On Tuesday, Spotify announced plans to bring higher quality music to its streaming service. The move to Spotify Hi-Fi means CD-quality, lossless audio is just around the corner on the world's largest streamer. No doubt, Apple Music could take a steep fall because of this news. And yet, I don't expect the iPhone maker to let Spotify take a high-res victory lap — at least not a long one. The reason? AirPods, baby.
What is high-resolution audio?
Spotify's transition to Hi-Fi isn't expected to start for a few months. When it does, it will only come to Premium subscribers in "select markets." Between now and then, there'll be a lot of talk about high-resolution audio and what it means. Without getting stuck too far into the weeds, it's important to note that high-resolution audio typically refers to music files with a higher sampling frequency and/or bit depth than CD or 16-bit/44.1kHz.
Further, the Digital Entertainment Group, Consumer Electronics Association, and The Recording Academy, along with record labels, formally define high-resolution audio as "lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better than CD quality music sources."
As our friends over at What Hi-Fi? rightly note, however, defining this further can be a "daunting prospect," at best.
Sampling frequency (or sample rate) refers to the number of times samples of the signal are taken per second during the analog-to-digital conversion process. The more bits there are, the more accurately the signal can be measured in the first instance, so going 16bit to 24bit can deliver a noticeable leap in quality. Hi-res audio files usually use a sampling frequency of 96kHz or 192kHz at 24bit. You can also have 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz files too.
The current landscape
Currently, Apple Music (and YouTube Music) streams content at 256kps versus Spotify Premium's "Extreme" audio quality option of 320 kbps. While this suggests Spotify already offers better sound quality than Apple Music, that's not the case. Apple Music streams content at 256kbps using the AAC audio format, which tends to be more efficient than other open-source lossy alternatives.
However, again let's turn to What Hi-FI?, which says, "the 256kbps AAC files on Apple Music's iCloud library sound more open and involving than Spotify's 320kbps MP3 streams, and benefit from extra space, subtlety and punch too. It's not a million miles ahead, though."
What is Spotify promising?
At least for now, Spotify isn't specific on the type of sound quality it will bring with its Hi-Fi solution.
In today's announcement, the company only said to expect music in "CD-quality, lossless audio format" on both devices and Spotify-Connect-enabled speakers. In doing so, "fans will be able to experience more depth and clarity while enjoying their favorite tracks." As part of the push towards its definition of Hi-Fi, the company is working with speaker manufacturers to "make Spotify HiFi accessible to as many fans as possible."
In other words, the devil will be in the pesky details.
HD isn't new
Amazon Music and TIDAL already offer high-quality music as part of their respective streaming services. The former currently offers lossless audio in two quality ranges: HD and Ultra HD. HD tracks are 16-bit audio, with a minimum sample rate of 44.1 kHz and an average bitrate of 850 kbps.
TIDAL Hi-Fi also includes lossless quality audio (1411kbps or 16bit / 44.1kHz). Select TIDAL titles also have a "Master" distinction and offer sound quality up to 9216 Kbps or 24 bit / 192 kHz).
Qobuz and Primephonic also offer high-resolution quality audio.
Now, what about Apple?
Please make no mistake: Apple is the reason we have music streaming. If it weren't for iTunes launching 20 years ago, we might still be listening to CDs rather than downloading our favorite tunes from various devices on the fly. And yet, the transition from one-time music downloads to monthly streaming plans has often been a choppy one for Apple.
Unlike with downloads, Apple, through its Music service, has yet to jump Spotify as the world's No. 1. And yet, being first isn't necessarily all that important, especially when you factor in profit margins.
Besides, while companies like Spotify have concentrated solely on music, Apple also has a hardware component that can't be overlooked. With AirPods, AirPods Pro, and last year's AirPods Max, Apple's trying to do what it always does, control both the software and hardware.
It's your move, Apple
I have no idea whether Spotify Hi-Fi came as a surprise to the folks at Apple. My best guess is it was expected and that Apple has its own plans for hi-res audio. I believe that big reveal could be heavily tied to Apple's 2021 AirPods offerings that are expected to launch in the coming weeks or months.
Imagine CD-quality audio on Apple Music that happens to get further enhanced by Apple hardware!! Doesn't that sound about right for the iPhone maker? Besides, it would make the price tag on the AirPods Max look much more reasonable, no?
Do you want Apple to introduce hi-resolution audio on its Music service? Would you pay extra for it? Let us know in the comments below.