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I’ve been predicting for over a year that the streaming world would eventually move to high-resolution audio, and a recent announcement from a group of large industry players makes it look like things are finally moving in the right direction. All 3 major labels, Pandora, Rhapsody/Napster, HD Trax and the RIAA announced their support for the high-quality format through the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG), an industry association dedicated to hi-res releases. Interestingly, Apple Music and Spotify were absent from the announcement.
While the DEG didn’t specify exactly what “hi-res” meant, Apple has been collecting high-resolution masters for its Mastered For iTunes program for the last 4 years. Although Apple would prefer masters at a 96kHz/24 bit resolution, it considers any master that’s 24 bit to be hi-res, regardless of the sample rate.
Since Apple has been at the forefront in collecting high quality masters, it would stand to reason that Apple Music would have no problem implementing a new hi-res tier. There’s been no hint of that, however, although the company is notoriously tight-lipped about new developments. Spotify doesn’t seem to want to go that route yet, having enough trouble getting people to buy up to the $9.99 per month paid subscription tier, although it does have 41 million current subscribers, about twice that of its nearest competitor Apple Music.
Tidal and Deezer both have hi-res tiers, but neither has made much of a impact on music consumers. That said, there are numerous online services like HD Trax that specialize in 96/24 and higher products available for download at a premium price. These are more for the audiophile sector, however, and don’t get much traction from mainstream consumers.
That said, the natural progression is to high-resolution streaming, and all services will eventually go that way (you’ve heard it here first). I predict that what we’ll eventually see is the standard subscription tier at $4.99-5.99, and the hi-res premium tier at $9.99 per month. That’s not going to happen soon though, but 5 years from now there’s a good chance that it will be the norm when it comes to streaming.
Neil Young has finally gotten the message about his Pono high-fidelity service, only it’s a couple of years too late. Originally conceived as a download service complete with its own dedicated player, the development took way too long and when it launched potential users had already moved on to streaming instead of buying downloads. Now the artist has announced that the service will convert to streaming, although no other details were given.
This makes sense from the standpoint that the catalog is already licensed, the most difficult part of the equation, and it’s also online, although the format is probably not what will be ultimately streamed.
Of course the big problem here is that the idea of Pono is a service to deliver higher resolution audio than than currently available from the major streaming services. That said, it’s not clear that people will actually pay a premium (approximately double the monthly fee) for something they’re not sure they can hear in the first place. Both Tidal and Deezer offer hi-fi premium tiers already, and that feature hasn’t been a major factor in attracting users or generating revenue for either of those services.
While the world doesn’t need another streaming service, there just may be a niche in the hi-fi area. It’s still unknown whether there are enough people interested to make the service viable though. Then there’s the fact that at some point, the other major streaming players can turn on a hi-fi tier as well (especially Apple, who’s been collecting hi-res audio tracks via its Mastered For iTunes program for about 3 years) at any time. Either way, you have to give Neil Young credit for being passionate about audio enough to take on this gargantuan task.
Pono’s hi-res music store went offline in July. There are no predictions when the new service will be launched.