When Will Apple Start Selling Lossless Files on the iTunes Store?

Update: I posted this article in January, 2014. Recently, there are new rumors around the possibility that Apple would be selling high-resolution audio files in the iTunes Store. Notwithstanding the fact that high-resolution music is a marketing ploy, I consider it highly unlikely that Apple will sell such files in the near future. This rumor isn’t new; it’s been around since early 2011. Apple requests high-resolution files from record labels in order to correctly create Mastered for iTunes files. Apple’s portable devices simply don’t have enough storage to hold many high-resolution files. However, I do think that Apple will soon begin selling lossless files. Here’s what I wrote a few months ago, with some slight changes to bring the article up to date.

A while ago, I posted an article discussing Why iTunes Doesn’t Support FLAC Files. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, both in comments to the article and in emails, from people wondering when Apple will start selling lossless files on the iTunes Store. (These are music files that are the exact equivalent as music on CDs, and Apple could use the format that they developed, Apple Lossless, to provide this quality.)

I think Apple will eventually do this, but that they’re in no hurry to do so. The quality of the AAC files that Apple sells (at 256 kbps) is certainly “good enough” for most uses. If you do the kind of test I discuss here, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear a difference. And unless you have very good audio equipment, then you most certainly won’t.

Nevertheless, many music fans (though certainly a minority) want lossless music files. And, just as Apple has pushed its “Mastered for iTunes” files – which, interestingly, are not always better quality than regular AAC files – they could use the sale of lossless files as a marketing tool.

If so, I think they would do so in a way similar to the way they sell video. Currently, you can choose between SD and HD videos for most movies and TV shows you get on the iTunes Store (older shows and movies in SD only don’t offer that choice). And, when you choose HD, you can choose from two qualities. As you can see below, you can choose from levels of HD quality.

hd-options.png

I can imagine that iTunes would offer the option to download lossless or lossy files, perhaps with a premium for the former, as they do for HD video (though they have to keep the price below that of CDs, which, of course, are lossless and easy to import into an iTunes library). And there would most likely be an upgrade option for music you’ve already purchased, as they did when they moved from 128 kbps files to 256 kbps.

But I also think that you would have the option of downloading lossy files as well, notably to use with iTunes Match on iOS devices. Because lossless files are much larger, using them would fill up an iOS device very quickly. You can convert lossless files to lossy versions when syncing to an iOS device, but if you download music directly onto an iOS device, you don’t have this option.

While the market is small, the marketing value is large; if Apple were to offer lossless files, they’d be the first major music retailer to do so. (Many labels that sell their music directly offer lossless files, but no large music retailer does.) I can foresee Apple doing this in the next year or two, after they’ve worn out the Mastered for iTunes campaign.

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13 replies
  1. Mark Fabbi says:

    The lack of CD quality downloads is why I don’t buy music from iTunes. There are plenty of smaller sites that do (both individual label sites and other specialty sites) and I’m happy to give them my business.

    Reply
  2. Phil Kalina says:

    Great article and you are looking at this realistically, i.e. the market for lossless is small. I would love to see it offered by Apple. The Mastered for Itunes comment is entirely accurate, since it really is dependent on the quality of the digital master that the recording engineer supplies to Apple. (check out Bob Katz, iTunes Music: Mastering High Resolution Audio Delivery).
    In the meantime, I ask myself, ‘Self, do I really want to manage a 75mb lossless recording of ‘Happy Together’ in my music collection?’ Or, would I rather have a pristine, lossless recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? Generally, the later question wins over for me, and I will purchase the CD (used, if I can find it on Amazon), and then import the AIFF (or lossless file) into iTunes. It then goes into my ‘Audiophile’ playlist. I have purchased FLAC recordings, but the process of converting them to iTunes, and the limited selection is an issue for me.
    You’re right, if there was a ‘switch’ we could flip to get a lossless recording on iTunes, would be the best solution.

    Reply
    • Daniel Courville says:

      «I have purchased FLAC recordings, but the process of converting them to iTunes, and the limited selection is an issue for me.»

      Using an app like XLD to make the conversion from FLAC to ALAC is pretty fast and straightforward. Converting a whole album (16 bit, 44.1 kHz) is a sub-minute affair…

      Reply
    • Ed Waldrup says:

      It is ironic that we have Apple selling 256 kbps mp3s when CDs are 1411kbps and Steve Jobs was an audiophile with very, very expensive audio equipment. Can’t see him playing iTunes on his system.

      We have places like HDTracks selling Hi Rez audio downloads that are usually much better than Cds. Cds are 16 bit 44.1 kHz. HD tracks sells 24 bit 96kHz and in some cases 88 kHz and or 192kHz downloads. Do they sound better? Check for yourself on their website. Yes the cost is higher as is the quality. All of this is 2 channel as well.

      Super Audio Cds are (2.8mHz) hybrid 2 , 3 and 6 channels depending on source (these hybrids play in Cd players) and DVD Audio (24/96) which is surround and played in DVD audio players only for best quality.

      If, like me, you like classical, and Jazz higher quality is preferred. Heck, I like the best quality available regardless.

      Another irony is that Amazon and iTunes have some recordings that noticeably came from someones turntable on vinyl with sometimes very poor quality.

      It is a mixed bag that is available. Apple would provide a wonderful service if they allowed lossless downloads albeit for a higher price. Imagine paying almost a much for a 256 as a 1411. That is precisely what Apple has done in some cases. Convenience has trumped quality and common sense. Sad that the masses seem content with the lowest common denominator when it comes to music. Your ears deserve better.

      Reply
      • Kirk McElhearn says:

        They’re not MP3s, they’re AAC files, which are considered to be better at the same bit rate.

        It’s not ironic; it’s a question of bandwidth. You couldn’t have started by selling lossless files when no one could download them.

        Reply
        • Ed Waldrup says:

          I agree about the bandwidth. Yes, I just noticed that the purchased downloads are AACs. Thanks for pointing that out.
          There is the option of importing your CD collection into iTunes. I am able to hear occasional quality differences between AACs on the store from same artist and song.
          Which labels offer lossless? Sony/CBS/RCA, Capitol/EMI, MCA? I would definitely like to check that out.
          Great article. I heartily support your cause.

          Reply
          • Mark says:

            Ed. Other labels with cd or better quality downloads
            Hyperion, 2L, gimell to name 3 that I’ve purchased from. There was a thread, perhaps on this blog from a year or so ago that listed a lengthy number of CD quality download sites.

            Reply
    • Mark says:

      The good news for those buying lossless online is that more sites are now offering ALAC (Apple Lossless) as an option. This eliminates the step of running the FLAC files thru XLD to convert to ALAC – though this isn’t much of a bother. Just drag the files onto the XLD icon in the dock and XLD does the rest – coverts to ALAC and imports into iTunes.

      Reply
  3. Scott Atkinson says:

    As noted in another thread, this is something I’ve always wanted, but…am caring less about, rapidly. ABX testing really is a great cure for what I *think* I know.

    Having said that, cds still sound better on my system, but they sound better than *everything* else – from lossy aac files to uncompressed aiff files. So the obvious conclusion is that there’s something not related to the inherent quality of the file that affects what I’m hearing. I wonder how many people who don’t like music bought through iTunes are really bumping up against some other limit in their stereo?

    Reply
    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      Are you playing CDs and digital files through the same system? In other words, have you compared CDs played through your computer to CDs played through your CD player? Because if you have a good CD player with a good DAC, and you’re computer just outputs music to a stereo using its own DAC, there will be a difference.

      Reply
      • Scott Atkinson says:

        Macbook ——>cheap “HiFiMan” external USB DAC. Like you, my first guess is the DAC’s the issue.

        Reply
  4. james katt says:

    With Apple selling movies that are 4 GB compressed downloads, Apple is capable of selling Lossless Files of Music – where each song is easily 1/50th the size of a compressed movie.

    The question is: will music companies want this to happen? Obviously, music as MP3s are already widely pirated. But at least they are not the original bits of music. A Lossless file has all the original data in the music. Losing this currently unacceptable to music companies.

    The other question is: will consumers want lossless files? Consumers by and large use their smartphones and MP3 players for listening to music. These are limited by expensive flash storage. There is not much room in most people’s phones and MP3 players to store much lossless music. Thus, the biggest limit is consumer storage capacity. Consumers will not buy Lossless files since such files are highly inconvenient.

    Reply
    • mikey says:

      Never underestimate the power of asking people to pay more for better quality.

      As for record companies… people are already mass pirating the FLAC’s (usually made from the CD release) anyway. They should embrace this with open arms, as a “better thing” for music consumers to buy into, over what streaming services can offer to their customers (streaming unlikely to be done in lossless formats) at a high loss in value (they pay labels/artists much lower money); thus they should sell it as a point of **differentiation**.

      Reply

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