With Apple buying the Beats franchise for $3 billion dollars, questions arise to what exactly is the future of high-end audio streaming? To put it into perspective, this is the largest purchase Apple has ever made (of another company) and the strength of Beats is clearly a combination of their dominance in the high-end headphone markets well as their foray into subscription-driven streaming music services. This service is directly taking on such well-known names as Spotify, Rhapsody and Napster and Apple has got to have a “play” in mind as it seeks to understand the future of the music industry. More and more it appears to be streaming services—and most decidedly not physical media ownership.
Determine the Future of High-end Audio Streaming
It’s clearly the movers and shakers in the industry that are going to shape the future of the downloadable and streaming music service industry. Those leaders are dominated by Apple (and now, Beats), HDTracks, and (more recently) fringe advancements like the Pono—a high-end music (FLAC) player founded by Neil Young-backed PonoMusic. This, of course, all presumes that there are users who still want to take advantage of high-quality downloads to stream their music.
Several companies debuted new high-resolution audio products at this year’s CES Expo in Vegas, including Sony’s array of HRA products, the Astell & Kern AK 120 II, and the FiiO X5. While all of these products and companies primarily deal with downloaded hi-res files, it’s good to see what hardware might shape and influence the state of high-resolution audio streaming.
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Downloadable and Streaming High-Resolution Audio
HDTracks has been a force for many years, but adoption has yet to achieve any sort of critical mass. Even as televisions move quickly towards 4K resolution, audio seems to be content streaming at 128 kbps and compressed AAC formats. It’s perhaps not fair, but that appears to be the reality of the day—and the industry. Still, companies like HDTracks, PonoMusic, qobuz, Bandcamp, Naim Label, Linn Records, B&W’s Society of Sound, and newcomer Orastream bring hope that HD audio might make a comeback. Many of these are working with many of the major labels (PonoMusic claims to be working with all of them, in fact). With labels on board, the future possibilities are endless.
What still remains mystifying is the resurgence of vinyl. While the retro look, feel and sound of vinyl is making a mini comeback, there isn’t much governing the mastering aspect of the format. Many titles, as we understand it, are simply mastered using 16-bit, 44.1 kHz files. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of well-mastered vinyl albums out there, but it’s something to take into account as you research. More on that in the next section…
High-end Audio Mastering Counts
It’s important to note that the format isn’t everything. After all, you can take a lossy MP3 file and recreate a CD, FLAC file or any other format. The key is to maintain integrity through all aspects of the process. Apple’s iTunes has increasingly been offering ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), and their Beats acquisition would indicate a renewed desire for supporting streaming content for both Mac and PC users (it remains to be seen whether or not Beats users will be migrated and absorbed, or if the Beats app, branding and infrastructure will be kept separate. Beats is also streaming music currently at 320 kbps. If they perceive there is a market for premium-priced audio downloads and streaming, they’ll be very equipped to make the move into that realm.
As you consider high-end audio streaming in your particular situation, the biggest piece of advice I can give you is to pursue it. Jump in and start a subscription with one or more services. That kind of movement among many audiophiles will fuel the demand and jump-start the industry into seeing there is indeed a market for high-end audio streaming that treats your ears as well as new high-resolution televisions treat your eyes. Until then we can continue to buy Blu-ray concert discs and download lossless material from the already-existing services on the Internet.