High-resolution (Hi-Res) audio streaming music services may not be to everyone's taste due to cost and hardware required, and many people can't hear the difference between Compact Disc (CD) or high-fidelity (Hi-Fi) audio quality and Hi-Res. Yet there is a small and growing community of providers and audiophiles that favors Hi-Res, or so-called lossless audio. That community could soon expand dramatically, following Amazon's foray into the market with Ultra HD (High Definition), the first of the large players in streaming music to make the move to Hi-Res.
The concept of digital Hi-Res audio streaming is not new; early attempts made in the 1990s and 2000s failed to take off. Today, however, all the elements for delivering a Hi-Res experience are beginning to come together, particularly availability of content, sophisticated software that includes the audio files, and hardware including digital-file-to-analog-signal converters and audio systems that play the signal through loudspeakers or headphones.
Barriers to adoption include the cost of subscriptions (see below), and the limited hardware solutions for listeners.
In technical terms, Hi-Fi audio is specified as 44.1kHZ/16-bit. Hi-Res audio downloads are a minimum of 96kHz/24-bit, with 192 kHz/24-bit becoming increasingly popular.
From a consumer perspective, Hi-Res is defined by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), Digital Entertainment Group (DEG), the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing, and various music labels as "lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better than CD-quality music sources which represent what the artists, producers and engineers originally intended."
Do we really need Hi-Res? Will we benefit from it, and if we think we will, where will we get it from?
Alexandre Jornod, a music and audio analyst in the media and entertainment team at Futuresource Consulting with experience working with streaming services including Apple, Deezer, and Qobuz, explains, "Hi-Res streaming plans offer lossless audio quality, as opposed to premium plans that offer an audio file that has been compressed, resulting in lower audio quality. The first benefit of these higher-quality plans is that they offer audio that hasn't had any information removed for the sake of a smaller, more convenient file to stream.
"From a listening perspective, the benefits of a sound of higher quality are a better sense of definition, with more details and clarity. In the case of Hi-Res, it is usually the quality that the song has been recorded in. However, the majority of consumers are often unable to identify an improvement in quality, particularly with mass market audio products, and consequently don't see the benefits of Hi-Res or how to justify the extra investment."
While the jury is out on the viability of Hi-Res as a mass-market service, at least in the near future, providers are emerging. Most recently, Amazon joined the market with Ultra HD in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and Japan. The company is also expected to launch a new speaker providing an enhanced audio experience, which could be a tipping point for High-Res into a broader consumer base.
For the time being, the leading providers of popular music in Hi-Res are Paris-based Qobuz, founded in 2007 and feted for its technology capability but not necessarily the best value, and Tidal, a New York-based service founded in 2014 as a brand under Norwegian tech company Aspiro AB (rapper/producer Jay Z's Project Panther Bidco bought Aspiro in 2015). The Tidal Hi-Res service Tidal Masters offers "master-quality audio recordings" at no extra cost to Tidal Hi-Fi subscribers.
Qobuz is live in 11 European markets, and made its debut in the U.S. in early 2019; it claims to offer over two million Hi-Res tracks. Tidal is live in 53 countries and claims to offer 170,000 Hi-Res tracks and counting.
Also on the playlist is Primephonic, which is dedicated to classical music and offers more than a million pieces of music in studio-quality 24-bit Hi-Res audio at a lower subscription cost than the broader services of Qobuz and Tidal. The company was founded as a Dutch-American start-up in 2015 by a group of classical music lovers, is available in 154 countries, and introduced its Hi-Res service in 2017.
Primephonic CEO Thomas Steffens said, "Between 35% and 40% of our subscribers choose Hi-Res. You should not underestimate the number of people prepared to pay for it, particularly for classical music, where the desire is higher than for other music genres." Steffens has doubts about how large the community of Hi-Res listeners will become, suggesting pop music fans may be less enthusiastic about paying more for the technology than classic audiophiles.
Naturally, that is not the opinion of providers of pop music streaming services.
Qobuz released its latest Hi-Res streaming offer, Studio, in October 2018. It is available via a monthly ($24.99) or annual ($249.99) subscription. Qobuz' other Hi-Res offering, Sublime+, is offered only on an annual ($299.95) subscription. At the launch of Studio, Qobuz executive CEO Yann Miossec, said, "Our ambition is to make Hi-Res the reference point in the streaming market. With Studio, we are responding to our users and to all the music lovers who want to join the Hi-Res world."
Amazon's arrival on the scene, which could potentially be followed by Apple and Spotify, could turn the niche Hi-Res market into something much larger, with lower-cost streaming services and requisite speakers, and artists and music labels likely to deliver more content in Hi-Res, making a larger catalogue of music available to consumers.
Hi-Res Streaming Services
|Amazon Music HD including HD and ULTRA HD Hi-Res services|
|Prime members $12.99/month|
|Amazon customers $14.99/month|
|Additional $5/month for current subscribers to Amazon Music (Individual or Family Plan)|
|Primephonic – Hi-Res|
|Qobuz – Hi-Res|
|Tidal – Masters Hi-Res|
|Tidal HiFi including Hi-Res $20/month|
|Non Hi-Res Streaming|
|256kbps compressed audio format|
|up to 320kbps compressed audio format|
Sarah Underwood is a technology writer based in Teddington, U.K.