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Apple Leads the Charge to hi-fi Digital Music

by February 28, 2011

Apple wants you to blow the speakers on your iPad 2 with 24-bit panache! Apple and other digital music retailers are in discussions with the recording industry to begin dealing in uncompressed, high resolution digital music files. It's great news if you’re a red blooded Audioholic and like your music high-fidelity but appreciate the convenience and scalability of a digital music collection.

Remember the days when high-fidelity recordings meant something? A true old-school Audioholic may have vinyl copy of the original master recording of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, complete with green smudge stains on the album cover.

But today we're in a digital rush to dumb down audio, lower bit-rates, crappy ear bud headphones. Evidence even suggests kids these days have learned to prefer the lo-fi crackle of compression in audio. But hope is not lost!

Sure, the cardigan-wearing hipsters act out in smug rebellion against digital music from behind their oversized spectacles by feigning ironic preference for vinyl. This has caused an artificial bubble in demand for old-fashioned record album technology.

But the hipsters don't get it. It's not about the delivery or storage technology. It’s about retaining the care and quality from the original recording without damaging it. The analog and digital recording worlds both provide plenty of opportunity to detract from the original recording quality.

Most music studios today use digital equipment to record its artists. These are high-quality, uncompressed 24-bit audio recordings. These master records are immediately downgraded to 16-bit linear PCM audio files to meet the digital standards for CD. By the time the music makes it to the digital distribution stream, like iTunes, it’s even further degraded when it’s compressed into 192-Kbps or even 128-Kbps AAC or MP3 files.

Hi-Fi Has a New Ally

Thankfully, hi-fi has a record industry exec on their side in Jimmy Iovine. He's the chairman of Universal Music Group's Interscope-Geffen-A&M record label and has his own venture called Beats Audio with Dr. Dre. You may have heard of Beats Audio, several noted recording artists, including Dr. Dre and Lady Ga Ga are in on the new enterprise that wants to bring quality to digital recordings.

Beats Audio has sold an estimated one million hi-fi-centric laptops through HP and sells a series of headphones and other audio peripherals bearing the Monster brand. Beats Audio technology will also be included in an upcoming TouchPad tablet from Hewlett-Packard.

In a recent news conference, Iovine talked about improving music quality offered by download services:

"We’ve gone back now at Universal, and we're changing our pipes to 24-bit. And Apple has been great. 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."

There's a catch in switching to a new high-quality digital audio format, in most cases it'll require a hardware upgrade from the standard MP3 player you’ve been toting around. It couldn't have been difficult to get Apple on board with any excuse to launch an upgraded product. Remember, Apple is the company that didn't even wait six months before announcing the sequel to its long-awaited iPad. These guys can't to sell you on an excuse to upgrade your hardware in 2011.

Apple users can prepare for an iPad 3, iPhone 4, iPodTouch Infinity that is fully compatible with an upcoming hi-fi format. To be fair, many models of Mac computers already playback 24-bit files, most PCs should have no problem and iTunes currently ready for high-bit files. The trouble is mainly with the portable music devices and cell phones.

Mr. Iovine reminds us: "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."

You may remember that Apple added an upgraded audio quality option to the iTunes Store back in January 2009. They started selling music files at double the bit-rate of their normal .99-cent files and removed those files copy-protection for a premium price.

Although high-end digital music files are in our near future it'll take some time before they come to market. Representatives from the two largest digital music retailers Apple and Amazon have declined to comment on this story.

About the author:
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Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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