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The Price of a Ring
by Patrick Waller 

A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing
Oscar Wilde 

Apart from boxes with the complete works of a composer, Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is one of the largest purchases that a classical music lover is likely to make. The table below shows the price in pounds of all the 14 complete recordings of Wagner's Ring available in a single package for download that I could easily find on 7 digital and/or on 17 March 2013. Where the same recording was available more than once at different prices, I have quoted the lowest - for example an identical version of Barenboim's Ring also appeared on 7 digital priced at £44.99. For customers based in the UK, these websites tend to have the largest coverage of labels, so I doubt there is more choice available elsewhere.

7 digital
Furtwängler 1950*
Keilberth 1952*
Krauss 1953*
Knappertsbusch 1956*
Solti 1958-65*
Böhm 1966-7*
Karajan 1966-70
Swarowsky 1968
Boulez 1979-80
Janowski 1980-3
Levine 1987-9
Barenboim 1991-2*
Thielemann 2008*
Young 2008-10
Some caveats first. Any of these prices could be changed even before this article appears. These websites don't label their offerings consistently and I could have missed some recordings. Some of them may not be absolutely complete and some may well be available for download or on CD more cheaply elsewhere. Various re-masterings of some of the older recordings certainly exist.
The prices shown above range from £4.49 to £85.99 - an almost 20-fold difference between highest and lowest. I bought the same 1952 Keilberth Ring on the Archipel label which now costs £75.99 on 7 digital from in October 2010 for £7.98 but unfortunately it is no longer available there to download. If my memory is correct, the Krauss version on the same label was, at that time, also available for the same price but I already had that on CD. This is the recording which is now the most expensive on 7 digital. In terms of recordings, these are all "like for like" comparisons but most of the 7 digital offerings - although not the Barenboim version - are at 320 kbps whereas Amazon's are at 256 kbps, if that matters to you.
I have ordered the list by date of recording but there does not seem to be a clear relationship between the age of recording and cost. The price of the Thielemann version on 7 digital is particularly surprising since it is one of the newest and the individual operas from the cycle are all made available separately, each costing £7.99 per opera.
On seeing their low prices on 7 digital nearly a month ago, I purchased the Furtwängler (in its Opera d'Oro incarnation) and Thielemann versions although I haven't listened to all of either of them yet. The Thielemann has been reviewed by Tony Duggan and the idea of modern sound and very good orchestral playing appealed. The Furtwängler sound isn't great and Pristine are about to give it the XR treatment but I wanted to hear this legendary performance without paying much. Had I bought these identical downloads from, the total cost would have been more than eight times greater.
It's hard to understand the pricing logic of either 7 digital or Amazon here and analogous criticism can often be applied to other download websites although not Hyperion or in my experience. At least for the moment, customers interested in acquiring a cheap Ring or two have the opportunity to do so. Clearly, it is really important to shop around in such a market, otherwise you could pay a lot more than is necessary to acquire a particular recording.
I am not personally familiar with all the recordings listed above but I own those marked with an asterisk. Which Ring to own is an almost impossible question that I don't intend to address here but I do think all those asterisked above are worth hearing.
If I had the Ring and ruled the world, or rather ran 7 digital or Amazon, and could charge what I wanted to, I would want to sell these downloadable Rings in a much more logical way. This would take into account the age of the oldest, out of copyright, recordings and the point that I'd often be selling the individual operas too. The Swarowsky version might still be the cheapest and I would recognise the iconic status of the Solti version but most of the other relatively new Rings would come at about the same price.
Finally, here are some, I hope constructive general suggestions for the likes of 7 digital and Amazon, reflecting my expectations when purchasing downloaded classical music:
•  The price of a download should be less than the same CD
•  One should be able to purchase all tracks individually at a sensible price if desired
•  The most user-friendly "unit" in classical music is an individual work; it is debatable what that is in the case of the Ring!
•  Pricing should, broadly, take into account the length of the music
•  Multiple versions of the exact same recording offered at different prices at the same time should be weeded out
•  Please start labelling things properly - do you know what a composer actually does? Get rid of "discs" too - they are irrelevant and can foul up the normal playing order
I hope you don't think me a cynic!
Patrick C Waller
1. When I bought the Thielemann Ring from 7 digital, quite a few of the files in Acts II and III of Siegfried were mislabelled and I had to spend a bit of time getting them to play in the right order. Regard this as a minor health warning.
2. Avoid using Google Chrome to download from 7 digital's website. Firefox seems fine.
3. I thank David Barker and Brian Wilson for making valuable comments on a draft of this article. Brian tells me he has downloaded the Swarowsky Ring and I expect he will comment on it in his download news series.