Michael is a musician, a support analyst, and a long time audiophile and tech/music geek.
It’s hard to forget the enormous impact that iTunes made on the world of music way back in 2003 when it was first introduced, but a look back at its introduction is quite impressive—70 million songs sold in that first year for the very appealing price of ninety nine cents a track. Not only did iTunes spawn an industry of copycats in the devices category, such as the Windows Zune, it also opened up other companies into selling and delivering digital music, such as Amazon and the aforementioned Microsoft. Still, Apple continued to crush all others by delivering not only the most available music for the platform, but also by locking up the digital distribution rights to some of the biggest acts in music, with their crowning achievement being the entire catalog from The Beatles.
Apple also paved the way for all of the various streaming services that we know today—simply by making your iTunes music available for you to listen to in your home, on a portable device connected to your car, or sitting at your office and listening on your work computer.
Fast forward to 2019, and Apple is now geared more to streaming music than owning it and there are quite a few healthy competitors for this service. Spotify and Pandora jumped to the front of the pack for streaming audio long before Apple became engaged.
Unfortunately, with Apple on the verge of dropping an entire new ecosystem for iTunes, now to be called simply “Music” and literally hours before that service is to be released Apple has been upstaged yet again, this time by Amazon.
Announced just this week, Amazon will begin streaming lossless audio with its new HD Audio service for Amazon Prime. If you are unfamiliar with lossless audio, the best way for me to describe it would be to ask you to imagine watching a car chase scene on an old analogue TV set, and then imagine actually being in one of the cars! Lossless audio is as close as we can get as a listener to hearing the music as it was intended to be heard when it was recorded by the artist. The average lossless music file is roughly ten times larger than a standard MP3 or MP4 file, because these formats made themselves smaller by trimming audio out of both the high and low frequencies. Yes, you end up with a ninety nine cent version of a song, but what you own is incomparable to the quality of a lossless audio file.
The most popular format for lossless audio for some time now has been FLAC, although Apple engineered its own version known as ALAC, which is to my ear identical in quality.
So why hasn’t Apple done more to make this a standardized option for its music audience? Even today, I can stream ALAC lossless audio on the computer that my iTunes music library is attached to, but if I try to stream that library over iCloud or iTunes, what I get to listen to instead is a down-converted file that delivers audio at about 256kbps, and it suffers from all of the poor audio issue that any compressed audio format suffers from. Even in my own home, if I try to listen to my local music library from a network attached computer, the only songs from my library that will stream over iTunes are the compressed music files - iTunes just skips over every lossless file in the library as if it didn’t even exist. Searching the Apple knowledge base for this issue results in page after page of complaints that go back several years. Even AirPlay down coverts audio before streaming it in your own home!
It’s not only streaming quality that Apple now finds itself behind the pack on - its purchased content is behind as well. Companies like Tidal, and my own personal favorite 7Digital, are selling lossless audio from their own stores for less than $2 a song each and in some cases, older releases of complete albums sell in FLAC format for under $8.
How Soon Is Now?
Lossless audio is not at all new, in fact, it first appeared just a few years after the very first MP3’s started showing up (2001). It’s hard for me to understand how Apple has ignored this format entirely with broadband internet now the norm, and plenty of options for unlimited data plans from cell phone providers.
As to streaming lossless audio, I am able to stream my entire library which is now 89% lossless over my cell phone on my daily commute by using a free streaming media service called Plex.
So here is your challenge, Apple. While the move to separating Music content from Movie and Podcast content is a huge and long overdue step in the right direction for iTunes, a complete failure to adopt any reasonable way to purchase and stream lossless content nearly twenty years later is a real miss. Audiophiles and fans of Apple are hoping that when you decide to make your next upgrades to Music that you will at least catch up to your competitors and add this option to your service. You won’t win the race by doing so, but at least you’ll be able to say that you were in it.