Talks Heat Up To Improve Download Sound Quality, But Is it Just An Excuse For Higher Prices?

image from p0pularpr0ducts.ca 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.

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  1. I wouldn’t mind paying more for d/l’s with improved sound quality PROVIDED that the upgraded format came with the credits embedded as metadata. Not being able to find out who engineered, produced, wrote, and played on a track is one of the most frustrating things about purchasing downloads.
    The UK-based Music Producers Guild has a good campaign on this called “Credit Where Credit Is Due”. Read about it here:

  2. Agreed with Goonrgrrl, however I am more interested in high quality streams than downloads. I’m not a huge techy, but I assume if I can stream HD video through Hulu, quality sound wouldn’t be that hard for companies like Rdio to do. (although i’m not as much of an audiophile as many)
    As mobile capabilities improve, perhaps the same capabilities could be grasped by them in the near future?
    I think people have forgotten how awesome great sound is (busted sound quality and little white headphones…), but I see more and more people wandering the subways with proper headphones every day.

  3. The classical music audience, whatever is left of it, probably mostly in Europe, continues to be interested in sound quality. A good number of the CDs advertised in Gramophone and BBC Music are SACD dual-layer.
    I’m wondering what consumer goods will play these 24-bit files. (Rereading, I see Iovine acknowledges this chicken-and-egg problem.) There’s a sizable installed base locked into MP3/Apple AAC/WMA/CD-format WAV. Playback software on the PC is easy, but digital files are about music-on-the-go.

  4. Well, we can all talk about how we want better sound quality, but the truth is cost matters. When faced with the choice of getting Radiohead’s new album in the form of a 320 bit rate compressed mp3 for $9 versus $14 for the WAV file, I opted for the cheaper version. The truth is a lossless file is big and cumbersome, and is best delivered via a physical compact disc or in analog form via vinyl. Files will always be second rate to physical media, and it is not just because of reduced sound quality. A music file is not a “thing” and as this blog has discussed, has a 100% depreciation rate as soon as you give your credit card number and download the song.
    Having said all that, I think they should improve the sound quality of the mp3 while keeping the file size about the same, but not if it means new equipment or higher prices. They should do so as a nod to those consumers like myself who actually pay for music. They should think of it as akin to an app upgrade — value added for no extra charge. That will actually create good will, something the recording industry needs a whole lot of.

  5. Then comes the whole thing is much needed bigger space to hold so many 24 bit/44.1…or 96 etc. Those file sizes can get quite big, not only for the consumer but for the companies storing the downloads of these songs. Imagine itunes chaning 10% of music to a higher quality format like alac, more data to transfer and store. A lot of people can’t tell the difference between 320kps mp3 and a loseless 16bit/44.1 or 24 bit. I’m not against better quality i’m just saying, many other things come tied to this, but i guess it will happen sooner or later. Does this mean jimmy, is going to start focusing on manufacturing “Quality Music now”?

  6. Just for yucks, go to Google and search for:
    “[band name] flac”
    See how many unauthorized copies turn up. At least some of the pirates are interested in higher-quality sound…

  7. Dudes if you want better sounding MP3’s buy a high end Dac. High end Dac’s like the one I have from HRT http://www.highresolutiontechnologies.com/ makes MP3’s sound like vinyl. They remove all of the bad MP3 compression by using the USB port for the conversion clock. This is much more of a hardware issue than a software issue or file type. Sorry for the product plug Bruce. I do not own any stake in the company just really like the their products.

  8. 24-bit… Seriously?
    16-bit is fine for pretty much all forms of pop/rock/dance music, provided it has been mastered to a decent level. Consider also how over-compressed the loudness war has made music and there really is no realistic benefit to upgrading to 24-bit. Most new music is mastered to sound better on mp3 now anyway.
    Sure, a higher quality standard would be welcomed by many as even 320 CBR doesn’t cut it on the high frequencies but, honestly, if iTunes would play FLAC files most of us would be happy.
    The fact that they are emphasising 24-bit here over anything else shows who they are targetting this at, the fickle majority that blindly assume more bits is better.
    But, nevertheless, congrats to the record industry for discovering a new way for us to buy the same music again, heres to another set of Beatles remasters in a couple of years!

  9. This more about Jimmy Iovine selling more headphones than it is abouut better sounding audio files.

  10. Pretty much what Mutant Dog said. There is no point in going to 24-bit when most commercial music is overcompressed and non-dynamic. All you will get is a larger song file that will sound worse than before to those whose ears can differentiate between 16 and 24-bit sound.

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