With Apple Music growing, is high-resolution audio next for iTunes?

The company has an opportunity to bring high-resolution audio into the mainstream thanks to Apple Music and headphones that use a lightning cable.

Less than a year after launching, Apple Music is estimated to nearly one-third the number of paying subscribers as Spotify, a service that launched in 2006. Could Apple catch up quicker by offering something that Spotify doesn't?

Perhaps. Reports suggest that Apple is considering the addition of high-resolution audio streaming to Apple Music this coming year.

Apple Insider caught the report from Japan's Macotakara site on Sunday, and while it's just that - a report - there are some factors that suggest it's a good possibility.

First are the headphones that work with Apple's iOS devices.

They can officially use the Lightning port of an iPhone or iPad to transmit audio while taking up less space than a traditional 3.5 millimeter port. Obviously, they can transmit data and power as well; those are current uses for Lightning cables. And that allows manufacturers to integrate a DAC, or digital analog converter, chip inside the headphones.

That's important because the current DAC inside Apple's iOS devices aren't capable of natively playing high-resolution audio, which has higher bitrates and more data than standard MP3 or AAC files, for example.

The only way for Apple devices to natively playback higher quality music files is for Apple to add a better DAC to iPads and iPhones or for manufacturers to do so in headphones; exactly what Philips has done with its Fidelio M2L headphones.

Philips Fidelio.jpg

It makes more sense for the latter scenario. A better DAC would increase the bill of materials for Apple devices and not everyone would want or use the improved audio chip. Adding it to headphones provides the option for those who prefer high-resolution audio.

Of course, you need high-res music files to listen to and they're not as easy to find as traditional audio files. The files are also more expensive, not to mention much larger than standard audio files.

I bought a dedicated high-resolution audio player early this year and still have very few sources to purchase music from, for example. HDtracks, SuperHiRez, NativeDSD, and ProStudioMasters are on my short list as they all sell a limited number of high-resolution music titles.

Apple Music could solve that problem, however, and do so for a large number of potential customers since it supports iOS, Android, OS X and Windows users.

Macotakara suggests that Apple is working on a new or modified file format that can provide a 96kHz, 24 bit sample rate- which would generally qualify as high-res audio - for Apple Music tunes. (Note that the AAC format Apple uses for music already can support this rate.) If so, Apple could charge an additional $5 or $10 per month for those that can hear the benefits.

That cost bump isn't too bad when you consider that Tidal, another music streaming service, costs $20 a month for CD-quality music; those files have 44kHz, 16 bit sampling.

If Apple does what Macotakara thinks, the company has an opportunity to take high-resolution audio out of the ears of a few and put it within reach of the masses.

That would help redefine the portable music market again, just like Apple did with the original iPod.