When digital audio was in its infancy, many critics chastised the technology for sounding too pure, too digital, or simply not as good as the analogue equivalents – much as CDs were bashed by lovers of LPs (long play vinyl records) in the late 1980s. One of the reasons for this is because early digital audio standards were either, at the time, large files with no compression and normal digital quality, or highly compressed files with lossy compression. By lossy compression, this means that the coding technology dropped parts of the sound, which reduces the quality. It’s more obvious using high quality headphones compared with buds typically bundled with smartphones at the time. The highly compressed music formats, such as MP3, were readily adopted by many people because slow Internet technologies meant that downloading a 3 MB file took some time. The cost of storage was also relatively high, which meant for early portable digital players faced a difficult compromise between the quality of audio, the cost of the device and the capacity of music. Apple’s iPod is credited with revolutionising the technology, thanks in part to very clever marketing, iTunes making it easy to buy or bring music, and Apple’s compression technology. The iPhone followed the iPod and of course, many smartphones had the ability to play music. The dedicated personal, portable digital music player’s days appeared to be numbered and manufacturers of these devices were struggling.
The market has changed: there is a niche market for high quality digital audio players, with manufacturers such as Astell & Kern, Sony (with the reinvented Walkman range), Samsung and LG upping the ante for audio technologies. The technology is not cheap: Astell & Kern’s vice president reports that a few years ago, customers would think that paying $300 for a music player was “crazy” whereas today, the average price of a high resolution audio player today is around $1,000. Sennheiser manufacturer a pair of headphones costing $55,000, the Orpheus HE 1. We have seen smartphones moving from a luxury item to a staple of modern life and device manufacturers are looking for ways to differentiate their products – adding in high resolution audio functionality is one such way, such as the LG V10 (showing above) and the LG G5 (in selected regions only). However, it is not only device manufacturers who have realised the importance of high resolution music, but carriers are also muscling in on the business: in 2014, iriver was put up for sale and South Korean carrier, SK Telecom, bought the company. Offering high resolution audio products is seen as a way of boosting profits.
There are a few reasons why more people are interested in high resolution audio technology. As a rule, people are commuting for longer, living in smaller properties and using digital media more and more. Streaming services, such as Google Play Music and Spotify, are becoming more and more commonplace – from a practical perspective, access to millions of tracks occupies no physical space in our homes compared with the storage and maintenance of physical music collections. Digital storage has become cheaper, faster and more reliable – ten years ago, $30 bought space for around 500 songs using the lossy MP3 file format whereas today the same money buys space for over 30,000 tracks. Sales of music accessories has increased, especially Bluetooth wireless speaker and headphones; we have seen Google introduce the audio-only Chromecast. Many streaming services now offer an enhanced quality audio service for a relatively small premium.
Despite the increased demand in the products, many dedicated businesses operating in the high resolution audio industry are small operations. There are many opportunities for larger businesses to acquire small audio specialist businesses and whilst there are still questions of demand, this has never stopped smartphone manufacturers from including the technologies into their devices. We can see a parallel in smartphone screen resolutions: was there demand for QHD displays in late 2014? LG’s offering of high resolution audio technology in the V10 and G5 might be the kickstarter for the industry and perhaps by 2018, all devices will include the technology.