High-resolution audio’s moment has arrived, will anyone notice?

In 2015, the Recording Industry Association of America touted the launch of a “high-resolution audio” logo, a bit of graphical flare designed to alert consumers that the music they were streaming or downloading met a more exacting set of specifications that would bring their ears ever closer to the pure sound originally captured in the recording studio.

Specifically, those standards were defined as “lossless audio capable of reproducing the full spectrum of sound from recordings which have been mastered from better-than-CD quality (48kHz/20-bit or higher) music sources which represent what the artists, producers and engineers originally intended.” This definition was sanctified by the Consumer Technology Association, DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group and The Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing.

Since the logo’s debut, high-resolution digital music has been embraced by high-profile services like Amazon and Tidal, and several smaller ones as well. But it seems like 2021 is to be the coming-out party for high-quality audio.

It started in February, when Spotify announced the launch of SpotifyHi-Fi, promising “CD-quality, lossless audio” to its premium subscribers (but very few additional details). Then, in May, Apple Music announced that it would make 75 million tracks available in a lossless audio format using its own “ALAC” (Apple Lossless Audio Compression) technology. The initial tranche of 20 million ALAC tracks are available in June, with the remainder of the Apple Music catalog going lossless by year’s end. Apple also announced support for spatial audio via Dolby Atmos.

On the same day that Apple was outlining its high-resolution audio plans, Amazon announced that Amazon Music HD (which offers CD quality, better-than-CD quality and spatial audio tracks) would come down in price to match the pricing for its standard-quality music services.

What’s behind the sudden rush to embrace higher-quality streaming formats?

If Spotify is to be believed, it’s because “high-quality music streaming is consistently one of the most requested new features by our users.” And while that may be true, Spotify amassed a market-leading 158 million subscribers without it. Apple, too, acquired tens of millions of paying customers with nary an ALAC track in earshot.

The embrace of high-resolution audio likely has less to do with a groundswell of consumer demand, especially when you consider that services like Tidal and Quboz, which explicitly base their value proposition on quality, haven’t gained nearly the subscriber base as the major players. Throw in other high-profile enterprises, like the Neil Young-backed Pono, which flopped, and it doesn’t seem like the fidelity of the audio signal s really motivating the mass audience of music listeners. Indeed, it’s an open question whether a meaningful percentage of these listeners even have the equipment capable of decoding this music in its highest quality setting—let alone the aural discernment to tell the difference between lower-quality tracks and the high-res fare.

Instead, it probably comes down to competitive dynamics within the streaming market. The major services don’t really compete on music catalogs, which generally contain the same number of songs and very few exclusives (podcasts excepted). Instead, competition centers around other areas of perceived value, such as curated playlists, the quality of musical recommendations (algorithmic or otherwise), and the intuitiveness of the apps. To the extent that streaming lossless music was a competitive differentiator before, 2021 has established it as table stakes in the bid to win over customers.