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

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.