For hi-fi fans, the most depressing aspect of the digital music revolution has been the reduction in sound quality. Just when we were hoping to get better-than-CD quality sound from disc formats such as Sony's Super Audio CD (SACD) or DVD-Audio, we were hit with the double whammy of low bit-rate MP3 files and, sometimes worse, the UK's low bit-rate DAB digital radio.
But as download speeds increase and storage space become less of a problem with portable players, the tide may be turning. According to CNN, "Apple and other digital music retailers are in discussions with record labels to improve the quality of the song files they sell."
In sum, they may start to release 24-bit originals rather than the 16-bit music files usually distributed online and on audio CDs.
However, the first problem is that few if any portable music players, and not all PCs, can actually handle 24-bit music files. The second problem is that the files can easily be three times the size, or more. The third problem is that the sound quality might not be much different, and could even be worse. Most iPod users could probably get a bigger improvement either by switching to better earbuds/headphones or to a better-sounding MP3 player from Sony, Cowon or whoever.
Fortunately, all these problems are irrelevant given that 24-bit audio provides the consumer electronics and media industries with overwhelming benefits. They will be able to sell us all new 24-bit players, and get us to re-buy all our music in 24-bit format. Kerching, kerching, kerching.
Some audiophile hi-fi companies already live in the future, and Linn is well known for offering music downloads in both FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and WMA (Windows Media Audio) Lossless formats. (Apple has something similar but won't let Linn use it.) If you want to experience the FLAC Studio Master version of Linn Records' Spem in alium then you can download it.
However, be aware that the whole album costs £18 and takes up 1.3GB. You will only be able to carry six albums on your crappy 8GB player, which probably can't play FLAC anyway (unless you Rockboxed it).
Although CNN's story gave Apple top billing, it was actually prompted by the launch of Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad tablet on February 9. HP is leading the way in upgrading sound quality with its HP Beats audio system, developed in conjunction with Dr Dre. But I think HP pushes Beats mainly because there are few differentiators in the PC market.
Given its background in audio reproduction, you might expect Sony to take a similar line, but it's currently concerned with delivering 48kbps music streams via Music Unlimited, its Qriocity-based online service. CNN reports:
Shawn Layden, Sony Network's chief operating officer, said most people don't care, or even notice, if their music is flawed. That is a common sentiment among industry watchers. "The challenges of music right now -- I don't think the primary one is a quality issue," he said. "Music lovers worldwide are mostly keen right now on the convenience of access -- make it easier for me to have."
That sounds about right (cough*Spotify*cough). Amazon did manage to exert some upward pressure on sound quality with its release of 320Kbps MP3 files, but for most listeners in the majority of mobile situations, there's probably no need for more.