24-Bit iTunes Music Would Be a Step in the Right Direction

CNN (s twx) reported last week that Apple (s aapl) is in talks with major record labels to offer 24-bit copies of songs in place of the current versions. iTunes tracks are currently 16-bit AAC compressed files. Even if the music isn’t truly lossless, this would still be great news for audiophiles who use Apple’s music store.

The quality of music has, for the most part, been the same since CDs debuted in 1982: 16-bit, 44.1 kHz PCM encoded files. A few audiophile formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio have come out, but those have only really been niche products. While the SACD format offers higher-quality audio and features such as surround sound, the general public never took to it. You can get 24-bit lossless files directly from some bands such as The Beatles and Nine Inch Nails, but this is the exception, not the rule.

The arguments over whether or not people can actually hear the difference between all these different audio formats will never end. My opinion is that not all music needs to be delivered in 5.1 lossless high quality. It all depends on the listener’s taste and the quality of the musicians involved. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on a 5.1 SACD is a treat, while Britney Spears latest effort would probably suffer from such high quality recording. The fact is that some people really love music and are willing to pay premium prices for audio gear, speakers and the best version of the music they love. Right now, CDs, not iTunes, have the highest quality unless you can find what you’re looking for on SACD or DVD-Audio.

Why would Apple care about offering its catalog at a higher quality when only audiophiles will appreciate it? For one, I believe Steve Jobs is a true music lover at heart. It must be difficult for him knowing that he gets better quality from buying a CD and ripping it to an Apple Lossless file then he does downloading it from his own store. Apple has a reputation as the best of the best when it comes to hardware; its music offerings should be no different. It doesn’t hurt that being able to market iTunes tracks as “HD-quality audio” would help further differentiate Apple’s music store from those of its competitors. Maybe all that server space at the new NC data centre is at least partially earmarked for larger-sized iTunes tracks.

Of course, this assumes a switch to a lossless format, which may not be in the cards yet. But would 24-bit AAC compressed files sound any different when compared to the current 16-bit ones? Probably not, but besides hard drive space, what’s the harm? The music industry needs a boost, and higher-quality music files might be one answer. Apple shouldn’t be trying to convince the labels it’s a good idea, as they’re reported to be doing; it should be the other way around.

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