24-bit audio: the new way to make you pay more for music?

Have Apple and the record labels found a new way to persuade people to upgrade their music collection

Barry Collins
23 Feb 2011

Apple and music labels are reportedly in discussions to raise the audio quality of of the songs they sell.

The iPod maker is considering selling 24-bit versions of albums via iTunes, a step up from the 16-bit audio currently on offer, according to a report on CNN.com.

The move could see digital downloads that surpass CD quality, which is recorded at 16 bits at a sample rate of 44.1kHz. It would also provide Apple and the music labels with an opportunity to "upgrade" people's music collections, raising extra revenue in the process.

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iTunes moving from 16-bit to 24-bit audio files would be great for audiophiles’ ears, but most people will be unlikely to benefit from the extra quality.

While there is a benefit to recording in 24-bit (and its associated increased sample rate of 96kHz), for consumers the advantage is less clear cut. Even with top-end hi-fi equipment or headphones, you may not hear the difference between the higher resolution files and standard resolution, simply because the human ear isn’t capable of appreciating the lower noise floor and higher top-end frequencies offered by 24-bit files.

Apple has pulled off a similar feat before. In 2007, Apple upgraded its albums from protected 128Kbit/sec files to DRM-free 256Kbits/sec AAC files, and charged users 20p per track to upgrade their music collection.

Apple isn't the only one to attempt to differentiate on audio quality. Last week Radiohead released its new album for download, charging £6 for 320Kbits/sec MP3s, or £9 for an uncompressed WAV files.

Hardware upgrade

Album upgrades won't be the only potential source of extra revenue if download stores do migrate to 24-bit files. While iTunes and many PCs are perfectly capable of playing 24-bit files, most digital music players are not.

The current iPod and iPhone range is reportedly incapable of playing 24-bit files, for example. Apple could therefore use access to the higher quality files as an incentive to upgrade an iPhone/iPod.

Can you tell the difference?

The big question is whether anyone would even notice the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit files on a portable player, especially with the low-quality earbuds supplied by Apple and other manufacturers.

The move to 24-bit would improve the dynamic range of the audio: professional recording studios capture audio at 24-bit, before downgrading it to 16-bit for CD production.

Labels such as Linn Records already sell "studio master" versions of albums in 24-bit FLAC format, but these are targeted at high-end audio buffs with equipment of a high enough calibre to accentuate the improvement in quality.

The upgrade to 24-bit would also have a huge impact on file sizes. The 24-bit studio master of Philippe Rogier's Polychoral Works weighs in at almost 3GB. That 8GB iPod nano is going to fill up pretty quickly.

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