Streaming music gets a quality boost from Apple

Neil Young’s multi-decade effort to bring high resolution music to music fans scored a major victory this week when Apple announced it would be converting its streaming music service to hi res. One of the major holdouts, Apple finally joins Amazon and Qobuz in offering their music at the same quality as it was recorded, finally abandoning compressed formats that often  throw away 75% to 95% of the file data.

When Young developed and sold the first affordable hi res music player, Pono, the tech industry ridiculed the need for hi res music, with many not understanding or minimizing its benefits. As a pioneer and a voice in the wilderness, Neil ignored them and continued to extoll the benefits of hi res, becoming the primary proponent among the artist community. I worked with Neil to develop the Pono and promote hi res to the record companies and other artists and continue working with him on his website that streams all of his music in hi res.  Together we co-authored the book, “To Feel the Music,” that chronicles this effort and predicted that the major streaming services such as Apple would eventually come around.

Who are the winners and losers with this announcement? First and foremost, the music fans are the big winners. They will have access to hi res content from at least three companies, Qobuz, Amazon and Apple. Where there’s more competition, costs will go down, with Amazon already announcing a price reduction to $10 per month.

The other winners will be DAC manufacturers, because a DAC is still required to listen to hi res with your phone, tablet or computer. A DAC (digital to analog converter) is a small device that connects between a phone or computer and your music system or headphones. AudioQuest and Chord sell excellent ones that cost $100 to $500. (If you don’t have a DAC, music will still play at the lower resolution as it does now.) It would not be surprising to see Apple offer its own DAC, perhaps combined with headphones.

Among the other hardware companies, the BluOS music system that delivers hi res wirelessly throughout your home benefits with a new source of hi-res content from Apple. However, Sonos with a max resolution of 48/16 (less than 25% of hi res) cannot take advantage of hi res content. They are now scurrying to find work arounds.

Spotify is the major loser among streaming services, only offering highly compressed music. Tidal is also a loser with its proprietary MQA format that is not true hi res. MQA is a proprietary compression scheme that requires a decoder in the hardware and record companies to encode the music. (MQA was originally designed as a solution to reduce bandwidth and memory storage size when both of those were much more expensive than they are today.)

While there are still skeptics that say that hi res is not needed, that many can’t tell the difference, Neil’s response is simple: “If you can’t tell the difference listen to lo res, but for those that can tell the difference, and there are many that can, there’s no reason to limit the quality of music. It’s much akin to hi def flat screen high TVs that stunned the world a few years ago with 2000 lines of resolution. That was considered plenty sharp, but didn’t stop the industry from creating TVs today with 8000 lines. Some can appreciate it, and equally important, content is being created to take advantage of the super high resolution.

Apple’s announcement comes years late and is likely a reaction to Amazon, who introduced hi res last year. Because they were so late, they also announced that their music will also play in Dolby Atmos, a technology that creates a spatial expanse of enabled music. It’s a seven year old technology designed for movie theaters with speakers on the walls and ceilings. It’s not particularly beneficial and many artists don’t like it, and it requires seven speakers and equipment that is compatible.

If you have Amazon or Apple Music, you’ll be getting the higher quality automatically. If you’re just deciding what to get, both are fine, although I like Qobuz, a small French company that was first to stream in high res and has become quite popular around the world.



by Phil Baker