When Apple first debuted the iTunes Music Store — which dropped the “Music” label when movies were added — they made a very direct claim about the quality of the 128K AAC files they offered. They approached the quality of a CD, but that’s a claim that was quickly disputed by critical listeners everywhere.
In turn, Apple eventually settled on a less-exaggerated phrase, “high quality.”
To be fair, it may be true that, on a portable music player with inexpensive earphones, a car radio or a low-cost home audio system, you probably wouldn’t be able to detect much of an audible difference between the standard iTunes fare and a CD. That’s particularly true with today’s highly-compressed and noisy popular music, where audio quality plays the role of poor handmaiden to “talk power,” so it stands out on the radio.
But if you take acoustic instruments, such as a piano or harpsichord, where the subtle nuances are difficult to reproduce even in uncompressed music, the audible differences may be painfully obvious. This is why so-called “golden ears” began to demand that Apple deliver something better.
At the same time, the music industry wanted a two-tier pricing system for singles. You’d pay the regular 99 cents for older product, and a higher price for hits. Apple and EMI devised a smart solution that addressed several of the demands of both listeners and the music industry.