CNN is reporting that Apple and other digital music retailers are currently negotiating with numerous record labels to gain access to 24-bit quality audio content. This would mean that Apple would have access to audio content at the same level of quality at which it was recorded. But will you be able to tell the difference?
Here’s how music gets to you today. An artist is recorded at a studio in a 24-bit, high-fidelity audio format. From there, they get converted to 16-bit before being sent off to Apple or pressed onto a CD that eventually makes it into a store. Apple likely takes this content and repackages it in a different codec, throws it onto a server and waits for you to buy it on the iTunes Store. So, if you want the best quality audio and you aren’t a famous audio engineer with access to the originals, you should probably buy yourself a CD. This also gives you a sound (yet physically spacious), backup method.
One of the main guys behind this push towards 24-bit is Jimmy Iovine. If you don’t already know the name, he’s the chariman of Universal Music Group’s Interscope-Geffen-A&M record label. He also had a hand in making the Beats Audio with Dr. Dre and Monster. It only makes sense that if you’re going to encourage consumers to buy high quality headphones they should have some higher quality audio to listen to.
Here’s a bit of what Jimmy had to say:
We’ve gone back now at Universal, and we’re changing our pipes to 24 bit. And Apple has been great. 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.
This wouldn’t be the first time Apple upped the quality on iTunes. They did it a little over two years ago when they also started offering music free of copy-protection. And it’s not likely to be the last time they upgrade the quality, either. But like Jimmy said, Apple will have to build the ability to play 24-bit audio into iPods in the future for this to make much of a difference anywhere other than your desktop.
Dr. Dre summarized the current state of audio quite nicely in a Beats Audio promo video: “Most of you aren’t hearing it the way it’s supposed to sound, and you should … hear it the way I do.”
So, back to the original question. Will you be able to tell the difference? That depends on two things: the quality of audio you currently listen to and what you listen to it with. Many are content listening to their low bit rate, lossy mp3 files through Apple earbuds. And if that makes you happy, I’m happy for you. But now you can buy ridiculously nice headphones, like the Beats by Dre Beats Pros from Monster. Hopefully, you’ll soon be able to use headphones such as these the way they were intended to be used.