Hi-Res Audio: New Standard Or Cash Grab?

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By Sergey Bludov
Senior Vice President, Media & Entertainment
Hi-Res Audio: New Standard Or Cash Grab?

Can you perceive the difference between a high-quality MP3 and a lossless audio file?

As a growing number of streaming platforms offer higher quality audio options for an additional cost, a question arises: How many consumers are truly willing to pay more for hi-res audio files?

Hi-Res Audio (HRA) refers to lossless audio, which can reproduce the full range of sound from recordings, in contrast to MP3s and other compressed formats with a lower audio quality. The downside to HRA tracks is that the files are typically larger, so they take longer to download and use up more storage, while the upside is that they sound better than MP3 or AAC files. HRA actually isn't new, having existed for over ten years, but the format has only recently started to gain popularity with people beyond sophisticated audiophiles.

A new superior format has recently been introduced with the potential to be a game-changer. Called Master Quality Authenticated (MQA), this format allows higher-quality audio to be delivered through streaming services without causing bandwidth issues. Describing the sound of its format as "Music so true, it's like you're there," MQA has already received backing from Atlantic Records chairman/CEO Craig Kallman, in addition to signing deals with Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group to license its technology.

Streaming services are increasingly getting on board with MQA. Tidal, the streaming service launched by Jay Z and friends in March 2015, became the first streaming platform to offer MQA audio earlier this year, while Napster and Pandora have also committed to hi-res audio streaming. Although neither Spotify nor Apple have made public statements, it's expected that both companies are also preparing to provide hi-res streaming services in the near future.

Is hi-res audio on its way to become a streaming industry standard?

It depends who you ask. A recent study called "Global Insight: The Appeal of High-Res Audio (Studio Quality Sound)" claims that 85 percent of U.S. consumers say audio quality is "very important" to them; 48 percent of U.S. consumers are willing to pay more for better audio quality; and 71 percent of existing music streaming subscribers are interested in the option of studio quality sound. These statistics are certainly very impressive, appearing to indicate a big potential market for hi-res audio streaming services. At the same time, there are also many detractors, with some claiming that there is little or no audible difference between MQA and other existing formats, while others say it's primarily a method to charge consumers more for streaming without any notable benefits to warrant the increased cost.

There are still some technical restrictions which can cause problems for hi-res streaming service providers, including the fact that not all software is compatible with the audio file formats, such as some Android versions. Additionally, most of headphones that are currently on the market can't support hi-res quality at this point. Perhaps most importantly, the question of what percentage of music fans can actually discern the difference between compressed audio and hi-res tracks remains, which may be the biggest determinant for whether or not hi-res becomes an industry standard in the future.

Music experts have been discussing these and other aspects of the Hi-Res audio adoption process during streaming sessions at Midem this week. And what about you? Are you ready to pay more for new music software and hardware to enjoy the Hi-Res audio quality? Do you anticipate the new standard to take hold on the market or fade away from view?

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