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Apple in talks to improve sound quality of music downloads

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By Charles Starrett

Contributing Editor
Published: Tuesday, February 22, 2011
News Categories: Apple, iTunes

Apple is among a group of digital music retailers in discussions with record labels to improve the sound quality of their digital offerings, according to a new report. Citing executives involved in the talks, CNN reports that the change would involve the labels supplying retailers with 24-bit audio files, as opposed to the 16-bit files that are currently distributed. “We’ve gone back now at Universal, and we’re changing our pipes to 24 bit. And Apple has been great,” said Interscope co-founder and chairman Jimmy Iovine. “We’re working with them and other digital services—download services—to change to 24 bit. And some of their electronic devices are going to be changed as well. So we have a long road ahead of us.” According to the report, the higher-quality files might be sold at a premium price, and could require upgrades to future iPods and iPhones to ensure compatibility. “Paul McCartney can master The Beatles albums all he wants,” said Iovine, who also works with Dr. Dre on Beats Audio products, “(but) when you play them through a Dell computer, it sounds like you’re playing them through a portable television.”

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Comments

1

Maybe I’m just old and deaf, but after growing up on hissing cassette tapes and crackly LP’s, the quality of current downloads, cranked through half decent earbuds works just fine for me.

Posted by Miranda Kali on February 22, 2011 at 8:42 AM (PDT)

2

I agree with #1. I am by no means an audiophile. I will admit that I have heard some differences in FLAC or Apple Lossless files ver the average iTunes download, but it has been minimal to my not-so-delicate ears.

And, to add to this absurdity, they want to charge more for the better tracks? That is just criminal. The record companies already rip off artists and customers alike. Now they want to say that providing a slightly higher sound quality digital copy deserves more money… This is exactly why piracy still runs rampant in the music industry. Stop trying to stick it to your paying customers at every chance you get!

Posted by Mitch on February 22, 2011 at 9:30 AM (PDT)

3

This is precisely why I’ve wanted to see them offer lossless all along. While admittedly for very, very limited music types played on very, very limited ranges of equipment, there are very, very few living humans who could ABX a 24 bit source file from a 16 bit source file, the fact remains that although offering 24 bit digital encodes would technically be a sonic upgrade, unless they’re going to start selling lossless, their intent is clear: to trickle out these “upgrades” every couple of years to squeeze more repeat sales from a public too ill informed to know better.

If you’re not going to sell lossless, then Apple and others’ current “standard” of ~256 kbps encodes is indistinguishable from the original CD for nearly all humans while not being too wasteful on file size or battery consumption. Upgrading to 24 bit sources, unless you’re a golden ear with a $10,000 stereo, unfortunately, is just snake oil. There have been 24 bit lossless audio sources available for many years from audiophile aimed music services and they’ve hardly set the world on fire because most of us just can’t hear the difference, and of those who can, most don’t care enough to pay the extra money these services want.

Posted by Code Monkey in Midstate New York on February 22, 2011 at 9:55 AM (PDT)

4

About time! Lossy compression was designed for 90s PCs on dial-up. If you’re fine with that then so be it. For those of us who care because we can hear the difference, this is a too-long awaited advance.

As for most people supposedly being unable to hear the difference, that’s most likely untrue. Most people haven’t listened to lossless downloads so they can’t already know if they can hear a difference or not.

Posted by beetsnotbeats on February 22, 2011 at 10:14 AM (PDT)

5

How CD sales keep falling in the face of developments like this, I’ll never know.

I’ll keep buying CDs and ripping them to Lossless until, like #3 says, purchased tracks are finally offered in this format.

Posted by Farnsworth on February 22, 2011 at 12:01 PM (PDT)

6

The article says nothing about lossless downloads.  Essentially, retailers will get 24 bit versions instead fo 16 bit versions. What the retailer does with it, though, is left unanswered.  If Apple decides to compress it to lossy (which is most likely), then whether it’s 24 bit or 16 bit really won’t matter - it’s still compressed audio, making this articale a nonstarter for those concerned with digital downloads.

However, if this means that cds will now be regularly pressed in 24 bit recordings, that’s a boon for those of us who still buy cds and have mid to hi-fi systems.  Today, most cds are pressed at 16 bit, which is inferior (at least to my eras..).

Posted by Prestige Worldwide on February 22, 2011 at 12:38 PM (PDT)

7

@4,

I am one that says they hear little to no difference between the lossless formats and an average 256 kpbs iTunes download. I do not have high-end equipment and my ears are (apparently) not that well trained. And I HAVE heard many songs in the lossless formats. I have the entire Beatles remastered catalog in FLAC. I also have a Nine Inch Nails album downloaded in FLAC. I have ripped a few CD’s in Apple Lossless as well. While I might hear a few fingers sliding on strings or slightly crisper vocals, it simply is not a big enough difference to warrant additional time, money or effort. If I was rocking some crazy sound system that cost me as much as my car…maybe I would say differently. But on my iPod through my MINI Cooper/Harman Kardon stereo, no real change.

Posted by Mitch on February 22, 2011 at 1:50 PM (PDT)

8

What is being missed, sans #6’s reply, is that there are those of us that CAN hear the difference, AND have the gear to hear it.
For the remaining holdouts to downloads, this would (partially) address them.  I still buy CDs, except for the singles and last-minute songs for a road trip, etc.  If Apple and the labels offered a serious competitor to the CD digitally, I’d certainly give it a try.
Nothing can replace a great package such as an LP or CD with all the goodies, but us dinosaurs seemed to have lost the war here.  I can adjust, but I need something good to replace it.

Posted by sb on February 22, 2011 at 2:06 PM (PDT)

9

@Mitch,

I, I, I, etc. So YOU don’t. Okay.

Lossless files do require more space and time downloading than lossy but space cost a fraction of what it did in the 90s and people can download lossless tracks through broadband faster than people can download lossy tracks through dial-up. Even with lossless, people can spend LESS time, money (for drive space) and effort collecting tunes than they did back in Napster’s heyday.

Posted by beetsnotbeats on February 22, 2011 at 3:24 PM (PDT)

10

@#6: While most recordings today are 24-bit, compact discs are 16-bit and always will be. The only way to get higher quality on a disc is SACD, BD or DVD-Audio.

Posted by Galley in Greenville, SC on February 22, 2011 at 5:31 PM (PDT)

11

@beetsnotbeats,

My response was directed at your statement that those that say they can’t hear the difference are “most likely untrue”. You too seem to be projecting a bit. I am simply saying that for those that can not hear the difference (as few or unlikely as that may be in your opinion), why should we need to pay more per download? Because that was one of the points in the article…an increased charge for higher quality downloads.

If they decide to offer high and normal quality and keep the prices intact…so be it. I am fine letting others pay for that higher quality file. If they can hear it, have the equipment and care enough, they can pay the premium. But, Apple and/or the recording studios already charge a premium to convert the old DRM’d files to the newer “open” ones. I find it hard to believe that they would not see this as a chance to up those prices across the board. Just switch to the 24 bit or lossless that they decide on and make everyone pay the higher cost, even if they were just fine with 16 bit/256 kbps.

Again, this is simply my opinion. I know there are people out there that care. I just don’t. And from what I have read in many forums, I am not alone. I would not feel wrong in saying that the folks on the “we NEED lossless” side are in the minority. Especially if they suddenly have to start paying more for it. That broadband point is not what I was referring to. I was alluding more to the time it takes to rip a CD to lossless, store that CD once it is ripped OR the extra cash they will try to fleece from me for providing that same quality in download form.

Posted by Mitch on February 22, 2011 at 5:50 PM (PDT)

12

Galley - you’re correct, of course.  There are HDCD recordings, but I think those are 20 bit.  And you still need a player that recognizes that format.  So I guess the upside (for those few of us who care) is that Apple and others will have the option of offering digital downloads of uncompressed 24 bit recordings to the masses. In reality, however, this will never happen (as made clear by the majority of comments on this thread).

Long live vinyl…

Posted by Prestige Worldwide on February 22, 2011 at 9:19 PM (PDT)

13

Well, if the iPhone 5 has greater storage capacity (at least 64GB), and if they come out with the rumored 220 GB iPod Classic, AND if lossless tracks are offered so that they can’t scam us for more money like they did with iTunes Plus and removing DRM (remember that?) then maybe I’ll be interested.

Otherwise, no thanks. The $0.99/track price point is what made iTunes successful, and they seem to be forgetting this fact more as each year passes.

Posted by Jan Weber on February 23, 2011 at 6:54 PM (PDT)

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