Selling new versions of the same thing is a great business. Particularly when the newest iteration brings a giant leap in quality at a low marginal cost. Apple have been the masters of this art: convincing consumers to shell out $700+ for a new iPhone every two years. Until recently, anyway.
But until the turn of the millennium one industry stood above all others at repeating this trick: the music industry and its hardware-providing brethren.
The list of formats once available to consumers was almost endless: cassettes, four tracks, eight tracks, 7 inch, 10 inch, 12 inch, compact discs, MiniDisc and SACDs — to name but a few. For a long time, the business of recorded music constantly found new ways to sell you the same thing over and over. Helpfully, to play these new formats required an expensive line-up of speakers, amps and players. It was a pretty good arrangement for everyone, bar the consumer.
The MP3 changed this. Partly. Now you need only one piece of hardware -- a phone. And with it, a set of headphones, and perhaps a home speaker set-up which could be as basic as a laptop, or, if you really love music, a bluetooth speaker system. This generally, is the accepted state of play. Consumers, by and large, seem pretty content with the world’s music being available at a few clicks, on a few devices, at a relatively low cost.
So when Billboard published an article last week about the surging major label interest in “higher resolution music” our ears pricked up. But not for the right reasons.
Here’s a para from the article:
The Washington, D.C.-based trade organisation [the RIAA] compiled research that shows more than 33,500 albums (or 400,000 tracks) of studio-quality formats are currently accessible to listeners. That’s a 29 per cent increase over a year ago, due largely to major labels releasing 1,000 studio-quality albums per month. Studio quality is defined as both hi-res audio (48khz/20-bit or higher) and the studio production format of 44.1 kHz/24-bit audio).
According to the chief technology officer of famed fan-suers the Recording Industry of America (RIAA), labels are ready “to meet fans’ growing demand for the highest quality sound”.
If you’re confused about what the quality numbers above mean relative to different digital formats, here’s a useful guide courtesy of What HiFi:
So everything above CD quality, at 16-bit, is considered "high resolution".
The problem is -- unlike high-resolution television -- no one actually cares about audio fidelity.
The MP3 coding format was developed by Karlheinz Brandenburg of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in the early 90s. It was the culmination of an agonising research process which aimed to reduce complex audio into its simplest informational form, without compromising fidelity. It succeeded. By 1997 you could squash a CD-quality song into a few megabytes. Next came Napster. And the rest is history.
(For those who are interested, Alphaville recommends Stephen Witt’s excellent How Music Got Free on the birth, and Rabelesian aftermath, of the lowly file format.)
The MP3′s rise to dominance is usually attributed to its wantonness. It went where it pleased, uninhibited by format or physical space. But there’s another reason it worked. There was no compromise on quality: consumers could not distinguish between a CD version of Jay-Z’s Big Pimpin’, or the MP3 off Limewire.
Many audiophiles will argue this is out of ignorance. “The person on the street propelled Crazy Frog to No. 1”, they might say, “what do they know about audio quality?” Granted it's a fair point, until you read the academic literature.
There have been numerous studies into whether listeners, of varying skill levels, can distinguish between MP3s and higher quality formats. Perhaps the most famous is this study by Pras, Zimmerman, Levitin and Guastavino of McGill University, which was presented to the Audio Engineering Society convention in 2009. It found that, at an MP3 bitrate of about 256 kb/s (versus 1,411 kb/s for a CD), even trained sound engineers could barely distinguish between the two file formats across genres. (For context, Spotify's premium tier MP3s stream at 256kb/s.)
Musicians didn’t have a clue:
A similar study by Böhne, Gröger, Hammerschmidt, Helm, Hoga, Kraus, Rösch, and Sussek of Hamburg University in 2011 also found that “each participant easily recognises the MP3 played to them in 48 kbit/s, but nearly no one can tell the difference between a WAV-file [high-quality] and a 128 kbit/s MP3-file.”
Readers will note these studies, and others, compare CDs and various qualities of MP3, but high-resolution music has a higher quality than CD formats (despite the format having no clear definition).
So a 2014 study by Williamson, South and Müllensiefen of Sheffield and Goldsmith Universities proves informative, as it tried to ascertain whether listeners could distinguish between 320 kb/s MP3 formats, CD quality and studio master quality. (The trio used Moon River as one of their song choices. As an aside, here's a great version of this number by an Alphaville favourite.)
First, the study's findings for the age-old CD/ MP3 debate [with our emphasis]:
For many years the accepted wisdom with regards to digitally recorded music has been that very few people can tell the difference between the standard commercially available sound resolution levels, namely CD and MP3. The results from Study 1 support this assertion: ratings of sound quality across CD and MP3 resolutions did not differ. This finding is also in line with previous literature on the subject (Yoshikawa et al., 1995; Pras et al., 2009; Pras & Guostavino, 2010).
However, when comparing studio masters and MP3s, the results were different:
Participants in the present study consistently rated Studio Master music as higher in subjective sound quality compared to MP3, both in terms of 30s excerpts in a continuous song (Study 1) and across complete songs (Study 2).
“Aha, gotcha Alphaville!” We hear audiophiles, and the music industry, cry “there is a difference!".
Sure. But that's when listening to music in a “sound attenuating booth” where “inner and outer chambers included a 102mm thick acoustic modular panel, separated by an air gap of 100mm” on loudspeakers that retail at £990, with an amplifier that costs £1,750.
No one, bar sound engineers and audiophiles with aggressive amounts of disposable income, listens to music this way.
We know this intuitively from walking down the street, and seeing a variety of, at best, mid-range headphones on our fellow travellers. But a survey from 2015 by David Watkins of Strategy Analytics underlines this point. It found that among Americans, computer speakers were the preferred listening device, followed closely by headphones attached to a portable device:
This charts with most recent data, such as IFPI's 2018 Music Consumer Insight Report, which found that 52 per cent of on-demand music listening is via video streaming. A further 86 per cent of consumers still listen to music on the radio. A medium famed, and romanticised, exactly for its lack of audio fidelity.
Then there's where people listen to music. Not in solitary confinement, but out on the streets, on public transport, in the car and in their bedrooms. External sounds, even with whizzy noise-cancelling headphones, have a habit of interfering with music. And that's OK. No one minds.
So, perhaps for the 0.01 per cent of the 0.01 per cent who want to spend $300,000 on speakers there's some point to high resolution audio, but otherwise, there isn't. It's a product no one asked for, with no distinguishing features for the everyday consumer.
Which brings us round to why labels are plunging headfirst into the format. Well, here's a hint, via Billboard again:
Data further shows the distribution of hi-res albums to be rather top-heavy: 77 per cent of the RIAA's highest gold- and platinum-certified records, 79 per cent of one major streaming service's top 100 all-time streamed tracks, 78 per cent of Soundscan's top 100 albums of last year, and 68 per cent of one major streaming service's top weekly tracks.
So it's the biggest tracks which are getting the high resolution treatment. Just as they do when it comes to deluxe editions, or anniversary box sets. Dare we suggest that, as with the MiniDisc, the high resolution trend is all about the upsell.
What's strange is that TIDAL, the forgotten streaming service, is already charging $19.99 for access to its high resolution service and has barely made a splash. But with Amazon making noises about launching a high resolution rival, according to Music Business Worldwide, it seems the big tech platforms are also keen to get on board with marketing this futile money spinner.
It wouldn't matter much if there weren't costs involved, but as Izzy pointed out recently, data leaves an indelible carbon footprint. And uploading millions of high resolution tracks to the cloud will inevitably leave a larger mark on the environment than the current offering of indistinguishable MP3s. It's like bitcoin mining, except for those who want to signal the rarefied nature of their music taste.
But perhaps consumers will bite. After all, we know that price changes the way people experience wine. So why not music?
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