Charting the rise of high-definition digital music

Charting the rise of high definition digital musicHow high are your standards when it comes to audio? If you're an average person, the answer is not very. You probably listen to compressed music using cheap headphones in noisy environ
ments like public transport – and think it sounds pretty great.
But some people demand more. Audiophiles spend thousands every year on high-end equipment that delivers an experience as close as possible to having Beyoncé there in person belting out "ALL THE SINGLE LADIES." These people tend to be choosy about their formats – vinyl is the best, of course. CDs aren't bad either if you're playing them through a decent system.
But the majority of digital music is out of the window – the historical necessity for small file sizes has meant that download and streaming services tend to opt for "lossy" compression (such as the MP3 format) that strips out the bits of the song that most people can't hear. So a few enterprising businesses have launched in recent years to sell or stream high-definition digital music to those who claim to be able to hear the difference.
"I would speculate that Tidal is the biggest [high-definition music] service around," says Darren Hemmings from digital marketing agency Motive Unknown. Tidal is a streaming music company that was spun off from WiMP and launched in the US and UK in October 2014. It promises lossless music at 1,411kbps encoded in the FLAC or Apple Lossless format, far above the industry standard of around 320 kbps. The price tag, however, is double its rivals' – £19.99 (US$19.99) a month.
Charting the rise of high definition digital music
Tidal's high-res service costs double the price of a standard sub
"The first time I listened to Tidal it blew my mind. I was totally sold," says Andy Malt, editor of music business news service CMU. "I was sitting at my desk thinking, I'm going to have to work out some way to afford to pay for this, because I can't go back now. Then I thought, 'Better just compare it to Spotify first.' So I switched between the two and realised I couldn't actually hear any difference at all."
Views like this haven't stopped Jay Z from investing heavily. He has bought over 95% of shares in Aspiro, the folks behind both Tidal and WiMP, with the hope that he can push up subscriber figures to that of Deezer Elite.
Deezer is a French-based streaming company, which has long battled to differentiate itself from market leader Spotify, and recently partnered with Sonos for a high-definition offering called Elite that went live in the US in September 2014 and should go live globally in March 2015. "I would imagine they'll be aggressively pursuing dominance of that particular space," says Hemmings. It too uses 1,411kbps FLAC files, and costs twice as much as the company's £9.99 (US$9.99) standard-definition service.

Making MP3s for dogs

Charting the rise of high definition digital music
Neil Young's Pono system hasn't impressed critics
When it comes to downloads, most press attention has been focused on Neil Young's Pono service. The singer-songwriter declared war on lossy MP3s a few years back, raising more than $6 million on Kickstarter to build his own service that'd deliver the level of quality he wanted. It sells 24-bit, 192kHz audio downloads as well as a large, bright yellow PonoPlayer for listening to them when you're out and about. But the service hasn't gone down well with critics – Ars Technica described it as a "tall refreshing drink of snake oil," while What Hi-Fi wrote that the device was "a touch disappointing."
Malt was even less impressed with Pono than Tidal, saying: "[Neil Young] is selling digital music to people who don't understand digital music, or just like the idea of giving Neil Young money. All streaming services will increase their quality as it becomes possible to deliver it reliably. At which point, we'll all be laughing at the people who paid £20 for one album in a
 format that places most of its sound outside the spectrum of human hearing. He's making MP3s for dogs, basically."

Sony is another company stepping into the breach of public about hi-def audio is Sony. While pushing hi-res audio playback in its latest generation of products (which use LDAC, its own wireless audio codec) it has taken the somewhat silly step of releasing a microSD card "for Premium Sound." Which on the face of it is the equivalent of asking consumers to spend hundreds on an HDMI cable – the quality improvements are very negligible.
Charting the rise of high definition digital music
This promises a difference few people will hear
Like Pono, there are a handful of other services around promising tracks of CD-quality or above. Onkyo Music launched recently, alongside HDtracks, Qobuz, Linn Records and the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound. There's yet more if you're willing to dig, but as you descend that ziggurat you'll find larger and larger gaps in catalogue. In almost all cases, the music costs substantially more than on iTunes, Amazon or Spotify.
The big questions, therefore, are who's winning the battle for the audiophile market, and does that victory mean anything? "Tidal and Pono would appear to be the market leaders," says Malt, "But no one has ever made it big in hi-def music. It will never be mainstream unless it's offered as standard." Hemmings also points to Tidal as the current market leader, and adds: "I feel the press that Pono has received is disproportionate to its actual adoption among consumers."
It is this standardisation that has meant that much of the industry is happy to play the waiting game until there is more openness in standards and services.
"We welcome 24-bit streaming," says Keith Robertson, Technical Director of high-end audio manufacturer Linn. "But as an industry we need to come to the point of openness that happened to the web in the mid-90s. Where no matter what client you are using, you can get all the music. We need to stop having locked out systems."
Robertson believes that we will see a more open service arrive later in 2015 but until that time Linn's mantra will always be: "We support any codec that is open and widely used". Unfortunately this is a rarity when it comes to high-definition audio files.

Hi-res heavyweights

The problem for many high-definition services is that Spotify or Apple could easily pump up their quality settings one day and wipe out the hi-def niche in one fell swoop. "Unlike in the physical age, it doesn't really require much investment, because most streaming services are getting files delivered as WAVs anyway. They just need to encode the catalogue they already have and tell people it's worth more," says Malt.
Charting the rise of high definition digital music
The niche for high-def formats like Elite could end if Apple takes an interest
"It was interesting that when Apple launched iTunes Match, they made everything available at 256kbps. Upping the quality of everything like that wasn't apparently a big deal to them. And I suspect it was a consideration based on improvements in technology and bandwidth as anything else."
Hemmings adds that while the iPhone today can't play anything beyond CD quality music, there's no reason to believe that won't change in the future. "Everything I have read about Apple of late suggests that their focus is on the streaming marketplace first and foremost – i.e. competing with, and hopefully beating, Spotify for market share. If that is the case then hi-def audio simply wouldn't be top of their list right now. Could it be served in due course though? Absolutely – at which point Apple is every bit as threatening to any hi-def music service as it is to Spotify at present."
So with that in mind, is it worth going hi-def? "Whether your ears care about the increase in fidelity, whether you have the headphones and playback devices to make the best of it, and whether the extra cash is worth it, only you can tell," wrote James Rivington in TechRadar's review of Tidal a few days after launch. Malt is rather less circumspect: "For most people, I think how much of a change you notice depends on how much you want to notice a change."

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