Why high bit-rate and HD audio are all about marketing, not music

High bit rate — kilobit per second — and HD audio — 24bit vs. 16bit — are getting a lot of attention lately, whether it's because streaming services are offering more or less kbps or upcoming devices are promising higher fidelity sound or Apple is rumored to be adding those features to iOS 8 and the iPhone 6. The truth is, as far as it's been explained to me and I'm able to understand it, is that higher bit-rate and higher bit audio is more about marketing than it is about music. Yes, the quality of the mastering matters incredibly, as does the quality of the transcoding, but for most audio, with most modern codecs, we're well past the levels where things become transparent to the listener. Why is that?

Here's the introduction to the best, most understandable explanation I've found. It's by Chris "Monty" Montgomery, the creator of the Ogg format and the Vorbis codec. And as a good friend of mine said, "he knows his shit." From xiph.org:

Articles last month revealed that musician Neil Young and Apple's Steve Jobs discussed offering digital music downloads of 'uncompromised studio quality'. Much of the press and user commentary was particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of uncompressed 24 bit 192kHz downloads. 24/192 featured prominently in my own conversations with Mr. Young's group several months ago.Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48, and it takes up 6 times the space.There are a few real problems with the audio quality and 'experience' of digitally distributed music today. 24/192 solves none of them. While everyone fixates on 24/192 as a magic bullet, we're not going to see any actual improvement.

Read the rest of Montgomery's lengthy, detailed article to see why he would rather see resources being spent on things like better quality headphones (and I'll add speakers), overcoming the technical hurdles to real, efficient surround sound, lossless formats to eliminate the risk of bad encoding and generation loss, and high-quality masters.

Again, the remastering of the original audio that's being done in advance of the push to higher bit-rate and higher bit-depth audio will no doubt result in fantastic versions of the music we know and love. It's just that those new remasters would sound every bit as good to humans in existing bit-rates and bit-depths.

When that's taken into consideration, the primary advantage of going to higher bit rates and 24bit becomes clear — marketing escalation. If one music service can say they offer higher kbps streams, even if they're higher beyond the point where it makes any difference, they look more impressive. If a device says it supports 24-bit rather than 16-bit audio, even if all it does it take up more storage space on that device.

We'll no doubt see many more products and rumors that hawk higher quality audio as a selling point, and we may even see Apple bullet point them on a Keynote deck so they stay competitive in the perception-is-reality space. But when the time comes to pick a streaming service or a device, don't fall victim to the bit-race. Pick the ones that offers the best mastered versions of the most music you love most in the way that sounds best to you.

Are you interested in higher bit rate or 24-bit audio? If so, what makes it compelling to you?

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.