All right, so Apple Music doesn’t debut until June 30, but already there are loads of perceptions about the service, and certainly music quality is an important issue. What we do know is that it’ll be very much based on Beats Music intermixed with Apple’s own unique bag of tricks. How it fares against such market leaders as Spotify won’t be known for a while, but it’s a sure thing Apple is working with a huge advantage, some 800 million credit cards registered with iTunes, and a three-month free trial.
No doubt, Apple will be pushing hard for you to take the trial subscription, expecting that many of you will keep it going, since $9.99 (or $14.99 for a family of six) isn’t such a huge investment for access to most of a music library with 30 million tracks. I suppose if you’re used to buying music, you might have suspicions. It’s not that Apple will go out of business tomorrow, but wouldn’t you like to know that your music is still available if you decide to ditch the account, or you miss a payment?
Typical of Apple’s critics, they can come up with some pretty outlandish stuff to argue about, so there was a report from a CNN blogger the other day claiming that Apple would be delivering music with poorer quality audio with Apple Music. How so? Well, it seems that Beats Music streams 320K MP3 tracks, whereas Apple offers 256K AAC. Without actually thinking any further, the CNN blogger subtracts 256 from 320, sees a gap and pronounces the audio quality inferior. Now it so happens that AAC (short for Advanced Audio Coding) is a higher efficiency codec. So the smaller audio files from Apple should deliver identical sound quality.
The claim has also been made that iTunes music ought to sound pretty close to a CD. Under most listening conditions, it doesn’t appear there’s much, or any, audible difference. Such tests can be quite subjective, and some of you will no doubt claim to reliably hear those differences, and suggest they are anything but subtle. On the other hand, double-blind listening tests don’t appear to reveal anything that noticeable. That even appears to be true when you compare so-called “lossless” files with 256K AAC.
To be sure, the question of the quality of different audio codecs is constantly being debated, and each seems to have their adherents. It’s even true that some believe that AAC is Apple’s proprietary protocol, because they mistakenly assume the first “A” stands for “Apple” rather than “Advanced.” It happens to be an industry standard. But it’s not the potential, but how well the audio conversion is done. In addition, Apple claims to use higher resolution digital masters for many of its recordings, which also has the potential to improve sound quality. Well, at least it sounds promising, even although the audible improvements may not always be obvious.
In case you’re wondering, Spotify, the current number one streaming music service with 20 million paid subscribers, according to their recent announcement, offers 320K Ogg Vorbis files for the premium service. Again, there will be debates over what sounds best and what is lacking. I suspect the major audio codecs all work well enough for most listeners, and the sort of listening tests that would pass scientific muster are probably not at all worth struggling with.
Besides, I suspect most of you listen to music on fairly modest equipment, such as an iPhone with one of Apple’s ear buds. So it won’t matter which audio codec is used, and lower bit rates would still be satisfactory. It would probably take a pretty decent audio system to reveal genuine, not imaginary, differences, but that assumes they really exist.
Now when it comes to imaginary, consider the PonoPlayer that classic rocker Neal Young has been touting for a while. The unit sells for $400, and the manufacturer sales a repertoire of higher resolution audio files that clock in at 96 kHz/24-bit, three times larger than CD quality, 44.1 kHz/16-bit. Three times better? No way. The resolution of a CD is beyond what you can hear, unless you’re that person who flies around the skies with tights and a cape. Practically speaking, there may be some value in using those huge audio files for mastering purposes, but it’s not at all clear that the customer will hear an audible difference.
But it will seem as if you do hear differences, particularly if you know which file you’re listening to. If you didn’t know, you might not detect the difference that seemed clear as day, or even care, but I suppose the higher numbers seem impressive enough that some people will buy a PonoPlayer, even though not all of the songs sold at the company’s site are high-res. I’m not even getting into the question of whether the original master recordings are also high-res, or whether only the copy was made at the higher sampling frequency and bit rates.
Besides, it’s not as if any aging rock and roller, whose ears have been assaulted by decades on the road listening to musicians at full blast, will hear any difference. But maybe Young is doing it on faith, or the promise of a huge paycheck. I wouldn’t presume to guess.
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