High resolution music is a solution looking for a problem

  1. WeWrite-down
  2. No deal Brexit is not a hedge fund conspiracy
  3. Europe’s digital infrastructure issue
  4. Let’s give a helping hand to Andrew Yang
  5. Anatomy of a malware scam
  6. ARK Invest’s Tesla model gathers dust
  7. A delirious defence of Uber
  8. WeLiquid: Adam Neumann pockets $700m
  9. Yesterday, in efficient markets
  10. The warm fuzzy feeling of indirectly owning Tencent
  11. The best of Morgan Stanley's Adam Jonas
  12. Apple/Tesla: M&A and heartbreak
  13. Did Beyonce make $300m from Uber's IPO?
  14. Bitcoin is the 10-year Treasury of our time
  15. Amazon is furious about this negative review
  16. Missing: $500bn of American savings
  17. Blockchain for Brexit: a wonderfully terrible idea
  18. The Bank of Hodlers [sic] (sigh)
  19. Behind the curtain at China Ding Yi Feng
  20. An answer to Mark Cuban's question
  21. Crumbs! It's CRYPTO: the movie!
  22. National Beverage Corp loses its fizz, and its mind
  23. Amazon won't spin-off Amazon Web Services
  24. Mensch! Dan McCrum is innocent, ok?
  25. Europe's $1 trillion tax gap
  26. Why online propaganda mobs are an investment red flag
  27. Davos has produced an amazing new guide on precisely how not to think about risk
  28. When the public relations industry does PR for itself
  29. Who wants to be crippled by student debt?
  30. The bitcoin price is wrong
  31. The warm fuzzy feeling of Goldman debt
  32. “Cryptoassets” are crashing again. Is it time to start calling them cryptoliabilities instead?
  33. Puff the tragic cryptowagon smokes out the Mumsnet demographic
  34. Don't write off the public sector
  35. Initiative Q: an elementary pyramid scheme with grandiose ideas [Update]
  36. Moral investments aren't outperforming
  37. No one is killing it in crypto (not even Woz)
  38. Too smooth: the red flag at Patisserie Valerie which was missed
  39. No, the housing crisis will not be solved by building more homes
  40. Sorry Civil, 'crypto-economics' and 'constitutions' won't save journalism
  41. 'Short-termism' isn't a thing, say Fed economists
  42. Coinbase wants to be “too big to fail”, lol
  43. Regulation and innovation don't have to be enemies
  44. Retailers get so lonely around the holidays
  45. Folli Follie: $1bn of fake sales, and what to learn from the debacle
  46. The new green evangelism
  47. Tilray, how low can it go?
  48. The ICO behind the tragic Everest stunt is now “airdropping” tokens from rockets
  49. Beware the Hindenburg Omen?
  50. The broken conversation about financial regulation
  51. The improbably profitable, loss-making Blue Prism
  52. The EM rout is not made in America
  53. Wages and growth and honestly we just give up
  54. Britain's first blockchain-enabled co-working space isn't blockchain-enabled
  55. There is a FIRE that never goes out
  56. The WeWork Garden of Eden
  57. IQE: lumpy 'Apple' sauce at the pricey Cardiff chip shop
  58. There's only so much a central bank can do alone
  59. Eight questions every first-time buyer should ask
  60. MiFID II: not all doom and gloom
  61. Tesla: getting to Q3 profitability
  62. Turkey contagion fears are overblown [Update]
  63. The chance of an inflation shock may be higher than you think
  64. Sorry Tim, the humanity is not being drained out of music
  65. Digital crop circles
  66. What could go wrong here?
  67. Sirius Minerals: money for a hole in the ground
  68. The Bank of England has a strange idea of what QE achieved
  69. One for the ladies...
  70. 'Of course, many ridiculous papers appeared'
  71. Is a change goin' to come?
  72. The capacity's not there yet (and probably never will be)
  73. Musk and Tesla are not inseparable
  74. Libraries, from Carnegie to Bezos
  75. Crypto & government: from anarchy to amity in the USA
  76. 'I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I cannot sanction this Series B round'
  77. RBC, through the FANG barrier
  78. Self-help to buy
  79. CFA: Chartered crypto analysts -- updated
  80. The Netflix dilemma -- updated
  81. Fujitsu's new blockchain offering: really cheap or really expensive?
  82. Nothing But the Shirt on Your Back
  83. Universities of Britain: cosying up to crypto is a bad look
  84. How to make a living in the cult of meritocracy
  85. Spotify: Drake-oil salesmen
  86. Oh, the digital humanity
  87. Sports are not markets, predictions ain't investment
  88. Spot the difference, Steinhoff edition
  89. Larry Robbins, a cautionary tale
  90. The node to serfdom
  91. Carney is down with the crypto kids
  92. Samsonite: inventory, excess baggage, and unresolved questions
  93. It might be a long wait for “the equivalent alternative to ICOs”
  94. Don't blame it on the sunshine
  95. In corporate America, brands develop you
  96. One in ten dollars of US housing were anonymous
  97. Should AT&T worry more about its debt?
  98. Who cares if Elon is incinerating capital?
  99. Let’s not try make 'crypto chicks' a thing
  100. Tokens all the way down
  101. Eight-dimensional chess with Elon Musk
  102. A lopsided trade is a good trade, Italian inflation edition
  103. How to buy Italian fire insurance
  104. Atlas bugged
  105. Inflating inflation
  106. Crypto's most devout believers are suffering a crisis of faith
  107. Plus500: past performance is no guide to the future
  108. Noble rot in a shrinking Harbour
  109. In defence of ticket touts
  110. Please don't tell individual investors to buy leveraged loans
  111. RIB Software: the unicorn rainy-day fund
  112. Retail is not dead
  113. Did Soros really give Tesla a “vote of confidence”?
  114. At a crypto conference in New York, it feels like 2017 all over again
  115. Egregious expectations - Intelsat edition
  116. Bitcoin cash is expanding into the void
  117. Stop getting The Flintstones wrong
  118. Bond investors do not care if Argentina is solvent in 100 years
  119. Ubiquiti Networks: of cash and borrowed time
  120. “We're very disappointed in you, Spotify”
  121. 'Sex redistribution' and the means of reproduction
  122. Tesla probably needs to raise capital this year
  123. No entitlement crisis in America
  124. Free cash flow to whom?
  125. Hey crypto bros! Journalism ≠ advertising
  126. Human capital and the jobs guarantee
  127. This is a tech bubble, when's the crash?
  128. The magic of adjustments: ebitla-dee-da
  129. FUD, inglorious FUD
  130. A complex analysis reaches same conclusion as simple one: hedge funds suck
  131. The jobs guarantee and human-capital “nationalisation”
  132. These hedge fund numbers can't be right
  133. The Vomiting Camel has escaped from Bitcoin zoo
  134. Lies, damn lies, and charticles
  135. The world doesn't need more Elon Musks
  136. No, Facebook should not become a nonprofit
  137. Sell all crypto and abandon all blockchain
  138. Immutable ledgers meet European data protection
  139. Amazon is not a bubble
  140. Japan's economic miracle
  141. Have you ever meta crypto joke you didn't like?
  142. Delaware should change its rules to let the light in
  143. Who needs the labels anyway?
  144. Baby Boomers want your family to finance a larger share of their retirement
  145. No, America would not benefit from authoritarian central planning
  146. No one needs to buy Tesla
  147. How to win a debate in the cult of meritocracy
  148. Steinhoff International and the case of Pepkor Global Sourcing
  149. Sorry Jack, Bitcoin will not become the global currency
  150. The “academic’s cryptocurrency” is an elegant waste of time
  151. Cigarettes are the vice America needs
  152. Well that’s one reason to buy yen…
  153. Musicians, don't just blame the labels for your lack of dough
  154. Giving stock away to staff doesn't absolve share buybacks
  155. A penny for Macpherson’s thoughts on the nominal anchor
  156. Monopoly and its discontents
  157. A State of Mind
  158. America is not the least protectionist country in the world
  159. This is nuts, when does Netflix crash?
  160. No Bloomberg, the world's richest people did not lose $114bn...
  161. Someone is wrong on the internet, government employee pensions and passive investing edition
  162. Someone is wrong on the internet, possibly fragile
  163. Someone is wrong on the internet, consumer financial regulation edition
  164. Someone is wrong on the internet: tontine tokens [Update]
  165. Someone is wrong on the internet, road economics edition
  166. Someone is wrong on the internet, wages and the stock market edition

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?

  1. WeWrite-down
  2. No deal Brexit is not a hedge fund conspiracy
  3. Europe’s digital infrastructure issue
  4. Let’s give a helping hand to Andrew Yang
  5. Anatomy of a malware scam
  6. ARK Invest’s Tesla model gathers dust
  7. A delirious defence of Uber
  8. WeLiquid: Adam Neumann pockets $700m
  9. Yesterday, in efficient markets
  10. The warm fuzzy feeling of indirectly owning Tencent
  11. The best of Morgan Stanley's Adam Jonas
  12. Apple/Tesla: M&A and heartbreak
  13. Did Beyonce make $300m from Uber's IPO?
  14. Bitcoin is the 10-year Treasury of our time
  15. Amazon is furious about this negative review
  16. Missing: $500bn of American savings
  17. Blockchain for Brexit: a wonderfully terrible idea
  18. The Bank of Hodlers [sic] (sigh)
  19. Behind the curtain at China Ding Yi Feng
  20. An answer to Mark Cuban's question
  21. Crumbs! It's CRYPTO: the movie!
  22. National Beverage Corp loses its fizz, and its mind
  23. Amazon won't spin-off Amazon Web Services
  24. Mensch! Dan McCrum is innocent, ok?
  25. Europe's $1 trillion tax gap
  26. Why online propaganda mobs are an investment red flag
  27. Davos has produced an amazing new guide on precisely how not to think about risk
  28. When the public relations industry does PR for itself
  29. Who wants to be crippled by student debt?
  30. The bitcoin price is wrong
  31. The warm fuzzy feeling of Goldman debt
  32. “Cryptoassets” are crashing again. Is it time to start calling them cryptoliabilities instead?
  33. Puff the tragic cryptowagon smokes out the Mumsnet demographic
  34. Don't write off the public sector
  35. Initiative Q: an elementary pyramid scheme with grandiose ideas [Update]
  36. Moral investments aren't outperforming
  37. No one is killing it in crypto (not even Woz)
  38. Too smooth: the red flag at Patisserie Valerie which was missed
  39. No, the housing crisis will not be solved by building more homes
  40. Sorry Civil, 'crypto-economics' and 'constitutions' won't save journalism
  41. 'Short-termism' isn't a thing, say Fed economists
  42. Coinbase wants to be “too big to fail”, lol
  43. Regulation and innovation don't have to be enemies
  44. Retailers get so lonely around the holidays
  45. Folli Follie: $1bn of fake sales, and what to learn from the debacle
  46. The new green evangelism
  47. Tilray, how low can it go?
  48. The ICO behind the tragic Everest stunt is now “airdropping” tokens from rockets
  49. Beware the Hindenburg Omen?
  50. The broken conversation about financial regulation
  51. The improbably profitable, loss-making Blue Prism
  52. The EM rout is not made in America
  53. Wages and growth and honestly we just give up
  54. Britain's first blockchain-enabled co-working space isn't blockchain-enabled
  55. There is a FIRE that never goes out
  56. The WeWork Garden of Eden
  57. IQE: lumpy 'Apple' sauce at the pricey Cardiff chip shop
  58. There's only so much a central bank can do alone
  59. Eight questions every first-time buyer should ask
  60. MiFID II: not all doom and gloom
  61. Tesla: getting to Q3 profitability
  62. Turkey contagion fears are overblown [Update]
  63. The chance of an inflation shock may be higher than you think
  64. Sorry Tim, the humanity is not being drained out of music
  65. Digital crop circles
  66. What could go wrong here?
  67. Sirius Minerals: money for a hole in the ground
  68. The Bank of England has a strange idea of what QE achieved
  69. One for the ladies...
  70. 'Of course, many ridiculous papers appeared'
  71. Is a change goin' to come?
  72. The capacity's not there yet (and probably never will be)
  73. Musk and Tesla are not inseparable
  74. Libraries, from Carnegie to Bezos
  75. Crypto & government: from anarchy to amity in the USA
  76. 'I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I cannot sanction this Series B round'
  77. RBC, through the FANG barrier
  78. Self-help to buy
  79. CFA: Chartered crypto analysts -- updated
  80. The Netflix dilemma -- updated
  81. Fujitsu's new blockchain offering: really cheap or really expensive?
  82. Nothing But the Shirt on Your Back
  83. Universities of Britain: cosying up to crypto is a bad look
  84. How to make a living in the cult of meritocracy
  85. Spotify: Drake-oil salesmen
  86. Oh, the digital humanity
  87. Sports are not markets, predictions ain't investment
  88. Spot the difference, Steinhoff edition
  89. Larry Robbins, a cautionary tale
  90. The node to serfdom
  91. Carney is down with the crypto kids
  92. Samsonite: inventory, excess baggage, and unresolved questions
  93. It might be a long wait for “the equivalent alternative to ICOs”
  94. Don't blame it on the sunshine
  95. In corporate America, brands develop you
  96. One in ten dollars of US housing were anonymous
  97. Should AT&T worry more about its debt?
  98. Who cares if Elon is incinerating capital?
  99. Let’s not try make 'crypto chicks' a thing
  100. Tokens all the way down
  101. Eight-dimensional chess with Elon Musk
  102. A lopsided trade is a good trade, Italian inflation edition
  103. How to buy Italian fire insurance
  104. Atlas bugged
  105. Inflating inflation
  106. Crypto's most devout believers are suffering a crisis of faith
  107. Plus500: past performance is no guide to the future
  108. Noble rot in a shrinking Harbour
  109. In defence of ticket touts
  110. Please don't tell individual investors to buy leveraged loans
  111. RIB Software: the unicorn rainy-day fund
  112. Retail is not dead
  113. Did Soros really give Tesla a “vote of confidence”?
  114. At a crypto conference in New York, it feels like 2017 all over again
  115. Egregious expectations - Intelsat edition
  116. Bitcoin cash is expanding into the void
  117. Stop getting The Flintstones wrong
  118. Bond investors do not care if Argentina is solvent in 100 years
  119. Ubiquiti Networks: of cash and borrowed time
  120. “We're very disappointed in you, Spotify”
  121. 'Sex redistribution' and the means of reproduction
  122. Tesla probably needs to raise capital this year
  123. No entitlement crisis in America
  124. Free cash flow to whom?
  125. Hey crypto bros! Journalism ≠ advertising
  126. Human capital and the jobs guarantee
  127. This is a tech bubble, when's the crash?
  128. The magic of adjustments: ebitla-dee-da
  129. FUD, inglorious FUD
  130. A complex analysis reaches same conclusion as simple one: hedge funds suck
  131. The jobs guarantee and human-capital “nationalisation”
  132. These hedge fund numbers can't be right
  133. The Vomiting Camel has escaped from Bitcoin zoo
  134. Lies, damn lies, and charticles
  135. The world doesn't need more Elon Musks
  136. No, Facebook should not become a nonprofit
  137. Sell all crypto and abandon all blockchain
  138. Immutable ledgers meet European data protection
  139. Amazon is not a bubble
  140. Japan's economic miracle
  141. Have you ever meta crypto joke you didn't like?
  142. Delaware should change its rules to let the light in
  143. Who needs the labels anyway?
  144. Baby Boomers want your family to finance a larger share of their retirement
  145. No, America would not benefit from authoritarian central planning
  146. No one needs to buy Tesla
  147. How to win a debate in the cult of meritocracy
  148. Steinhoff International and the case of Pepkor Global Sourcing
  149. Sorry Jack, Bitcoin will not become the global currency
  150. The “academic’s cryptocurrency” is an elegant waste of time
  151. Cigarettes are the vice America needs
  152. Well that’s one reason to buy yen…
  153. Musicians, don't just blame the labels for your lack of dough
  154. Giving stock away to staff doesn't absolve share buybacks
  155. A penny for Macpherson’s thoughts on the nominal anchor
  156. Monopoly and its discontents
  157. A State of Mind
  158. America is not the least protectionist country in the world
  159. This is nuts, when does Netflix crash?
  160. No Bloomberg, the world's richest people did not lose $114bn...
  161. Someone is wrong on the internet, government employee pensions and passive investing edition
  162. Someone is wrong on the internet, possibly fragile
  163. Someone is wrong on the internet, consumer financial regulation edition
  164. Someone is wrong on the internet: tontine tokens [Update]
  165. Someone is wrong on the internet, road economics edition
  166. Someone is wrong on the internet, wages and the stock market edition
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