Rewind to five years ago or so and the way we listened to our music was a whole lot different than it was two years ago and is indeed today. 2010 was the year that the original Nexus One, HTC EVO 4G and first Galaxy S arrived. All of these devices were capable of playing back music, but with 4GB or so of internal storage and microSD card slots capable of perhaps 32GB at most, a lot of people held on to their iPods and MP3 players. Now, we have fast 4G networks capable of delivering music to our ears whenever we want and devices launch with 16GB or 32GB of storage as standard. Streaming music is perhaps the future of how we listen to music, but as smartphones and the teeny, tiny sound chips inside of them become capable of sound reproduction those same iPods could only heave dreamt of, there's more choice than ever and the quality of our music is finally getting back to the CDs we left to gather dust on the shelf.
Earlier this week I was able to attend a sort of roundtable hosted by Sony Mobile, with journalists from sites like ourselves as well as folk like Pete Downton, Chief Commercial Officer of 7Digital, an online store for high-resolution music downloads. Discussing the 'future of music' is not an easy task, and perhaps one that sounds a little self-serving, but the general takeaway was that better-quality music is slowly becoming the norm, streaming music is here to stay and the record labels might finally have had their day.
When Is 'Better', Better?
Part of Sony's presence during the discussion was their "Hi-Res" audio initiative and devices like the new Xperia Z3+ which is able to play such music. High-Resolution audio defines itself as having a bit-depth of 24-bit and a sample rate of 96,000 Hz. CD quality is 16-bit at 48,000 Hz. To explain what this means for us, Sony's Eric Kingdon outlines the difference as:
"Hi-Res goes far beyond the relative imprecision of CD's 16 bits and 44.1kHz. Bit-depth can be boosted to 24 bits. Rather than a meagre 65,000-odd levels, the waveform is represented with an accuracy of 16,777,216 (two to the power 24) steps. Similarly, the sampling rate can jump to 192kHz or even higher in some systems. More snapshots of the waveform every second means greater precision. Un-musical ambiguity about that musical signal is replaced with a much closer representation."
With a Sony Xperia Z smartphone and its DSEE HX technology, users can play an MP3 file and have it upscaled to 24-bit, Hi-Res audio. Think of upscaling a DVD to 720p HD and you have the right idea. This is where Sony presents an important choice for consumers, they offer the ability to enjoy their existing library in a better way, while also partnering with TIDAL to offer three free months of lossless streaming in CD-quality. I recently tested DSEE HX out with a 320kbps MP3 of Taylor Swift's 1989 (bought on CD, you're welcome, Swift) and upscaling it really did make a difference. Whether or not I would change to transferring my music to an SD card instead of streaming lossless from TIDAL is unlikely, but it's a real option, and it sounds great.
To bust some jargon and answer the question of what 'better' really is, Spotify streams at 320 kbps, as does Google Play Music and Apple Music streams at 258 kbps. Services like Rdio and Pandora stream at similar bitrates but TIDAL's HiFi quality streams at 1,411 kbps, or to make it simpler; the same quality you'd get from a CD.
The Shrinking Shadow of Record Labels
Over the past few years, artists have been able to communicate better with their fanbase better than ever before, and it's not just because of this thing called the Internet. Services like YouTube have become the de facto listening method for a generation of listeners. YouTube is how I have discovered some of my favorite artists, and as artists produce content like live sessions, interviews and more for their own YouTube Channels, the record label gets a little smaller each day. Apple Music's Connect might try to further this, but Twitter and Facebook seem to be doing this for artists just fine. One of my favorite bands, CHVRCHES, famously manages their own Twitter feeds themselves and also help fans that need to sell their tickets connect with others that missed out.
It's clear that Swift's open letter to Apple has made a difference, and it was a shining example of how the power of record labels has diminished over the last few years – would Apple have changed their stance if a label complained in such a fashion, I doubt it. It seems like the labels only exist for promotion and handling of rights these days, with many artists spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook quite handily on their own. Artists becoming more vocal is a good thing, and should hopefully lead to less difficult relations between fans and the content itself.
Pete Downton, himself a "recovering record exec" from Warner Records, said that the industry has often been "disorganized" and that there's little extra associated cost in offering 16-bit lossless music or even high-res 24-bit audio. His general take on higher-quality audio is that as demand for such a thing grows, the record industry will simply evolve and offer it as a standard feature. Until then however, labels will try to hold on to CD sales and continue to adjust to streaming services.
The Times, They Are a Changin'
The outcome of the discussion was that while many in attendance used Spotify and were happy with it, higher-quality music will slowly become the norm. After all, mobile networks are faster than they ever have been, and it's easier to pull down big chunks of data. Networks like T-Mobile in the US are offering up free, unlimited streaming regardless of how much data you pay for – including TIDAL – and stores like 7Digital and a myriad of other services that take advantage of Sony's Hi-Res audio are becoming more common. TIDAL's move in to offering lossless, CD-quality music might not be for everyone, but as smartphones produce ever-better sound, it seems like this is where we are headed. Spotify has started offering "Spotify Extreme" at 320 kbps and while it's a small step in the right direction, it's a step in the right direction. Headphones and Bluetooth speakers have become much, much better in the past few years and as we connect our devices to setups like Sonos and Google Cast, mobile music is becoming music in general. If the future of music is better access to content we love and a better level of quality, then I'm all for it, are you?