Apple in talks to offer 24-bit, high-fidelity iTunes Store music downloads

“Apple and other digital music retailers are in discussions with record labels to improve the quality of the song files they sell, executives involved in the talks say,” Mark Milian reports for CNN. “As a result, online music stores could eventually offer songs that sound truer to their original recordings, perhaps at a premium price.”

“Professional music producers generally capture studio recordings in a 24-bit, high-fidelity audio format. Before the originals, or ‘masters’ in industry parlance, are pressed onto CDs or distributed to digital sellers like Apple’s iTunes, they’re downgraded to 16-bit files,” Milian reports. “Why don’t record labels at least give retailers the option of working from higher-grade recordings? ‘Why?’ Jimmy Iovine, a longtime music executive, asked rhetorically. ‘I don’t know. It’s not because they’re geniuses.'”

“‘We’ve gone back now at Universal, and we’re changing our pipes to 24 bit. And Apple has been great,’ Iovine said. ‘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,'” Milian reports.

“Many models of Mac computers can play 24-bit sound, and the iTunes program is capable of handling such files. But most portable electronics, and many computers, don’t support 24-bit audio,” Milian reports. “To make the jump to higher-quality music attractive for Apple, the Cupertino, California, company would have to retool future versions of iPods and iPhones so they can play higher-quality files.”

“‘Paul McCartney can master The Beatles albums all he wants, (but) when you play them through a Dell computer, it sounds like you’re playing them through a portable television,’ Iovine said… ‘What we’re trying to do here is fix the degradation of music that the digital revolution has caused. It’s one thing to have music stolen through the ease of digital processing. But it’s another thing to destroy the quality of it. And that’s what’s happening on a massive scale.'”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: Better late than never.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Lynn W.” for the heads up.]

35 Comments

  1. Give me 16bit lossless or higher quality 24bit lossless files and I’ll never buy another CD. SACD and DVD Audio have failed to pusher higher quality to the mass market. This could work.

  2. Hi Fidelity – that’s the way the ear hears, that’s the way music is supposed to be listened to.

    The labels finally are starting to smell the coffee and realize that Apple is their only hope.

    1. Except most people have tin ears and shitty playback equipment, so it won’t make much difference to them.

      When people go to the majority of “live” concerts, they’re essentially listening to a big PA system, NOT the actual instruments themselves.

      I wonder how much more they’ll charge for the extra pleasure of higher bit-rates?

      1. There’s a fundamental confusion between the audio industry and computer users. “16 bits” or “24 bits” to an audio engineer does not equate to a computer user’s “bit rate” understanding.

        Your comment refers to “higher bit rate” implying how much data per second is being sent down a pipe to a computer user. But an audio engineer is only concerned with Philips-Dupont Optical’s RedBook standards for capturing and storing digital audio.

        A typical studio session will turn analog audio from the microphone into digital data by “sampling” that stream. Usually, 44,100 times a second, the amplitude of the voltage will be measured and given a value that lies within the range zero to 2^16. In other words, the signal is sampled at 44.1 kHz and its magnitude is given a value between 0 and 65,536.

        We are lucky if we can hear an amplitude change of 3 decibels under laboratory conditions and we experience pain at something like 120 dB. Also, we can’t hear much that is quieter than a certain level, let’s say 20 dB for argument’s sake. That leaves an amplitude range of 100 dB that needs to be conveyed to our ears via the CD. Divide those 100 dB by 16 bits and each increment is way, WAY too small for us to hear any difference.

        A sampling rate of 44.1 kHz permits hearing, in theory, up to an audio frequency of 22.05 kHz, beyond what we can hear. (In theory a healthy human can hear up to a commonly-assumed 20 kHz but allowing for imperfect hearing, old age, ambient noise and so on, means you’re lucky if you can detect that final, top octave so your hearing probably diminishes to zero around 10 kHz except under laboratory conditions.

        What does all that mean? A sampling rate of 44.1 kHz and a resolution of 16 bits provides well above what human hearing can deal with. No one needs 24 bits resolution, which is 256 times as fine a resolution as the 16 bits just demonstrated to be 3/.00001 = already 300,000 times as fine as our ears can detect.

        A computer-savvy person would interpret the stream of data from a CD as 2 channels x 44,100 samples per second x 16 bits per sample = 1,4112 megabits per second.

        1. Since the late 70s, recording desks have primarily been 24bit . A typical recording session IS NOT in 16Bit, but in 24Bit. The file is compressed to 16Bit so it can fit onto a CD.

          One will only notice a marked improvement listening to 24 Bit on a decent / very good stereo system. The difference will not really be noticed on headphones, iphones, laptops etc etc. So I am baffled that Mr Milian thinks the industry should “adjust” the hardware of such playback devices. If one cannot hear the difference from 16 to 24, then stick to Mp3

  3. finally – I have long missed the fidelity of vinyl and you can hear the difference between CD and a good record on a good record player (and good stereo of course)

    Yes, records have problems, like dust, worn needles, warped records, hum from the platter, etc., but if you eliminate as much of that as possible, you can get better than 16 bit audio. That’s the problem with CD and digital downloads – its 16 bit. Even at 320kbs, its still a 16 bit source.

    Finally something for us audiophiles to cheer about! As the digital revolution and CD revolution was a big step down in sound quality for a lot of us!

  4. Upgrade the bit rate and charge a premium?! I might as well buy the CD then! I don’t know who is worse, the record label exec’s or the banking institutions (or pick your poison). Why hasn’t Apple addressed this a long time ago? Again, I should pay a premium for what purpose again???

  5. Having been a professional musician for almost my entire life (last 35 years), I can absolutely appreciate the difference between 256kbps AAC file and a 24-bit, 96kHz uncompressed file. However, the only way I actually CAN hear that difference is if it is played back in a acoustically treated control room, on Tannoy reference monitor speakers. My home stereo simply can’t deliver the difference between the two; never mind my iPods.

    There is no argument that the sound quality of 16bit/44.1kHz stereo audio format is NOT absolutely pure and authentic, and that 24bit resolution would provide greater fidelity. However, I would argue that the number of people who actually CAN hear the difference is rather small (and I put myself into that group). Out of that subset, the number of people who actually OWN equipment on which they could actually HEAR the difference is a very, very small percentage of that subset. Finally, out of that smaller sub-set, the amount of time these would spend listening to their music on such equipment, as opposed to listening on mobile devices is yet even smaller.

    What I’m saying is, SACD failed for an obvious reason: even 128kbps MP3 proved good enough for the masses (let alone 128kbps AAC, and not to mention “iTunes Plus” 256kbps AAC).

    If this doesn’t represent a major cost for labels to implement, they may as well work with Apple and deliver some sort of 24-bit uncompressed audio format for iTunes store. The primary difference between the SACD (and other higher-fidelity physical audio formats) and this is that it will require significantly lower initial sales volume in order to recover the investment of building an infrastructure and re-mastering existing catalogue in the new format. In other words, it will be much cheaper for labels to get this going. Once it’s up, audiofiles can help themselves if they wish, assuming the price is right.

    1. Amen Predrag,
      I’m a fifty something and can’t hardly hear the difference past 160kbps MP3! I have a lot of experience analog and digital recording and know sound too but if Apple would even just up the ante to 16/48 Apple Lossless codec, that would make my day. I just ripped my entire 1000+ CD collection to Apple Lossless and it sounds pretty great. Some sites already sell 24 bit versions of certain titles and comparing often there is little to no difference. Not enough to get hot and bothered about to these old ears. Babies and dogs may beg to differ but true enough without exemplary and expensive playback equipment, which relatively few have, there isn’t much point. Differences may be more imaginary than real.

      1. One could be cynical and assume the only reason is that he labels can get Bubba to pay more for something he can’t really hear — as in it’s more a marketing ploy than anything else.

    2. Man I wish I understood half of what you said there Predrag. The only thing I know what to do with my music is to crank up the amp and sod the rest! Give it some sound baby!

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