23 February 2011

24-bit Audio on iTunes?

This is so unexpected and implausible that I have a hard time knowing how to parse it. Music industry heavyweight Jimmy Iovine just dropped at an HP news conference that his label (UMG) is working with Apple to introduce 24-bit audio music downloads to iTunes. Standard (Redbook) CD audio and compressed audio formats (mp3, AAC, etc.) are all 16-bit. Heretofore only advanced audio formats like SACD, DVD-Audio, and HD FLAC have supported 24-bit, all of which require special stand-alone players or (usually) upgraded computer hardware and software to play. Current Apple portable players do not even support 24-bit playback, and that limitation is a hardware issue. You'll need a new iPhone. Iovine recognizes this: "we have a long road ahead of us."

Iovine has a twofold interest in this. He's both an industry exec on the content side and a partner with Dr. Dre on the hardware side (Beats Audio), which licenses its branded technology to companies like HP. Selling 24-bit files lets the labels charge more, or a second time, for the advanced format, plus you have to upgrade your hardware to hear it. And you'll want better headphones like, you know, Iovine's own outrageously overpriced Beats by Dr. Dre.

This is clearly just a marketing move, and I can't see how it will get very far, very fast. The biggest practical problem, apart from hardware requirements, is that 24-bit files are huge, on the order of 100mb for a 4.5 minute song. On typical crappy DSL, during peak traffic, you could be a couple hours downloading an album. And your average listener on average equipment won't be able to tell a 24-bit track from an iTunes 256k AAC track, especially with non-acoustic music. If HDtracks pricing holds, 24-bit will cost you $2.50/tr over iTune's current $.99/tr pricing. Not sure there will be many takers. HDtracks is surviving but clearly not thriving, and it is aimed directly at audiophiles who care deeply about audio quality.

At least one recording engineer has already done a takedown of Iovine's idea, saying flatly, "A consumer will never need 24-bit. Ever." I agree. It takes great equipment and ears to hear the difference. This is not a consumer format. And the bigger issue, as he notes, is in the mastering. Iovine and Co. have sucked every bit of dynamic range out of modern pop recordings during mastering to make them "louder," and the main advantage of 24-bit is, yes, more dynamic range that would certainly not be used. I've blogged in the past that good mastering is almost everything, and CD-quality audio is plenty good, even for my picky ears.

    The Beats Audio team have taken the 24-bit concept to the other major labels and retailers, perhaps suggesting they can claw back traditional sales revenue from the growing subscription market, where the likes of Spotify will be unable to compete because the new file sizes will push up streaming time and costs.

As much as I hope this really does take off, it's just marketing. Mp3s are plenty good enough for mobile listening, even if not for critical listening. CD-quality lossless, which can already play on any player, would be entirely adequate for almost any purpose, but that would hardly be what all marketers are looking for—the Next New Hot Thing.

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