Apple and other digital retailers are planning to offer 24-bit audio to consumers. It should be an easy sell; recording studios use 24-bit, it's how the music was mixed, and it's how the consumers should hear it. Right? Wrong.
24-bit audio might be the staple of recording studios, but there's a reason it should stay there. 24-bit has a really low "noise floor" — that hum you hear if you turn a silent amplifier up really high. With 16-bit, the noise floor is slightly higher. While that might be a problem in a studio where you're boosting sounds to be clear and loud, it's irrelevant to the end listener who is given the fully mastered and noise-free version already. Even CDs are 16-bit, and the sonic quality of a CD is an accepted definition of consumer-worthy HD quality.
24-bit also has a better volume depth, known as dynamic range. However, CDs already have a huge potential dynamic range, but the loudness war has resulted in music squashed to within a few decibels of its life. This is the same reason TV commercials are so loud. When modern music is mixed to blow your ears off already, it negates the dynamic benefits the digital revolution once promised. This is a cultural issue within the industry, which faces protest on March 25 with Dynamic Range Day.
Finally, the digital effects used in studios to mix music benefit from the higher 24-bit resolution file for microscopic processing duties. Home listeners have no reason to use these effects. And let's not forget the huge file sizes and the fact many portable music players don't support 24-bit playback.
A consumer will never need 24-bit. Ever.
Which is where Dr. Dre comes in. The hip-hop producer has offered his Beats headphones to audiophiles for some years with his business partner Jimmy Iovine, CEO and chairman of Interscope, who have clearly struck on the potential for marketing their high-grade headphones as a means to appreciate these HD files.
The Beats Audio team have taken the 24-bit concept to the other major labels and retailers, perhaps suggesting they can claw back traditional sales revenue from the growing subscription market, where the likes of Spotify will be unable to compete because the new file sizes will push up streaming time and costs.
"We've gone back now at Universal and we're changing our pipes to 24-bit," Iovine told CNN. "And Apple has been great. We're working with them and other digital services - download services - to change to 24-bit. And some of their electronic devices are going to be changed as well. So we have a long road ahead of us."
Tom Davenport is a recording engineer and writer from the farmlands of England, contributing to Spinner, thisisfakeDIY, Antiquiet and The Ocelot. He blogs at tomdavenport.co.uk and Twitter while thinking up fictional twitter accounts, including the first fan-made transmedia project.
To the hi-fi industry, audiophile has always been another word for sucker. There's no doubt that good quality equipment will sound better than iPod headphones, but with the marketing might of the modern music industry, there could soon be more audiophiles than ever.
Were iTunes to offer 16-bit lossless audio, as on a CD, the recording community would rejoice and recommend it. However, 24-bit is shaping up to be a huge con. The industry might be smart to find and sell intangible value, but with higher prices and storage, the consumer loses again.