was that prospective Beats owners weren’t asked to a) carry a second device or b) buy their music again. The conversation was about the importance of hardware (and not software).

If we want the mainstream to embrace the world of better sound the conversation needs to start with source material with which many are already familiar: 16bit/44.1kHz. We should be encouraging folk to rip the CDs that they already own. We should endorse the jump from lossy streaming to lossless, from Beats headphones to better headphones, from Bluetooth speakers to a proper two-channel rig. All of this must come before dropping hi-res releases into the mix. Not least because so few albums enjoy release in anything above 16bit/44.1kHz. Only Beyoncé’s fourth album 4 is available from HDTracks and even then it’s encoded at 24bit/44.1kHz. Are those additional 8 bits really worth the extra cash?

Whilst the hi-res file retailers (hopefully) resolve the issue of quality control and provenance reporting, let’s stop foisting talk of twenty-four-blah-one-ninety-bleurgh onto Joe Public and his mates because, as we’ve recently seen with all the Pono bashing emanating from the mainstream press (with its implicit non-audiophile perspective), it will do more harm than good.

Further information: Morning Phase at HDTracks | Morning Phase at Pono Music


Track-by-track analysis of HDTracks’ 24bit/96kHz download of Morning Phase:



03-Heart Is A Drum.flac_report

04-Say Goodbye.flac_report

05-Blue Moon.flac_report



08-Don't Let It Go.flac_report

09-Blackbird Chain.flac_report


11-Turn Away.flac_report

12-Country Down.flac_report

13-Waking Light.flac_report

Written by John H. Darko

John lives in the NOW + HERE = NOWHERE. He derives an income from the ad revenues of DAR. John is also an occasional staff writer for Stereophile, 6moons and TONEAudio.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR


Leave a Reply
  1. Thanks for the investigation but, goodness, what a bore! And they wonder why folk are into collecting old vinyl.

  2. And now that I’ve dipped my toes into hi-res I find that it isn’t buy with confidence. Any tips for knowing that you will get what you are paying for?

    • That was (one of) my point(s) with this article Randle: that there is no real way of knowing what you’re buying until it lands on your hard drive.

  3. “pull a Kanye” will be my new go to phrase

    Yes point well made. What’s the point of having all this HD capable hardware when we cant be confident in the media/software?. GIGO – garbage in garbage out.

  4. OK, which high res retailer will be the first to publish these type of graphs with an A/B comparison against the CD equivalent (and let’s include an LR loudness rating too)? It would be fairly simple to automate the analysis with off the shelf software (possibly even open source), so I dont think it would be too a high cost to provide this info across the entire catalog.

    You want me to rebuy my albums at high res? Fine, I want to, but I hate to play the lottery. PROVE to me they’re better! I dont need to understand all the metrics, production and analysis techniques, but the average non-audiophile should have no problem interpreting a well designed comparison graph.

    Even if they end up sounding identical to my ear (maybe my hearing sucks or I have crappy equipment or a noisy environment), the visual proof should be enough to avoid feeling hoodwinked. It’s perhaps the difference between feeling scammed on the whole high-res experience, and seeking out better equipment to discover what I can’t presently hear–so I can become a repeat customer.

    Definitely disappointing to see the Beck tracks rolled off at 16 kHz, given the high profile the album now has, but kudos to HDTracks for at least mentioning the exact amount of 48 kHz content present in the album! That is a step in the right direction towards transpatency, at least. Not sure they could have further explained the 16 kHz/MP3 fingerprint issue given the limits of a small side note like that without thoroughly confusing most customers…

  5. For me we have two issues here one of which is relatively easy to resolve with quality control. Being duped into purchasing a low fidelity recording instead of a pukka Hi res one is like purchasing a Louis viton handbag off the web only to find it’s a fake. Both are damaging to the market and erode customer confidence. As for the justification for all the hype I agree with you it should be handled by the marketing gurus carefully as it’s easy to p*** on your chips as we say in the Midlands. Hi res is similar to premium pressing vinyl album sales targeted at those audiophiles who have the kit to extract the difference and should be advertised that way. Fun times ahead.

  6. If I were Beck, then I would be severely disappointed that my intellectual property is being degraded when it comes to mastering and mixing the individual record tracks. Why doesn’t an artist step up? Doesn’t he listen to his record and say: “This doesn’t sound like the way I intented it to be!”? I think we should applaud Neil Young for his effort to bring hi-res audio under the attention of his fellow artists.

    • He did listen to approve the way the master sounded. As a matter of fact he is the one who asked for it to sound this way.

  7. Gary has a great point about hi-res retailers publishing graphs such as the ones John provided in this Beck hi-res article, but it likely won’t be HDTracks. I’ve contacted HDTracks many times when the Redbook CD version sounds as good or in some cases better than the HDTracks hi-res version and their standard response is ‘that’s the version the record label provided to us’.

    Seal’s ‘Best 1991 – 2004’ download is a prime example of HDTracks not doing their homework. Not only is the sound quality of this download not as good as the Redbook CD version, but some of the songs have different & missing voice tracks. To top it off, HDTracks lists it on their website as 44.1/24 and it’s actually 88.2/24 as seen by my DAC. Well done HDTracks.

    To their credit, there are some terrific examples of the hi-res version being a worthwhile investment. Tommy from The Who is a great example. The Redbook CD version is almost unlistenable and the HDTracks hi-res version is superb.

    Does anyone know of a simple social media website that rates hi-res recordings from various retailers? We need a Yelp for music downloads.

  8. This is truly one of the best audio articles I’ve read in a long time – well, done John! As youve pointed out before, good sound definitely starts in the studio and has less to do with bit rate and depth. Recently, I’ve been exploring the Sharp Nine Records MP3 catalog (all superbly revorded) from Amazon and stumbled upon David Hazeltines New Classic Trio release. Wow…it is amazing just how great a 200 kbps MP3 can actually sound when proper recording elements align. Conversely, many of my HDTracks downloads are much less revelatory. Poop in = poop out I suppose.

  9. Looks to me like some of the songs do have information past where the CD would have it. That is my conclusion when I listen to the hi res version. Some songs sound the same as the CD, some sound better. It is too bad people just can’t enjoy it for what it is, a great album that captures the sound the artist was looking for. Does every song take advantage of hi res? No but so what, some do and I’m fine with that. I feel I have the best version of the album in the hi res download. I’m sorry if you don’t agree.

    This business that everybody seems to think HDtracks needs to have better “quality control” is just crazy to me BTW. They are a retailer, they are selling a product that is provided to them. Some people will like it some people won’t. I have personally purchased lots of hi res from all of the different hi res stores and have found that HDtracks is the most forthcoming about the releases and I rarely have been disappointed with what I have purchased from any of the sites that offer hi res. The grocery store analogy is a terrible one since the store doesn’t get rotten fruit from the farmer, it gets rotten in the store. A better analogy would be a record store. You aren’t going to get graphs or DR values or anything from them telling you what to expect from the purchase. Or how about a comic or regular book store. You don’t know if you aren’t going to like the book or comic you buy until after you read it. You may find it is too boring or the print isn’t as sharp as you would like it to be. It’s still readable but you want sharper or a better read. These things aren’t the book sellers fault, it is what is given to them. Should they put up signs saying “hey 10% of the customers that have purchased this book are not happy with the print”? No of course not, that is ridiculous.

    Music purchasing has always been and will always be a crapshoot. You don’t know what you get until you listen to it. That’s right, I said listen to it. You can give all the graphs and charts and readouts you want but that won’t tell me with certainty whether I will like the way it sounds. The samples will do a better job than those will and hey, they provide those don’t they? Yes, yes they do.

    • The big grocery stores have quality control practices in place to ensure they only take foodstuffs that meet certain criteria. Why couldn’t hi-res download stores do likewise?

      “You don’t know if you aren’t going to like the book or comic you buy until after you read it.” That’s also true of the music found in a download or on a record. But we’re not talking about the artistic content and its attendant ideas but the delivery medium. With a comic book that’s the paper and ink (and not the storyline or characters). You can see in-store if the print quality and/or paper is to your liking *before* you take it to the counter to pay.

      “Music purchasing has always been and will always be a crapshoot”. That may or may not be the case but with hi-res downloads the crapshoot is easily side-stepped. More info about provenance and quality lets the consumer know what they’re buying *before* they drop their cashola.

  10. Good stuff John. Being an eternal optimist and not one to look too much at the past, I’m hanging on to the hope that Pono’s presence will encourage artists to master and mix at higher quality than the garbage they’re spewing out.
    Archimago’s blogspot says that the Canadian version of Beck’s album is awesome quality. Maybe I should move there.
    I’ve got my eyes on a U-turn Orbit. Any good?

  11. Thanks for another thoughtful, well reasoned article.

    The sonic difference may well be one of the reasons why I still prefer Sea Change to Morning Phase (both on CD.) It hadn’t occurred to me.

  12. Since the music is good is the answer here to just buy and rip the CD for $9 rather than the “high-res download” for $18? Sounds like the difference would be minimal or none.

  13. Great article John,

    audio press and customers should push really hard on Pono/HDtracks and many others sellers because this is (probably) only way to change things. As you pointed out HDtracks for example don’t care too much about quality – “it is what we have so we sell it to you” and “it is HD -what more do you want?” 🙂
    Another topic is liner notes – those 1000x1000px front cover scans for 17-25$ are a bad joke in 2015…

  14. The fact that HD Tracks has out of laziness and greed since day one laid responsibility for checking the legitimacy of their product on their customers is the reason I’d never consider being one of their customers again. If their comments re the Beck album represent a change it’s about time.

  15. GREAT post John! There was a big dustup about this album in a lot of quarters, and an interesting back and forth with John Atkinson over at Stereophile who first measured these tracks and noticed the very obvious 16kHz brickwall filters as obvious signs of MP3 compression on at least part of the tracks involved in the album’s mix.

    The reason why the album seems to be such a mess production wise is that the various tracks were recorded over a number of years and then kind of slapped together into an album – this wasn’t something that Beck started working on recently. Why you would have certain parts of your mix in MP3 I don’t know, but that’s what was done, regardless of what excuses Ludwig makes.

    There’s another issue with this album that Ludwig also has no excuse for – it’s WAY too loud. In an interview, even Beck himself mentions being “surprised” at just how loud the mastering is. Nearly ever track is DR5 and hits 0dBFS with hard clipping distortion, except for the last track, “Waking Light,” which is DR3. That’s “Death Magnetic” loud, and frankly Ludwig should be embarrassed to have his name attached to such garbage.

    The vinyl incidentally was cut from those same MP3 based mixes as all other versions of the album, BUT they at least backed off of the insane mastering of the CD and HD versions, and as a result, the vinyl version sounds far better.

    I covered this at the time in my article “A New Low For HDTracks” on my site Metal-Fi. When I wrote that article I thought that the “vinyl experience” MP3 version included with the vinyl purchase was artificially made to sound like live vinyl playback, but as it turns out, it actually was live vinyl. They simply played the record and pressed record. Since the MP3 version came right from the vinyl rather than the typical MP3 coupon that’s sourced from the CD, it sounds better than all digital versions of the album including the HDTracks, despite being “ruined” by the MP3 format. Chris from Computer Audiophile reached the same conclusion on his article on the subject. Dynamic mastering beats HD formats every time.

  16. Listen to the L-R signal. Is it really MP3 data compression, or just brick wall (anti-alias) filtering? Tracks that were mixed at 44.1kHz or 48kHz gain nothing ultrasonically by being up-sampled, however DSP at the mastering stage done at higher sample rates can minimise further degradation (keeping aliasing distortion out of the audible range).

    • I care not what decisions were made in the studio. If Beck wanted his album to sound a certain way, that’s fine. My question remains: given the filters used in recording some tracks is a hi-res release even necessary? Is it not just a waste of customer $?

  17. Hi John,
    My answer? No, a hi-res release is not necessary, and Yes it is clearly a wast of customer $. What would be helpful, is a list of hi-res releases that are actually worth the $, because if a “hi-res” release’s actual fidelity cannot be guaranteed, then all hi-res releases in general are unnecessary and a waste of $ IMHO.