Reversal of Fortune

Digital-to-analog converters,
Music servers and computer audio,
Reversal of Fortune

For virtually the entire existence of the audio hardware and music industries, consumers who most valued sound quality (you know, us) were at the mercy of the hardware formats created for the mass market. Audiophiles were limited to physical media that were designed around low cost and mass production, not necessarily the highest sound quality. 

It didn’t start out this way (Exhibit A: the LP), but this unmistakable trend was accelerated by the very technology that had the potential to improve quality—digital audio. This triumph of cost and convenience over fidelity reached its nadir with the proliferation of streaming services that delivered music encoded with lossy compression systems. Apple led the way, its revolutionary iTunes store offering only grossly inferior AAC encoding. Other streaming services emerged and dominated, notably the giant Spotify, so that today the vast majority of music lovers listen to low-bit-rate files, never knowing what they are missing. If you streamed digital audio, you listened to low-quality compression schemes. The scientific advances that liberated music from the technical and commercial constraints of physical formats ended up destroying sound quality. 

But then something astonishing happened. The high end, which had been championing high-resolution digital audio for nearly twenty years, became a leader rather than a follower. Streaming services with CD-quality files started gaining market share. Although a far cry from high-res, uncompressed 44.1kHz/16-bit is significantly better than lossy compression. Amazon Music advanced the cause of uncompressed files by offering 50 million CD-quality files (even though it misleadingly calls these files “High Definition”). Some of these forward-looking streaming services then started adding high-resolution files to their offerings. For examples, Tidal has 20,000 titles in the MQA format, and the French streaming service Qobuz launched in the U.S. earlier this year with 40 million CD-quality titles and another two million higher-res files. 

Tidal and Qobuz set the stage for Amazon Music’s recent announcement that it would begin offering true high-res files, and do so with the aggressive pricing of just $14.95 per month ($12.95 for Prime members). With more than 32 million subscribers (ten times that of Tidal), Amazon’s announcement is a significant step forward in establishing higher-res files as the norm. Qobuz responded quickly, announcing that it has eliminated its lower-cost MP3 tier and will offer its full catalog while matching Amazon’s $14.95 price. Qobuz’s press release stated “With their maximum quality plan now available for one accessible price, Qobuz is the first streaming service to say goodbye to the increasingly archaic MP3 and is making high-res and lossless the new standard in the belief that everyone deserves the best quality sound.” Amen.

Although this is a big step forward in establishing high-res as the norm rather than an audiophile luxury, there are still two big holdouts clinging to the past—Apple Music and Spotify. With about 160 million subscribers between them (60 million for Apple and nearly 100 million paid Spotify subscribers), Apple Music and Spotify are the key to finally abandoning lossy compression schemes designed for a bygone era. Yet it’s high-end-oriented Tidal and Qobuz who are leading the charge, perhaps nudging Amazon Music toward high-res, which may in turn force Spotify and Apple Music to abandon lossy compression and embrace high resolution. Then it’s game over.

Streaming has provided listeners with unprecedented access to music—at a give-away price of $15 a month for unlimited titles. The instant access to so much music opens up whole new worlds. Since the advent of streaming, I’ve discovered countless albums, artists, and genres that I never would have heard. When I read TAS’ music section I invariably go to Tidal or Qobuz and begin listening to albums I think I’d like. I’ll begin playing one of those recommendations, and when the album is over, Roon keeps the party going by playing terrific music in the same vein by yet more artists I’ve never heard of. (Roon’s algorithms are uncanny.)

This astonishing vehicle for musical discovery is now becoming a staple of high-end listening. Now the high end must continue the push to make the very best quality our technology can deliver mainstream, and in a reversal of history, bring high-end formats to the mass-market listener.