Talks Heat Up To Improve Download Sound Quality, But Is it Just An Excuse For Higher Prices?
According to several sources, iTunes, eMusic, Amazon and other digital music retailers are in talks with the major labels about improving the quality of sound in music downloads. But for most of those sitting at the table, better sound quality may be more about making money than sonic improvements.
Studio recordings are often captured in 24-bit high-fidelity. But before they become downloads or pressed onto CD, they are usually downgraded to 16-bit files. From there, the compression usually continues in an effort to cut download time and enable streaming on the internet or via satellite. And ro date, the major labels have not allowed download stores to sell higher quality downloads even if they wanted to.
One of those leading the charge to change that is Jimmy Iovine, CEO of Universal's Interscope, Geffen and A&M labels. But he also has an additional motivation as a founding partner with HP and Dr. Dre in high end headphone and audio manufacturer Beats Audio.
"We've gone back now at Universal, and we're changing our pipes to 24 bit. And Apple has been great," Iovine told CNN. "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."
There are other hints that in addition to improving sound quality, greater profits is at least part of the end game for labels and retailers. eMusic CEO Adam Klein admits to be "investigating whether customers would be willing to pay for higher-quality downloads" with the labels.
There are, however, few signs that most fans care enough to pay more. Particularly in foreign markets, consumers have embraced music streaming despite it having even lower quality audio than downloads. And in the US, the popularity of music on YouTube and highly compressed satellite radio should serve as warning signs that, even though many recordings are poorly represented by existing digital audio, the fans are less than inclined to pay more to improve it.