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Will streaming and cloud-based music services warm up to high-res audio, or kill it for good?

Free music streamingRegardless of which side of the digital audio fence you prefer to hang your shears, there is no question that the market has spoken in terms of its acceptance of digital downloads and streaming music services. Tens of millions of consumers wake up every single day and get their groove on via digital music services like Pandora and Spotify. The transition from getting our music via physical media to getting it from the cloud is an amazing advancement, currently only limited by bandwidth and the ability of those in less-developed nations to attain access. And now that cloud-based music services and personalized Internet radio have the metrics to prove their worth, we can expect to see some big changes in the music industry. But will high resolution audio be part of this revolution, or will those of us who prefer quality over quantity be forced to continue living on the fringe, doomed to toting around clunky hardware so that we can have access to high-quality music wherever we go?

Those who pray to the God of Mp3 may scoff at the non-believers who continue to profess the quality of high resolution audio and how it could take the streaming ecosystem into the heavens, but to negate the need for high resolution audio downloads and streaming channels is to deny technological progress. Still, if the market says ‘no’, who are audiophiles to dictate how things need to be? How do the people who feed you your daily dose of music and build the hardware that makes it possible feel about all of this? You might be surprised to learn just how much they side with the audio nerds.

While wandering the halls of some off-site venue at CES 2006, I accidentally bumped into a guy who was waiting for his opportunity to listen to a sound system – coincidentally, it was the same one I wanted to hear. After apologizing (so Canadian), we introduced ourselves, after which he proceeded to pitch me on this new music steaming service that he was about to launch. His service was going to be really different. It would offer better music, improved sound quality, and a different kind of social interaction with people who liked the same kind of music you did. He told me that it would eventually offer high resolution audio (which in 2006 probably meant 16-bit/44.1 CD-quality), but that wasn’t his focus, despite having a personal affinity for high-end audio. David Hyman and I exchanged business cards and, many months later, I became a MOG user. 

Years later, when MOG was acquired by Beats Electronics in July 2012, alarm bells must have gone off in the offices of chief rivals Spotify and Pandora. Beats, which includes the wildly popular Beats by Dr. Dre headphone brand, was capitalizing on its enormous cash flow and market dominance by throwing its very large hat into the streaming audio arena. Project ‘Daisy,’ as it is now officially known, does not have a specific launch date (late 2013 is the most we’ve heard), but the principals behind it, including CEO Ian Rogers (formerly of Topspin Media – a company which developed direct marketing software so artists could have better interaction with their fans), Dr. Dre, CCO Trent Reznor, and music producer Jimmy Iovine, have pledged that ‘Daisy’ is going to be really different. We’ve been told to expect better sound quality, easier music discovery, direct-to-fan integration, and for the service to generally “take music subscription services to the next level.”

With MOG already offering 320 kbps streaming service, the promise of better sound quality hints at a rather significant leap forward – could we be talking about lossless audio here? We’re not convinced that dream will be realized,  but perhaps high resolution audio has some kind of a future in the streaming world. With Google planning to launch two streaming services – one for Google Play, and the other for YouTube – and Apple looking to launch its own music streaming service, we have to wonder what these services will do to make one more appealing than another, especially with already well-established services such as Spotify, Pandora in the mix. 

There are a few music services which make their living by picking up where Apple leaves off, and they seem to believe streaming high-res audio is on its way – that it’s just a matter of time. 

And then there’s the little guys like Bandcamp, which does an end-run around the recording industry by allowing artists to upload their music and sell it as a 24/96 or 24/192 FLAC files,  AAC, Ogg Vorbis, and Apple Lossless as well. The service has become extremely popular with indie artists with almost 51 million downloads so far – could it pose a threat to the status quo and do to streaming music services what  streaming music services did to physical media?

With the software side of things showing such progress, we must naturally turn our attention to the hardware’s role in this progression. It’s all well and good to have sources for high-quality audio, but what you play it back on is equally important.  Is there anything on the mobile hardware front that could make streaming high resolution audio more appealing to the masses?

According to Tim Pryde, Senior Director of Audio Product Management at Jawbone, “Jawbone Jambox products take advantage of SBC Codecs, including AAC in the near future, to transfer audio files over Bluetooth.”

“When listening to audio tracks through a Jambox or Big Jambox, the signal coming in over Bluetooth or through the Line In input goes through the DSP of the unit. You will not hear the full benefit of  true high resolution audio tracks over Bluetooth, unfortunately.  There are improvements when utilizing AAC or APTx Codecs, but still nothing like having the original source material, playing through a high quality DAC plugged straight into a high quality preamp/amp and speakers,” Pryde explained.

 

Jawbone has also been partnering with others including David Chesky to help spread the word about Binaural audio recordings and reproduction. “Jawbone’s LiveAudio technology allows listeners to experience Binaural Records from a single speaker instead of headphones, and for audio tracks that were not recorded in binaural, playback of these tracks through LiveAudio still provides a three-dimensional sound experience,” concluded Pryde.

 

Apple is not on board

 

Jawbone is but one popular product offering hardware which can take advantage of high-resolution audio. There are a surprising number of Bluetooth headphones and portable speakers that can take advantage of codecs like aptX and AAC which deliver surprisingly excellent-sounding audio wirelessly. There’s just one problem: The maker of the most popular media players in the world isn’t down with this whole high-resolution audio thing. Apple’s iTunes store offers, at best, 256 kbps files, and its devices don’t support aptX. If Apple isn’t on board, then is this discussion moot? Perhaps not. There are a few  music services which make their living by picking up where Apple leaves off, and they seem to believe streaming high-res audio is on its way – that it’s just a matter of time. 

 

…High-resolution audio has a real future and we’re going to leverage our relationship with hardware manufacturers to get as many music listeners interested in it as possible.

Eric Wittman is CEO at
Songbird and a proponent of high resolution audio and what it could mean for audio playback in the home and on portable devices. He notes that high-res formats require a lot of bandwidth, so it’s unlikely that we’ll be streaming them from the cloud anytime soon, but its millions of users prove there is demand for such a thing. 

Songbird, a desktop open source alternative to iTunes, supports playback of 24/96 and 24/192 FLAC files, and is an option for listeners who want to experience high-resolution audio. The player offers support for just about any digital audio file type, including Apple Lossless, AIFF, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, and Windows Media Audio and it will even tie in access to Internet radio sources such as Last.FM.

Wittman explained to us that “it’s been amazing to watch the interest in FLAC among our base of millions of users. The number of files has doubled to almost 8% in a short period of time. People who grew up with the iPod and MP3s are suddenly realizing that music can sound a lot better, and they are turning to FLAC as a playback format.”

“Songbird offers a different experience to those who are not tied into the Apple ecosystem or are iOS users but want to try something other than iTunes,” Wittman explained.

“What high resolution audio really needs is exposure. It’s not even a question that it sounds better than MP3. I’ve even demonstrated it at work by playing the same album in the various formats much to the annoyance of my staff who are probably sick of the Dave Brubeck album that I downloaded from HDtracks,” Wittman laughed.

“Look, it’s not like Pandora or Spotify are going to push a button and have the ability to stream 24/96 tracks from the cloud to your device. At least not for a few years and [until] bandwidth issues have been worked out,” replied Wittman when asked about the possibility of streaming high-resolution audio from the cloud in the short term.

“…High-resolution audio has a real future and we’re going to leverage our relationship with hardware manufacturers to get as many music listeners interested in it as possible. The initial step is to make it easier for listeners to download it to their devices. That’s the short-term goal.  My issue with MP3 is that you get the intent of the music, but you don’t really absorb it. High resolution formats make that possible, just like listening to vinyl,” Wittman offered.

Digital Trends: But why should someone decide to go with Songbird versus another platform? What makes you different?

Eric Wittman: There are three important differences with Songbird: First, we don’t try to change your behavior and allow you to play both the content you already own and content from the internet. Second, the breadth of consumer platforms and media file formats we support. Finally, we deliver the most personalized experience based upon what artists you already like.

DT: But do you think the launch of Daisy, a potential Apple streaming service, two from Google, and now a proposed Twitter music service, is going to make it impossible for consumers to pick between Songbird, Spotify, Pandora, and all of the rest?

EW: There is clearly a lot of noise in the streaming services space today making it confusing for consumers. One of the concerns we hear from consumers is that pure streaming services are not fulfilling their needs specifically because they limit the catalog of content they have access to, do not allow use of their own media (which often contains higher quality and limited release tracks) and a lack of a discovery experience that is truly personal. The entity that brings these elements into a really elegant consumer experience will be the eventual leader of the digital music world. 

Wittman understands that the future hinges on mobile access, but he also believes that, as more and more people have the opportunity to hear high resolution audio, they’ll begin to appreciate what they have been missing.

We hope he’s right. If the people demand it, then hardware and software providers might work to provide it – maybe even Apple. 

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