Should faster broadband speeds mean better quality digital-music downloads?

For a number of years, the MP3 audio codec dominated digital-music downloading. MP3 was initially synonymous with illegal downloading, but in 2007 the major record companies dropped their opposition to selling music in unprotected formats. Although Apple chose to stick with the AAC codec, most others opted for MP3. Until recently little has changed in terms of quality. But with broadband speeds and household penetration continuing to rise, is now the time for the music industry to up its focus on quality?

The recorded-music industry has sold music in a variety of formats for almost 130 years. From the early days of the gramophone cylinder and the music roll in the late 19th century to the current super audio CD and DVD-A, the shift in formats has resulted in improved quality and a closer re-creation of the original studio recording. The rapid rise of digital distribution, led by the popularity of file sharing, saw audio quality take a backward step. But even though the quality of virtually all legal digital downloads remains inferior to that of CDs, the progression of digital has remained unchecked and in just a few short years digital will account for the majority of global recorded-music sales.

File sharing began when dial-up Internet access dominated. The slow download experience was bearable because music was available at no cost, other than the Internet-access fee. Broadband growth vastly improved the download experience. However, until recently, the size and quality of downloads have remained inferior to recordings sold on the pre-download-era hard formats. This year could spell the beginning of a change.

Quality is in the ear of the listener
The issue of quality is often subjective. Not only has the size of downloads affected audio quality, but the big increase in the portability of music has meant that playback is often through relatively poor-quality headphones, making the issue of quality less of a concern. It could also be argued that lower-quality downloads are not suitable for certain types of music. Classical music, for example, relies on high-quality playback, because of the broad range of sound in a composition. Although sales of classical music have been affected by retailers’ reduction in the floor space allocated to slow-selling, low-margin classical music in favor of more popular entertainment content and consumer electronics, lower sales of classical music can partly be blamed on the poor quality of downloads and download-store alternatives.

A number of online classical-music stores have responded to the downturn by upping the quality of their downloads. For example, Swedish store eClassical sells downloads in 24-bit Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC), 16-bit FLAC and 320Kbps MP3. FLAC is a lossless encoding format, meaning that when audio is compressed to FLAC there is no loss of quality. EClassical began selling 24-bit FLAC downloads at the beginning of 2011 and almost immediately saw an increase in download sales as well as unique visits to the store. Forty percent of download sales are in the higher-quality FLAC format, with the rest split equally between 16-bit FLAC and MP3.

To encourage the use of high-quality downloads, buyers of a 24-bit FLAC track from eClassical also receive a 16-bit FLAC and MP3 version at no extra cost. However, the better the music’s quality, the bigger the download size. A three-minute, 25-second track in 24-bit FLAC is 31.2MB in size. The same track in the MP3 format is just 8MB.

EClassical notes that for a full-featured FLAC playback, consumers need media-player software that supports FLAC, such as MediaMonkey, Winamp or Foobar2000 for Windows, and VLC or Play for Macintosh. ITunes and other Apple portable devices do not support FLAC. For a consumer to import FLAC tracks to iTunes, the track must be converted to the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC). Apple introduced the ALAC codec in 2004 with the iTunes 4.5 upgrade. FLAC tracks also cannot be played in Windows Media Player.

Taking higher quality to the masses
Despite the obvious benefits of selling classical music in the FLAC codec, the use of FLAC is not confined to classical. Last month indie record company and download service Linn Records teamed up with UMG to sell a number of UMG-artist releases as 24-bit studio-master downloads. Artists forming part of the partnership include Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Diana Krall and John Coltrane. Linn Records sells studio-master downloads in 24-bit FLAC as well as 24-bit Windows Media Audio (WMA) lossless. In contrast to FLAC, WMA lossless files can be imported into iTunes, although the process involves the automatic conversion into ALAC. According to Linn, about 90% of its download sales are in one of the two studio-master formats.

Apple, the biggest download retailer, sells downloads in the AAC format. When the majors agreed to sell downloads without DRM, Apple introduced the iTunes Plus standard. This was not a new format; Apple simply increased the quality of its AAC downloads from 128Kbps to 256Kbps, effectively doubling the audio quality. Buyers of lower-quality AAC tracks were given the opportunity to upgrade to the higher quality for US$0.30 per track. Album upgrades cost 30% of the original album purchase price.

Earlier this year Apple introduced its “Mastered for iTunes” program, which aimed to improve the quality of its 256Kbps AAC files. The program was composed of a guide for mixing and mastering engineers detailing how they should master tracks for compressed formats. In a rather low-key introduction, Apple said that if mastering engineers followed its guidelines they could achieve “dynamic range that’s superior to red book audio and a final product that’s virtually indistinguishable from the original recording.” Red-book audio is the accepted industry standard for audio CDs.

Since the launch, a steady flow of albums have been made available under the Mastered for iTunes banner. To coincide with the launch, several UMG-artist albums were made available in the higher-quality format, including new releases, such as Madonna’s MDNA, Paul McCartney’s Kisses on the Bottom and Japanese classical guitarist Kaori Muraji’s Soleil – Portraits 2. Other albums made available included U2’s Achtung Baby, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet and Have a Nice Day.

Last month EMI Classics released about 80 albums on the iTunes Classical Store, all of which had been remastered specifically for the Mastered for iTunes program. Included among the albums were the Juilliard String Quartet’s Sessions releases, Joyce DiDonato’s recital Diva Divo and pianist Alexandre Tharaud’s album of Scarlatti Sonatas.

Squeezing out the last drops of quality
Apple’s efforts to increase the quality of its downloads have drawn a mixed reaction. Various news services that compared Mastered for iTunes” tracks against standard 256Kbps AAC versions have come up with different opinions. Some claimed an audible difference, with others detecting no change. Although Apple claimed that the Mastered for iTunes quality format is almost indistinguishable from the CD version, most mastering engineers agree that whatever care is taken in the mastering suite, a compressed format will never re-create a studio master.

Apple would seem to be in the best position to make the switch to studio-master-quality formats, especially since the company has already developed a studio-master codec that is compatible with all of its hardware. However, no tracks are available to download from iTunes in the ALAC format, and the company remains quiet about any further plans to increase quality. One obvious problem is storage size. According to Apple, a 160GB iPod classic can hold 20,000 four-minute tracks in the 256Kbps AAC format. If those tracks were in the ALAC format, the storage number would be greatly reduced because of the big difference in track size.

However, the push for improved quality has started. Although a relatively disparate collection of online retailers have switched to studio-master downloads, it can only be a matter of time before the mainstream online retailers make the step up.

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