Within the audiophile community, “Apple” is something of a dirty word. There, it’s a generally-accepted opinion that, from the days when the iPod dominated portable music playback to today, when the iPhone holds that position, the company has never been bothered about high-resolution music. But that might be about to change.
Thus far, Apple’s portable players have not supported Hi-Res Audio – at least not the 24-bit/192kHz files audiophiles consider the gold standard of digital music – but Cupertino, reports say, has had a change of heart, and will be bringing in Hi-Res support with iOS 8.
Image credit: el patojo
Whole Lotta Love (for Hi-Res Audio)
The reports claim Apple will announce Hi-Res support at WWDC 2014 in June, and plans not only to enable playback of 24-bit music but also to start selling it through iTunes. Over the past few years, it has been stockpiling 96kHz and 192kHz 24-bit versions of almost all the music sold via iTunes (it may even have the largest catalogue of Hi-Res Audio in the world) and is therefore in a position to launch its Hi-Res download service straight away. Master-quality editions of Led Zeppelin’s back catalogue will reportedly kick off the service, and Hi-Res songs will be priced at a dollar above regular iTunes tracks.
Apple’s Hi-Res Audio push will also include the unveiling of a new set of premium in-ear headphones (the first since 2008) and a new Lightning cable able to accommodate Hi-Res files on Made For iPhone audio accessories.
This rumour ties in tidily with Apple’s recent acquisition of Beats. While the company’s headphone expertise won’t have been used for the new earbuds (it’s just too soon), its purchase sends a message that Apple is serious about improving music quality on its devices.
READ MORE: So why does Apple want to buy Beats?
Time to take some FLAC
But why now? Apple has been a major player in music – no less than the world’s largest music retailer, thanks to iTunes – since the launch of the very first iPod back in 2001, and until now has barely seen fit to acknowledge that 24-bit and 192kHz even exist; it has always suggested that 16-bit, 44kHz Apple Lossless (ALAC) files are as high quality as iTunes users need to go.
One reason could be the fact that the music industry has started pushing Hi-Res Audio in a bigger way than ever before. Sony has launched a range of Hi-Res gear and Neil Young’s Pono Hi-Res player smashed through its Kickstarter funding target in under 24 hours. There’s a sense that there’s money to be made in Hi-Res now, and the proliferation of broadband and cheaper storage means that most people can now download these huge music files in seconds and have somewhere to keep them afterwards. Previously that wasn’t the case.
And while the iTunes Store continues to be a profit-making part of Apple's business, that profit is mostly coming from apps: music downloads are falling. Introducing Hi-Res Audio may be an attempt to convince consumers, many of whom have turned to the convenience of streaming services like Spotify, to start downloading music again. If iTunes did offer a huge Hi-Res library, it'd be in a unique position, because there's nobody else out there doing it on anything approaching a large scale.
Another reason? Well, there’s a growing impression among both industry experts and the public that, year-on-year, smartphone technology isn’t advancing as quickly as it once was, and thus manufacturers are looking to stand out from the crowd by offering marked improvements in “the basics” on their new handsets, with things like a tougher, waterproof build, better camera performance and improved music playback. With the introduction of Hi-Res Audio, Apple will create a new selling point for future iPhones.
While iPods and iPhones are impressive from a sound quality point of view (our golden-eared friends at What Hi-Fi? are very much fans of Apple's gear), it's important to note that hardware constraints mean no current models can play audio files sampled at above 48kHz – there's no chance of full Hi-Res Audio compatibility there. At the time of writing, only two smartphones on the market are able to play the highest quality 24-bit/192kHz audio files: the LG G2 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. If Apple does launch Hi-Res Audio, we'd expect the iPhone 6 to be the first Apple device able to play these files at their full quality.
We'll find out a lot more at WWDC 2014, so stay tuned.
READ MORE: Everything we know about iOS 8