Is high definition audio ready to re-invent music (again?)
According to a growing community of audiophiles, we are all being short-changed by the current wave of digital music. Since the first appearance of the MP3 in the late 90s, we have never looked back in terms of music’s abundance and availability, yet in the glut, we traded off access to the music with how that music itself sounds. But are we on the verge of a new wave of music industry growth centred on putting audio quality to rights?
As Franck Lebouchard, CEO of high-end speaker maker Devialet put it recently to Sifted. “There’s huge growth in the market, and we think it will go to those who offer the highest quality.”
The music industry hasn’t lacked for drama as a business in the digital age. As Napster wreaked havoc from 2000, iTunes came to rescue in 2004, then Amazon weighed in with MP3. The ‘record buying public’ joined the migration path to digital. Streaming took over in the mid-noughties with Rhapsody and then a legal version of Napster, before in 2009 Spotify added a dose of steroids to the digital market. As all of this unfolded over two decades, there has been a steadily growing movement whose argument is that we have had a fall out with fidelity. However, the message has for the most part, fallen on deaf ears.
Yet perhaps that is about to change at last. No less than three of the major streaming players: Deezer, Tidal and now Amazon Music, offer ‘hi resolution’ audio quality streaming (in addition to the smaller specialist Qobuz). Within each of these services there are numerous hurdles in making the leap to a genuinely better listening experience however. The number of ‘studio quality’, ‘master quality or ‘ultra HD’ tracks available is still a fraction of the overall catalogue (the process to mix a track up to these quality levels is not simple or cheap). But then, playback is another issue. Wireless streaming solutions don’t carry 24-bit files. You’ll need a speaker that is HD compatible — and those are still relatively rare. And the idea of using wired headphones seems like a step backward. But new technology players are busy working on new standards that overcome the limitations of current wireless protocols.
Perhaps the biggest question is, do people even care? Opinions are split on how much of a difference people can actually hear from high-resolution audio. The evidence is patchy, which is why Apple and Spotify have yet to make investment in either the HD format or the huge marketing effort required to persuade people to try HD — which also means spending more cash. I must have looked at dozens of surveys that say roughly the same thing — a minority proportion of music fans are interested (somewhere between a quarter and a third), and a subset of these would pay more. However, these proportions drop steeply in the under 30’s demographic. It’s tough to make the business case on that kind of evidence. The most interested are those yet to convert to streaming — audiophile hold-outs, while those already converted to streaming are happy enough with what they have. That puts HD music streaming propositions between a rock and a hard place. High-definition music may be the innovation that brings the digital music hold-outs into the streaming economy — but services bringing HD music to market will need to combine a focus on this audience with stronger brand marketing. HD isn’t just about a better listen, but bragging rights too. Even if it’s persuading the audiophiles to feel better about themselves in the digital age.
The music industry has thus far, been preoccupied with other potential new formats — podcasts, VR, AI and live video streaming — to consider high resolution audio a priority. That hasn’t stopped Tidal and Deezer having modest success with their HD offers though, and Amazon Music HD looks like a serious offering by them. So the answer still seems to be, perhaps some people do care, but is it enough to sustain a market?
Amazon Music HD will require a greater catalogue of studio quality mastered content, but it must also partner with or make, the compatible hardware. Barring a replacement cycle of higher-quality in home speakers, the car might become the critical channel for HD music. The car is the last vanguard for the streaming music wars. As with home streaming, there are some challenges involved in getting HD music in the car to begin with. Simply plugging a high-resolution audio player into a standard in-car audio system won’t do the job. It makes perfect sense for car manufacturers — especially higher-end auto brands, to install HD compatible systems in new models. The car is a personal sanctuary for many (in the world’s biggest music market the USA, especially so). It’s in this environment that people are willing to invest heavily for a better audio experience perhaps. After all, what else can you do in a car but drive and listen?
Personally nothing would make me happier than shifting to a higher quality music listening experience, if only it was more convincing and easier. HD music is perhaps above all the previous ideas I’ve written about in these posts, the single most significant way to get the masses more engaged in music at a time when we are being bombarded with ever more entertainment options. Do we really want to spend more time on another average Netflix box set when we could instead revisit Bowie’s catalogue in a more rewarding audio format? It’s a no brainer for music fans, surely.
TIPS TO GET MORE SOUND QUALITY FROM YOUR MUSIC:
Spotify ‘Very High Quality’ (Settings, Music Quality): try The Song Sommelier 80s page on this setting
Qobuz, Amazon Music HD, Tidal HiFi, Deezer HiFi
Oda is broadcasting live performances directly to its connected speakers, for a $79 quarterly subscription
Vinyl! With the right set-up, the playback quality of a properly mastered vinyl record is hard to beat for in-home listening. And you have the record sleeve and lovely rituals that go with it too