Premium Audio Goes Mainstream
March 9, 2021 - Shay Kamin Braun
In February, the music industry was rocked by the long-awaited entry of lossless audio into the mainstream market. Spotify, which accounts for more than a third of streaming music listeners worldwide, finally pulled the trigger on CD-quality sound with a "Spotify HiFi" tier coming this year. The listening world will never be the same and the opportunity for premium audio hardware will never be more fertile.
Spotify’s entry is actually a re-entry. Spotify HiFi will reinstate the full-resolution CD Audio as a norm for the mass market. The fidelity provided by this format is leaps beyond the reduced sound quality that's always been the core product from the mainstream streaming services. All of the majors, including Apple, Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube, base their business on lossy, compressed audio that is sonically inferior to CD quality. An entire generation of music listeners hasn't known anything else.
That's a shame, because the numbers don't lie. Full CD-quality audio offers a data rate of over 1.4kbps. One minute of stereo sound at this quality takes up about 10 megabytes of data. The AAC or MP3 codecs commonly used by the streaming majors typically allocate about 1 megabyte for a stereo minute. That's a 90% reduction in potential sound quality. While there are variations in data rates from the streaming services, all of them are lossy. What these codecs do really shouldn't be called data compression. It's data reduction. They throw bits out.
For many years, the media (and the music industry) has told us that listeners couldn't tell much difference between full-resolution music and "compressed" audio. Many supervised tests have shown this to be false, but business is business, and both bandwidth and storage were once costly line items. They aren't anymore. A terabyte of storage (at the consumer level!) costs less than a handful of CDs. Today's broadband capabilities – and tomorrow's, through the growth of 5G – makes the need for lossy audio obsolete.
It's no secret that CD sales have plummeted in the years since streaming became the dominant listening mode. Even vinyl LPs outsold compact discs last year; incredible for a format that was functionally obsolete for more than 30 years. While physical media still makes up only a fraction of the music market, the higher fidelity that it offers is one reason why people still invest in it, along with better audio equipment, especially headphones. Now that source material will no longer be the weak link in the audio chain, equipment makers will design products that can live up to the dramatic increase in available quality. The market will demand it.
Several music services understood this demand years ago and began serving a niche audiophile audience. HD Tracks pioneered high-resolution downloads, where consumers could "own" their music at the same quality level that came out of the recording studio. Deezer and Tidal soon followed suit with CD-quality streaming. Two years ago, the French company Qobuz arrived in the U.S., with high-resolution streaming. Amazon then followed suit with its own high-res music tier targeted to the mass-market like the KuGou Viper offering in China. . All of this was early-adopter territory until Spotify's announcement. Now all eyes, from hardware makers to ISPs to end consumers, are focused on Apple to see its response .
The latest Knowles technologies are ideal for these new musical applications. As exposure to high-quality music rises, lossless audio (and the ability to experience all of it) will soon cease to be a premium; it will become an expected feature. For years, Amazon offered viewers the option of a standard-definition (SD) movie rental for a dollar less than a high-def (HD) rental. The SD option is slowly dwindling because there's no longer much demand. Analog video broadcasts ended in 2009 in the US; since then HD sales have dominated the TV market and nobody wants lower quality for their money. Ultimately, music won't be different.
The difference in clarity between lossy and lossless will not only drive the music market, it will inspire the development of new hardware products. Knowles' peerless balanced armature technologies, developed for the most critical hearing applications, have long been a benchmark for in-ear monitoring among professional musicians and engineers. In the same way that pro-level digital formats will now become mainstream, pro-level hardware will evolve in parallel. Using Knowles technologies, these new earphone designs will not only reproduce the extended frequencies and dynamics of studio-quality sound, they'll be lighter and more comfortable, with longer battery life, while arriving at consumer-popular price points.
Study after study and example after example shows us that when media experiences a leap forward, hardware evolves to match. In the music market, the first paradigm shift was the ability to download digital files. Hardware soon caught up through dedicated devices like the iPod. Once convenience was conquered, fidelity was the next step. It wasn't long ago at all that only professionals spent three figures on a pair of headphones. Today, even children do.
We at Knowles fully expect that consumers will expect nothing less than the best when it comes to their music. We encourage hardware makers to embrace the notion that from now on – just as in the "old" days -- sound quality will once more be the most immediate product differentiator.