Why Apple Won’t Be Selling High-Resolution Music Files Any Time Soon

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I’ve written about high-resolution music here several times, notably pointing out that it’s a marketing ploy to get you to spend more on music. Not everyone agrees, and I’m fine with that. One bastion of high-resolution apologetics is the Computer Audiophile website.[1] Chris Connaker, who founded the site, wrote an interesting article yesterday, explaining why he thinks High Resolution Audio Isn’t Coming Soon From Apple.

Chris makes the following points:

One. Wireless Carriers Don’t Want High Resolution Downloads (Or Lossless CD Quality Streaming)

Two. Record Labels Want Control And Revenue Again

Three. Beats

Four. Apple Has The High Resolution Content Only Because It Can

Five. Apple Isn’t A Specs Company

Six. Not Enough Apple Customers Care

Seven. iTunes Doesn’t Support Native Automatic Sample Rate Switching

I agree with much of his argument, though I think he’s mistaken about some of the points. I’m not convinced that wireless carriers have a problem with this. First, I can’t see a lot of people streaming high-resolution audio; any supposed gain in quality requires expensive equipment, and the ambient noise surrounding listeners when they’re mobile would eliminate any such quality. On the contrary, mobile carriers would love to sell users phone plans with higher data, at a price. Lower-priced plans have limited data, and to get unlimited data, you need to pay a pretty penny. (There are some exceptions, but all signs point to mobile carriers eliminating unlimited data plans.)

The iTunes issue is moot; Apple could add such a feature if they wanted to. And the point about Apple having high-resolution content is merely for their back end; they have this content to create Mastered for iTunes files, but they only have a very small amount of high-resolution content. They’ve only been requesting high-resolution files for a couple of years, and there are decades worth of music where high-resolution masters don’t even exist.

One point Chris misses is the fact that Apple announced a new audio library at the WWDC, which can use an iOS device’s Lightning connector to output music at 48 kHz; that’s not the high resolution audiophiles want; they want at least 96 kHz. If Apple’s developed the software and hardware to meet the specs of 48 kHz – that’s the sample rate for DVDs and Blu-Ray discs – they’re not going to suddenly increase that; they clearly thought about that limit.

But the biggest point is number six: Not enough Apple customers care. I’d go further: not enough music listeners care. High-resolution music looks good on paper, but any potential gains in quality are imperceptible, or require very expensive stereo systems. So it’s pretty much a non-starter to expect Apple to go this route.

On the other hand, I can see Apple selling music in lossless formats in the foreseeable future, as I recently discussed. Even though most users can’t tell the difference between 256 kbps AAC files and lossless, there’s a perception of having something inferior among enough listeners that it might make sense for Apple to sell lossless files as a premium product.

But all that is moot for now. Following Apple’s acquisition of Beats, I think the next place to look is streaming. Apple will surely be focusing their music efforts in that area as soon as the Beats deal is signed.

  1. I mean no disrespect; I think Computer Audiophile is an excellent website, and I recommend it highly.

10 replies
  1. Mark Percival says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I’m on a 2G/month data plan for iPhone and a prepay ‘buy and use’ plan for my iPad with cellular. I use Apple TV at home for my iTunes library airplay to my TV sound which presently is a Sonos system + sub. I use Spotify for some other music streaming via Sonos and my phone to play in my car. I’m happy with 256AAC or 320kbs from some other sites. Occasionally I’ll buy an ALAC download if I really like the album. I can see increased sales for lossless as a feeling of ‘having the best’ one can get while still not taking too long to download. I can’t see a future for Lightening cable music. 3.5mm jack is universal and that suits me for my headphones. I don’t want more variations or incompatible or proprietary hardware. I should add that I’ve resolved my N and P keys issue with tagging. I’ve been o/s and the MacPro keyboard developed a couple of faults. Apple store fixed them. Many thanks. Enjoy the single malts!

  2. Yacko says:

    “I can’t see a future for Lightening cable music. 3.5mm jack is universal”

    I don’t think the addition of the lightning headphone feature will obviate the 1/8 inch headphone jack. Nowhere did Apple say it was removing one for the other, likely because some of Apple’s partners use it for non-headphone accessories like FM transmitters and the Square reader.

    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      No, and I’m sure they won’t. However, if you wanted to use the onboard DAC in an iOS device to output at 24/96, you’d need a more expensive DAC, one that only a tiny percentage of Apple customers would want. Apple won’t spend the money on that, so the Lightning port can allow certain types of digital audio to be output in digital. If it’s limited to 48 kHz, then you won’t be able to use an attached DAC for 24/96 files.

  3. Ben says:

    I’d be more interested in getting CD resolution lossless (44.1/16) files than hi resolution. Most new popular music is mastered so poorly that it negates any possible benefit that higher res files could provide anyway. A benefit of lossless is the flexibility to transcode to the lossy format of your choosing in addition to the ability to transcode down to the lowest transparent bitrate if you need to save space on a mobile device. And I’m beginning to feel like I’m alone in the fact that I prefer to have the music I really care about locally instead of streaming/renting it. This is partly why I’m glad CDs aren’t going away anytime soon.

  4. David says:

    Ben raised an important point. If your “master” copy in iTunes is a lossless file you can transcode to whatever format/bitrate you need without fear of losing data from a lossy -> lossy conversion. Like Ben I prefer to own music. I come from the generation that listened to complete albums and made collections of everything an artist ever recorded. My library has music ripped from over 500 CDs.
    My kids, although exposed to the music of my generation, are very different. They listen to lots of music and have memorized dozens of songs, but most of the time have no idea who the artist is. I remember giving my daughter a CD for her birthday and she showed no positive reaction whatsoever because she didn’t recognize the artist from his name or photo. I then sang a line from one of his songs and she screamed, jumped for joy and rushed over to hug me. Having said that I believe there’s hope for music sales alongside streaming. The artists my kids can always identify are the ones that my wife and I play at home.

  5. Ezraz says:

    quality audio can and will sell. the new daft punk vinyl is pretty amazing sounding, much better than the included 320k mp3′s for download.

  6. Bryan Kennedy says:

    1. I care. 98% of all my music is in lossless format and I’ve probably only bought $50 in music from the iTunes store over the past 10 years.

    2. Apple would probably only allow 24-bit downloads over Wi-Fi.

    3. Beats has nothing to do with HD audio. Their headphones aren’t even good enough to handle it.

  7. Ken Berger says:

    Kirk, you clearly do not know much about audio, you confuse bit rate with sampling rate and compression with sampling rate. You can easily hear compression related distortion with an iPhone and standard buds (the definition of no-high quality equipment) and you can relatively easily hear the difference between older A to D converters and newer / better ones with out any “special” equipment.
    Sample rate effect high frequencies and 48k is not enough to reproduce above 8k Hz accurately. It would be better to sample higher and apply lossless compression than use non-cmpressed lower sample rates.

    • Kirk McElhearn says:

      Where do I confuse bit rate with sampling rate? 48 kHz doesn’t reproduce frequencies above 8 kHz? Really? 44.1 kHz reproduces roughly 20 kHz frequencies. You clearly do not know much about audio.


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