by Steve Harvey.
If Jimmy Iovine has his wish, digital downloads could eventually be widely available in higher-resolution, 24-bit versions. At a recent news conference for the launch of Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad tablet computer and other products, the current chairman of Universal Music Group's Interscope-Geffen-A&M group advocated improvements to the quality of music downloads.
Now, Iovine does have a dog in this fight. A partnership between the legendary music producer and hip-hop artist and producer Dr. Dre, Beats Electronic, produces high-end signature Beats by Dr. Dre headphones in collaboration with Monster. The headphones have been designed with "the capability to reproduce the full spectrum of sound that musical artists and producers hear in professional recording studio," according to a company statement. Together, they have also created Beats Audio software, which optimizes the sound system in certain HP laptops.
But it does appear that Iovine has some support. CNN has reported that, according to executives involved in the discussions, various record labels are in talks with Apple and other digital music retailers about making higher-quality digital files available.
There are already digital retailers catering to the audiophile market. HDtracks, for example, co-founded by David and Norman Chesky of Chesky Records, offers select titles in "true DVD-Audio sound quality" via 96 kHz/24-bit files. The download service also makes files available in AIFF and FLAC lossless versions, as well as in mp3 format at 320 kbps for portable players.
Although there is a preponderance of jazz and classical music titles available on HDtracks, the company recently announced the availability of all 27 Rolling Stones albums, remastered for two premium download options: 88.2 kHz at $19.95, or a 176.4 kHz version for $29.95. Those prices are rather more than a $9.99 iTunes album download. Yet there does appear to be a market for them; 10 of the titles are in the HDtracks Top 25 Best Sellers list at the time of writing, including #1 through #7 (and five of those in the 176k version).
A number of artists have made their music available in hi-res downloadable formats directly from their own sites. For example, George Harrison's All Things Must Pass was re-released last year as a 96 kHz/24-bit download for $29.99 from georgeharrison.com. Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor has released music in 96/24 format through his website. The Beatles catalog was remastered and released in 24-bit resolution last year (at 44.1 kHz). Apple secured the exclusive rights to the Beatles catalog into 2011 beginning November 2010.
But as Iovine noted, a lot is riding on the quality of the playback medium with these higher-res files. "Paul McCartney can master The Beatles albums all he wants, (but) when you play them through a Dell computer, it sounds like you're playing them through a portable television," he said. (This was a Hewlett-Packard press conference, after all.)
According to CNN's report, Iovine revealed that Universal Music Group is already gearing up for higher quality files. "We've gone back now at Universal, and we're changing our pipes to 24-bit. And Apple has been great," Iovine reportedly said. "We're working with them and other digital services—download services—to change to 24-bit. And some of their electronic devices are going to be changed as well. So we have a long road ahead of us."
According to an article in Billboard magazine, Iovine has persuaded producer Rick Rubin, co-president of Columbia Records, to adopt a 24-bit standard at Sony. On the subject of why record labels don't provide digital retailers with high-resolution files and allow them to make better quality downloads available if they so choose, Iovine reportedly said, "I don't know," he said. "It's not because they're geniuses."
Of course, the record industry has attempted to interest consumers in hi-res formats before, with SACD and DVD-Audio discs. Neither caught on, in part because the public was not prepared to go out and buy a new, dedicated player. The convenience of iTunes, launched around the same time, also trumped the quality of the hi-res discs for most consumers.
The inability of some playback devices to handle 24-bit depths could indeed be a hurdle going forward. It also remains to be seen whether consumers take kindly to the idea of replacing their music collection for the umpteenth time.
Billboard quotes Shawn Layden, executive VP/COO of Sony Network Entertainment, on the topic of audio quality. Sony has launched its own streaming service, Qriocity ("curiosity") Music Unlimited.
"The challenges of music right now, I don't think the primary one is a quality issue. Music lovers worldwide are mostly keen right now on the convenience of access (‘Make it easier for me to have')."