8 Comments

Summary:

CNN reported last week that Apple is in talks with major labels to offer 24-bit copies of songs in place of the current 16-bit versions. Even if the music isn’t truly lossless, this would still be great news for audiophiles who use Apple’s music store.

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CNN reported last week that Apple is in talks with major record labels to offer 24-bit copies of songs in place of the current versions. iTunes tracks are currently 16-bit AAC compressed files. Even if the music isn’t truly lossless, this would still be great news for audiophiles who use Apple’s music store.

The quality of music has, for the most part, been the same since CDs debuted in 1982: 16-bit, 44.1 kHz PCM encoded files. A few audiophile formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio have come out, but those have only really been niche products. While the SACD format offers higher-quality audio and features such as surround sound, the general public never took to it. You can get 24-bit lossless files directly from some bands such as The Beatles and Nine Inch Nails, but this is the exception, not the rule.

The arguments over whether or not people can actually hear the difference between all these different audio formats will never end. My opinion is that not all music needs to be delivered in 5.1 lossless high quality. It all depends on the listener’s taste and the quality of the musicians involved. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on a 5.1 SACD is a treat, while Britney Spears latest effort would probably suffer from such high quality recording. The fact is that some people really love music and are willing to pay premium prices for audio gear, speakers and the best version of the music they love. Right now, CDs, not iTunes, have the highest quality unless you can find what you’re looking for on SACD or DVD-Audio.

Why would Apple care about offering its catalog at a higher quality when only audiophiles will appreciate it? For one, I believe Steve Jobs is a true music lover at heart. It must be difficult for him knowing that he gets better quality from buying a CD and ripping it to an Apple Lossless file then he does downloading it from his own store. Apple has a reputation as the best of the best when it comes to hardware; its music offerings should be no different. It doesn’t hurt that being able to market iTunes tracks as “HD-quality audio” would help further differentiate Apple’s music store from those of its competitors. Maybe all that server space at the new NC data centre is at least partially earmarked for larger-sized iTunes tracks.

Of course, this assumes a switch to a lossless format, which may not be in the cards yet. But would 24-bit AAC compressed files sound any different when compared to the current 16-bit ones? Probably not, but besides hard drive space, what’s the harm? The music industry needs a boost, and higher-quality music files might be one answer. Apple shouldn’t be trying to convince the labels it’s a good idea, as they’re reported to be doing; it should be the other way around.

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  1. You’ve forgotten the most successful high definition audio format of all time. No, I’m not talking about the Hi-MD MiniDisc; I’m talking about Blu-ray with Dolby True HD and DTS Master Audio. It has better sound quality and higher adoption rates than either SACD or DVD-Audio. Unfortunately, live concerts are about the only music available on the format.

    But I can understand why you didn’t mention it, since Jobs considers it to be a Bag of Hurt. ;)

    Seriously, I’d purchase much more from iTunes if I could even get CD quality, much less 24-bit high bit rate. I instead purchase CDs from Amazon and rip to lossless.

    1. I too have done the search for Blu Ray music, only to find live concerts. I agree that DTS MA & Dolby True-HD would be the smartest move. I believe the record labels should pursue that and Lossless digital downloads. It could revitalize music sales and that would be great for everyone.

    2. The content on Blu-Ray is just MPEG-4, the same media from iTunes. There is no reason iTunes can’t carry that stuff. The files can be copied off and shared as-is.

      The Bag of Hurt with Blu-Ray is real, it’s less work to make an iOS app by far, and that is much easier to distribute to over 100 countries and much more profitable. So a free copy of Xcode is a better solution than Blu-Ray tools. And optical disc is already obsolete. It’s not going to get any less obsolete as time goes on.

  2. “it should be the other way around” – that is funny. Now when was the last time the Music Industry did something in its best interest? Maybe around the time they started releasing CDs. But since…

  3. Hamranhansenhansen Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    The problem is that iPods, iPhones, and other similar devices cannot play 24-bit. Also, although Macs all have 24-bit audio hardware for many years now, other PC’s do not. 24-bit played through 16-bit hardware sounds worse than 16-bit, not better. With the right hardware, though, 24-bit does sound a lot better, and it is the original audio content for any music recorded in the last 15 years.

    Have to disagree that CD is better audio than AAC. AAC is better quality than CD if it is made from the original master (not made from a CD.) Yes, the audio that is put onto the CD is better — it’s lossless — but that is not the whole story. When the audio comes off the CD it is corrupted by the poor tracking and poor error correction of CD-DA. It’s degraded in obvious and non-obvious ways. And if you hear even one skip, the game is up, AAC wins by a mile.

    So just making sure that all the content in iTunes comes from the original master and not CD would be an improvement, even if it is in AAC.

    5.1 is not that important for most music, which is almost all mixed in stereo.

    What could improve the audio quality that listeners are hearing would be for Macs and iPhones to listen to the speakers with their microphones and adjust the EQ to make up for flaws in the speakers. Assuming the microphones in the devices are good enough to get good results.

  4. David Finnamore Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    Maybe this is a sign that future iOS devices will soon have 24-bit converters. That would be cool.

  5. Tom Davenport Tuesday, March 1, 2011

    “Apple shouldn’t be trying to convince the labels it’s a good idea, as they’re reported to be doing; it should be the other way around.”

    It is the other way round.

    And iOS devices do support 24-bit.

  6. iPods and iPhone already support a maximum 24-bit, 48KHz sample rate.

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