Apparently getting hip to the idea that people who still pay money for music might want it to sound good, Apple is considering offering higher-quality audio files in the iTunes store.
This alone would be great news -- we're frustrated that the store only sells CD-quality 16-bit downloads, instead of the better 24-bit files songs are mastered at, and which most computers can play. (Come to think of it, it's really time the company offered an iPod capable of playing -- and holding -- high quality audio as well.)
But there's a catch: some speculate that Apple might try to charge more for higher quality downloads. Which, to our broke-but-quality-loving ears, sounds like a really, really bad idea.
For one thing, high-end audio is no longer just a pleasure of the kind of people who touch themselves to thoughts of $100,000 turntables. (And yes, those exist.) With the advent of the tiny, cheap USB DAC -- a digital chip made just for converting the ones and zeros of digital audio into a signal your speakers and headphones can use -- getting great sound is now cheap. Super cheap. We don't recommend buying headphones with some famous rapper's name on them, but nowadays you can acquire the goods to get hi-fi audio out of your computer for less than you S.F. denizens probably spend on parking tickets every month.
So audio nerdery is going democratic. The Stereophile readers will likely still buy all their music on vinyl, and play it through giant machines that cost more than Gavin Newsom spends on hair gel every year. But the rest of us can scrimp and save and still get a ridiculously lush, engrossing audio experience out of our computers.
Apple should encourage this revolution, not stymie it. For one thing, high-quality audio is something legit retailers can offer that free illegal downloads can't. While it's not unheard-of to find lossless or high-quality MP3s on pirating sites, it's certainly much more difficult. (Stealers can't be choosers, you know?) And with music sales going the way they are, legal retailers need every competitive advantage over piracy. Offering high-quality audio at no additional charge would be a great one.
Actually making the bigger files shouldn't cost any more, because it just means removing less information from the original master. And yeah, there's probably a marginal cost of storing and downloading the larger, higher-quality files -- but that can't be much when you (and we're referring to iTunes) already control 66 percent of the download market. Sites like Bandcamp already offer higher-quality MP3 and lossless download formats at no extra charge; Apple should do the same.
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