You Can Build A High-Resolution Streaming Service, But Will Enough People Care?

recently completed deals with Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group to remaster a large batch of songs and albums into Ultra HD streaming audio quality for use exclusively on its Amazon Music HD service. The platform already has 5 million tracks in the high-resolution 24 bit and up to 192kHz format, as well as immersive audio tracks in both Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio formats, as the company becomes particularly agressive in the hi-res audio space.

What’s surprising here is not that Amazon has such a large presence in this arena, but that Apple
has chosen not to compete – at least not yet. That fast is that Apple has been collecting high-resolution digital mastered since its Mastered for iTunes program (now called Apple Digital Masters) launched in 2012. While the service still streams at a maximum bit rate of 320kbsp, it does use what many claim is a superior-sounding codec in AAC. That said, it’s still a lossy format, so the benefit of all those hi-res files has never been fully realized.

It’s been within Apple’s power to flip the switch at any time during the 5 years since Apple Music launched and turn it into a high-resolution audio service, yet that never happened. And that illustrates a big point about the high-resolution audio – just because you offer it, it doesn’t mean that many people will care.

It’s About Convenience

The recorded music industry has a history of following technical innovation that harkens back almost to its beginning. From the move from shellac records to vinyl, then later to tape, CDs, downloads and finally streaming, the industry has never been afraid of trying something new. But if you look at the tech that resonated with the public, it’s always been centered around convenience rather than audio quality. Many hi-res formats faltered along the way, from reel-to-reel to mini-disc to DAT, Digital Compact Cassette, SACD, DVD-A and slot-music cards, all offering higher-quality audio as the major feature.

While Apple Music could instantly turn its service hi-res at no extra charge and reset the bar for everyone else, that’s not what’s happened so far. Instead it’s going to cost you extra for the privilege on every service that offers it. Amazon Music HD costs $12.99 per month for Prime members, $14.99 per month for Amazon customers, or an additional $5 per month for existing Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers (Individual or Family Plan). For the hi-res tier on Deezer it will set you back $14.99 per month while Tidal is $19.99 per month. You have to be a dedicated audiophile to see that as worthwhile.

It’s All Good

While this might be seen as a put-down of hi-res music, the fact of the matter is that I applaud any company who chooses to support the format. As a mixing engineer I can tell you first hand that a song that’s been recorded and mixed well in a hi-res format will translate to even a crappy set of computer monitors or earbuds, so the argument that most people can’t hear the difference isn’t exactly true. Whether they care or not is a different story however.

To most consumers, the extra cost for hi-res simply can’t be justified, especially if they’ve not invested in a way where they can fully experience it. Immersive audio is even worse, with consumer audio products lagging way behind music production, so it’s really difficult for the average person to get the full effect.

The point is that I’d hate for hi-res and immersive audio to be looked back on as still-born a few years from now. Just like everything in life, it all comes down to expectations. I hope the expectations of the companies involved with the formats now are modest so they don’t give up on them too soon.

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