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Apple in the rumor mill again with hi-res downloads from iTunes

KEF R Series

Have you heard the news? It's huge! Awesome! Amazing! Life changing! Apple is ready to (finally) move on high-resolution downloads. Okay, fine. It's not news. Apple has apparently been toying with this change to iTunes for years. I wrote something back then about why I'm not entirely convinced that this would be a "good thing". My worry was that Apple would commoditize "high-resolution" like it commoditized the rest of the industry and what we're left with is a shell of an idea served up in an iPhone-shaped taco. High-resolution audio files, played back through low-fi devices (like an iPhone) and out $10 earbuds is not going to make anyone a believer or convert anyone over to high-end audio. Given Apple's self-serving track record (hello, "Mastered for iTunes" in the context of the Loudness Wars), my confidence was not high. That was a few years ago. It's hardly surprising that things have changed. What's changed? Pono. 

Which makes this “whole thing” not an Apple thing. It’s Apple reacting to a thing — which means competition and an acknowledgement that what they’ve done to date isn’t exhaustive or comprehensive. If Apple offers high-resolution audio downloads off of iTunes now, they’re pointing to an open door. And the entire high-end audio industry lies on the other side.

I’m really not interested in the debate over whether Neil Young has been playing a bit fast and loose with the English language, or whether Pono is new or not, or whether the Ayre-designed device is a cosmic dud or as nifty as Thor’s Hammer. What this offering brings, which is entirely new and different to audio’s high-end, is publicity. Young is convincing. The “Music Industry” is cluing in. And that is what’s different. And good.

Personally, I think the “Music Industry” is paying attention because high-res audio is a brand-able thing, and given the unlikely success of sonically mediocre offerings from Monster and Beats Electronics (and some not-so-mediocre), I think many are looking at this as a shot in the arm. Pre-existing product, with a fancy new packaging, sold at twice what they’d just sold for a month earlier — with zero extra work on their part? Yeah. They’re psyched. But put the cynicism aside.

Whether or not “high-res audio” files are clearly sonically superior is a moot point. I’ve already argued that the traditional objections (especially around ABX) are careless category mistakes, so I’ll leave that argument there. What is true, however, is that this move creates opportunity. Opportunity that may have not existed before, or more accurately, has not been successfully capitalized to date.

I’m pretty sure there are quite a few audio nerds out there that don’t want the spotlight shone on their specialty. They don’t want it to go “mainstream”. They’ll poop on anything remotely mid-fi (or worse) and posture and preen about their expertise and the pain and suffering they’ve endured along the way. These people cannot be helped, but I think we’d all be well served if this entire group took an extended holiday from their keyboards while this evolution takes place. Not that they will. But boy-howdy, it’d be nice if they did.

Because it doesn’t matter that “it’s been done before” or that “there’s so much better on offer”. This misses the point that Young and this new foray is eloquently making. They’re building bridges — exactly the bridges that the high-end audio industry not only needs to survive, but what they’ve been praying for for the last couple of decades — growth. If Pono drives Apple to mainstream high-resolution audio, it’s a whole new world.

And that’s where I’m at these days.

Think I’m off base? Missing something fundamental? I’d welcome your thoughts in Comments section.

About Scot Hull (996 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

6 Comments on Apple in the rumor mill again with hi-res downloads from iTunes

  1. I’m going to guess that if Apple iTunes starts offering hi-res, it will be in reaction to recently declining iTunes music download sales and the ascendancy of subscription services like spotify. The presumably higher cost hi res option will likely only appeal to a minority of customers, but it can bring in some revenue to help offset the above mentioned.

    For me personally even the option of CD QUALITY would be welcome over the current 256kbps AAC (m4a) default on the iTunes Store. Say apple lossless @ 1000kbps even in 16 bit / 44.1 “redbook”. Then I wouldn’t have to go through the inconvenience of ordering and ripping a physical cd to get the quality level I want. Of course pricing is key – the “cd quality” option shouldn’t cost more and should be the new default choice – and a higher res option only marginally more – if they want to be successful.

  2. I just hope Apple continue to expand the storage capacity of their new iphones. I believe that will be key is they want to get in the hires business. 160g iphone would be nice

  3. Bromo Ivory // April 12, 2014 at 3:39 PM //

    I think that when Pono was launched into Kickstarter – and the success of funding was shown, I think a lot of people in the music industry took notice. I bet Apple re-upped their efforts to bring high rez music to iTunes about then, too. What’s exciting is that with a confluence of technology, and the passion of the Artists themselves, and the “silent vocal minority” of people who would love better sound, or at least trust that Neil Young is right even if they havent’ hear it yet – we might see the mirst mainsream improvement in sound quality in a decade or three (depending on whether you think CD is an improvement or not over the LP).

    I, for one, and excited. If Apple jumps in, they have the financial wherewithal to do it right. And they really do understand how to make something cool and bring a mass market to the trough of premium prioced products.

    And, yeah, there will be a few people who are audiophiles to be an elite, and will be disappointed when you can buy Lorde at 24/192 FLAC and have it sound great. I think they’ll live, though, and the rest of everyone will love it!

    WHat a great article – you SO TOTALLY hit the nail on the head, there.

  4. Doucetk@videotron.ca // April 12, 2014 at 1:30 PM //

    Pop music in hi res is welcome and needed but if it still suffers from loudness wars and other poor recording and mastering choices having it in 24bit dept won’t fool anyone with ears. Certainly we hope the iTunes offering will be more in tune with the folks that don’t need yet another new Vivaldi 4 seasons in hi res.

    • Part-Time Audiophile // April 12, 2014 at 3:53 PM //

      Yes, this will all be of concern — and to Pono, HD Tracks and Acoustic Sounds, not just Apple.

  5. TowerTone // April 12, 2014 at 12:40 PM //

    I don’t get your view of Apple on this. The market is just becoming ripe for HiRes because of faster internet, cheaper storage, better players (of all sizes/prices) and more awareness of the format. Physical media (SACD, DVD-Audio) was easier before these and STILL HiRes had very little luck.

    Also, isn’t most ‘good’ HiRes sourced from analog recordings that had more range than the new stuff iTunes has been selling? Is most of the stuff kids listen to now even worth having in Hi-Res?
    I know that’s not the real issue, but from a marketing strategy, you have to be able to sell what you produce.

    I see Apple as growing the market as that market begins to mature enough to support it. Who knows, maybe they are about to buy HDTracks…?

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