Skip to navigation
Latest News

24-bit audio: the new way to make you pay more for music?

iPod family

By Barry Collins

Posted on 23 Feb 2011 at 09:18

Apple and music labels are reportedly in discussions to raise the audio quality of of the songs they sell.

The iPod maker is considering selling 24-bit versions of albums via iTunes, a step up from the 16-bit audio currently on offer, according to a report on CNN.com.

The move could see digital downloads that surpass CD quality, which is recorded at 16 bits at a sample rate of 44.1kHz. It would also provide Apple and the music labels with an opportunity to "upgrade" people's music collections, raising extra revenue in the process.

Opinion - Jonathan Bray

iTunes moving from 16-bit to 24-bit audio files would be great for audiophiles’ ears, but most people will be unlikely to benefit from the extra quality.

While there is a benefit to recording in 24-bit (and its associated increased sample rate of 96kHz), for consumers the advantage is less clear cut. Even with top-end hi-fi equipment or headphones, you may not hear the difference between the higher resolution files and standard resolution, simply because the human ear isn’t capable of appreciating the lower noise floor and higher top-end frequencies offered by 24-bit files.

Apple has pulled off a similar feat before. In 2007, Apple upgraded its albums from protected 128Kbit/sec files to DRM-free 256Kbits/sec AAC files, and charged users 20p per track to upgrade their music collection.

Apple isn't the only one to attempt to differentiate on audio quality. Last week Radiohead released its new album for download, charging £6 for 320Kbits/sec MP3s, or £9 for an uncompressed WAV files.

Hardware upgrade

Album upgrades won't be the only potential source of extra revenue if download stores do migrate to 24-bit files. While iTunes and many PCs are perfectly capable of playing 24-bit files, most digital music players are not.

The current iPod and iPhone range is reportedly incapable of playing 24-bit files, for example. Apple could therefore use access to the higher quality files as an incentive to upgrade an iPhone/iPod.

Can you tell the difference?

The big question is whether anyone would even notice the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit files on a portable player, especially with the low-quality earbuds supplied by Apple and other manufacturers.

The move to 24-bit would improve the dynamic range of the audio: professional recording studios capture audio at 24-bit, before downgrading it to 16-bit for CD production.

Labels such as Linn Records already sell "studio master" versions of albums in 24-bit FLAC format, but these are targeted at high-end audio buffs with equipment of a high enough calibre to accentuate the improvement in quality.

The upgrade to 24-bit would also have a huge impact on file sizes. The 24-bit studio master of Philippe Rogier's Polychoral Works weighs in at almost 3GB. That 8GB iPod nano is going to fill up pretty quickly.

Is your business a social business? For helpful info and tips visit our hub.

Subscribe to PC Pro magazine. We'll give you 3 issues for £1 plus a free gift - click here
User comments

The return of HiFi?

The reality is that most people are now used to listening to music on very mid-fi devices and these are entirely incapable of "sounding different" if fed with 24 bits. I'm not a £2-grand speaker-cable freak but the 3"-4" speakers used in most current systems can't produce either the sound level, frequency response or lack of colouration needed to produce what might be termed high fidelity. On top of that most popular music has had its dynamic range heavily compressed so higher bit rates won't actually make any difference.
In other words this is all hype to create obsolescence for existing equipment and encourage us to buy everything afresh. Sounds a bit like Blue-Ray, HDTV, 3D-TV all over again!

By milliganp on 23 Feb 2011

Sounds Good (geddit?)

As a "Hi-Fi" buff I'm all in favour. I have downloaded some of LINN's 'Studio Master' output and it really is excellent.

Maybe I'm just a gullible, pretentious numpty, but that's my problem. I'm prepared to pay a premium for the extra "quality" so if Apple or anyone else wants to massage my insecurities: go ahead!

This need have no effect on the tin-eared masses and their horrid compressed MP3 stuff....

By wittgenfrog on 23 Feb 2011

I wish Apple would offer high quality Lossless copies even at a slight premium.

One of the reasons why I still buy CDs is because I like having lossless copies because then I choose the codec, ability to edit (e.g. to extend a song), better for burning for my stereo, etc.

This would save me from having to buy a CD for just a couple of songs.

That said, it would be a shame if my classic and iphone cant play 24bit audio, although I have never heard 24bit/16bit audio comparisons to be able to tell whether there's any noticeable difference.

By tech3475 on 23 Feb 2011

@milliganp

Are you seriously saying you can't tell the difference between DVD and blu-ray?

By jgwilliams on 23 Feb 2011

A solution

How about letting users buy the 24-bit version but converting it on the fly when dowloading to a device that can't handle 24-bit?

By jgwilliams on 23 Feb 2011

I will happily pay more for 24bit. 16 v 24 is very much like DVD V BD.

By simplefruit on 23 Feb 2011

If people want to pay more for something which they enjoy, feel they get some benefit from, or any other number of reasons that's up to the individual consumer.

I do agree with the sentiment in the article that people will essentially be buying the same music all over again but if people are so thick as to buy higher quality music without having the equipment to actually hear any difference then that's their problem. It reminds me of the recent story about HD TV, didn't something like 25% of people think they had HD just by buying a TV with it?

Apple do like to have an image of quality (even though it's massed produced in the east like everything else) so I can see the commercial sense for them and to try and act as a differentiator.

I personally won't be paying for this though but if you have more money than sense, and bloody good hearing, then go for it.

By Deano on 23 Feb 2011

What's the point?

If (as your picture suggests), the music is mostly going to be played on iPods then the vast majority of those people won't notice any difference at all, except to their bank balance. Even more-so if they are still using the supplied Apple earphones, which sounded far worse than the 20 year old pair I still have that came with my Sony Walkman.

By halsteadk on 23 Feb 2011

No, NOT on an %$**! iPod!

In case I wasn't clear enough - I want lossless 24bit to play on my Hi-Fi, not some bit of made in PRC plastic with 20p ear-buds....

By wittgenfrog on 23 Feb 2011

are record labels going to go back to the original tapes/sessions and remaster at 24 bit? No way - they'll just upsample and sell on to Apple.

Even if they did remaster from scratch, no-ones ever going to hear the difference unless they upgrade the D/A's on Ipod or use an external convertor - all assuming theyre listening via top quality hifi kit.

this all seems rather silly - just give us the lossless versions (and dont charge anymore for them).

By dg2puk on 23 Feb 2011

wow dont know why that posted 3 times - sorry

By dg2puk on 23 Feb 2011

Further comment

@jgwilliams, no I'm not saying you can't tell the difference between DVD and BD. However most users are happy to watch DVD using players that up-sample and interpolate. BD and 3D are being driven by an industry wanting to increase revenue rather than consumer demand.

By milliganp on 23 Feb 2011

16-bit vs 24-bit compressed?

If the tracks are lossy compressed, then having the resulting audio at 24-bit, rather than 16-bit may not make any difference at all! I would be interested to test 16-bit lossy (256kbps) vs 16-bit lossless vs 24-bit lossy (no mention of bit rate in the article?) vs 24-bit lossless. Lossy 16-bit often isn't encoding at 16-bits anyway......

By wigsta1 on 23 Feb 2011

@jgwilliams

I agree with Milliganp.

I've both DVD and Blu-ray equipment in the lounge and yes side by side I can see the difference but generally DVD is fine. Certainly the difference between VHS video and DVD is much, much bigger than blu-ray and DVD.

Also blu-ray discs rarely support disk resume. So it means if you watch half the blu-ray disk then switch off when you come back later you have to start all over again!

With the DVD player I have it remembers the last 5 discs. Its the main reason I rarely by blu-rays

By cyberindie on 23 Feb 2011

dg2puk hit the nail...

squarely on the head, I'm afraid.

1. Most music is (or has already been!) mastered using appropriate compression/gain to squash it into the (relatively) limited dynamic range afforded by 16bit. Padding it into 24bits is not going to magically restore the lost dynamics. End of.

2. Since this is a digital format, it will have to be passed through DACs (digital to analogue converters) before you can hear it, and unless your equipment supports the 24bit sample size (99.99% of kit out there does not), guess what - your music is going to get converted back to 16bit. Ho hum.

Apologies to dg2puk for re0using your points, but they seemed to sail over the heads of all here, demonstrating exactly how it is that Apple et al will make a success of this.

By PaleRider on 23 Feb 2011

Oh and one more thing...

To Jonathan Bray: the sample rate and the sample size are not wedded together in the way which you suggest. I would be staggered if these files were supplied at 96KHz. 48KHz is far more likely, placing Nyquist still comfortably above the threshold of all adults' hearing.
24bit does not imply 96KHz, and it thus certainly does not imply any higher top end frequencies.

By PaleRider on 23 Feb 2011

Missed the point of it all

Has everyone missed the point here. Why can't Apple either offer 320Kbit AAC music or just pure CD quality? Why bother with 24bit if very few would be willing to spend large sums of money on kit to listen to the difference.

I just want CD quality. In other words, Apple Lossless format or whatever format that's appropriate and lossless.

If I want to store it on a small storage iPod, I can select in iTunes to automatically convert to 128Kbit or 256Kbit, whatever suits.

Of course, if the 24-bit audio price is no more expensive then a CD, fine, no problem at all.

By treadmill on 23 Feb 2011

I would take a look at the latest Hi-Fi magazines and see what they're reviewing. There's plenty of top brand audio equipment manufacturers producing media servers, file streaming and DAC devices.
I know CD has got plenty of life left in it but I'm not sure it will last forever. So why not let music labels start down that road now?

By Peza1 on 23 Feb 2011

I'd pay extra (double?) for audio without the extreme compression/limiting used on most records which reduces the quality to pulp.
This would go some way towards exercising the 16 bit standard (never mind 24)

Guess thats not Apple's problem though.

By dg2puk on 23 Feb 2011

I'm crossing my fingers...

I would love it if 24-bit became the new standard. Believe me it *does* make a difference! I might be biased since I'm a musician, but I can tell you from personal experience that when you go into a recording studio you typically record to 24-bit and you just wanna cry about the time it all gets compressed down to CD-quality (16 bit).

Pink Floyd fans should check out the 24 bit release of Dark Side. It's unreal.

By submadreamgun on 23 Feb 2011

You can already buy music at 24bit 96khz - DVD Audio.

By everton2004 on 23 Feb 2011

24-bit audio on a portable device - You'll not be able to hear the difference. If you want to listen to music at home at a higher quality SACD discs are great.

By emteec on 24 Feb 2011

DVD vs Blu-ray?

To all those espousing 24 bit because of Blu-ray quality; I agree that the picture on Blu-ray is noticeably better than on DVD, but the sound? No matter how good the stereo I'm pumping it through, I'm blowed if I've noticed any difference.

By pike_by_nature on 24 Feb 2011

I'm with Cyberindie

DVD is much better for most films than BD, because it is more user friendly.

My Sony DVD player starts up in couple of seconds and can resume playing from where I left off.

My Panasonic BD player takes over 30 seconds to power up and load the disc, then I have to start from the beginning and skip through.

With up-scaling, most DVDs look perfectly fine. Documentaries and a few other types of film can benefit from HD, but in general the difference isn't worth me going out an replacing a DVD with a BD.

@wittgenfrog - you are the majority of people that halsteadk was referring to. The vast majority wouldn't notice any difference, playing on an iPod with Apple headphones.

For them it is just another case of marketing hype. And if you are going to play it on high-end equipment, don't you want lossless encoding, not lossy?

As to me, I only listened to music in the car and the radio is good enough - but I generally listen to NDR Info (equivalent of Radio 4) or podcasts.

It must be a good 10 years since I actually sat down and "listened" to any music, as opposed to it running in the background.

Nowadays, I generally only hear music when my girlfriend is in the kitchen and has the radio on...

By big_D on 24 Feb 2011

"However most users are happy to watch DVD using players that up-sample and interpolate"

I've been impressed by how well a friend's Sammy Blu-ray player achieves this. Good thing too as he has a massive DVD collection.

How long before these enhanced audio tracks appear on pirate sites. Ohhhh, a good 48 hours I'd say.

24-bit audio. Now with new improved newness.

By Lacrobat on 24 Feb 2011

Designed to appeal to one type of person

the type who is prepared to pay £700-£1500 for a power cable...

Thats it.

By alan_lj on 24 Feb 2011

The vast majority?

There seems to be an assumption that most people don't care about the quality of the music that they listen to.
However, I see a lot of people walking about with upgraded headphones plugged into their ipods so I think that there is a significant proportion of people who do care.

And there are an awful lot of audio companies doing very nice business so people must be buying their products.

By simplefruit on 24 Feb 2011

Why does it cost more?

Most music is recorded in 24 bit, so no work is needed to be done to the files.
If anything 16 bit, downgraded music should cost more for the effort in converting.

By smokeycatz on 24 Feb 2011

Want CD quality?

To all those wanting lossless audio and CD quality - why not buy a CD?! It is often virtually the same price as buying from iTunes, and if iTunes is going to offer such a significant step-change in quality of downloads, you can bet they will be more than at present. OK, you would have to rip the CD to listen to it on the move, but that's hardly a major moral hurdle if it's genuinely for your own use.

@smokeycatz, so maybe we could trade in our expensively processed 16-bit files for the 24-bit files and get a refund! I like that idea... ;)

@wittgenfrog, my post was primarily an observation on the utterly shoddy quality of the default Apple earphones - Apple should be embarrassed to top their products off with such a piece of junk that is inferior to those provided 20 years ago with a low-range Sony Walkman. People would only stick with those because they'd never used anything else.

By halsteadk on 24 Feb 2011

Are the masses ready for 24-bit?

Probably not yet, so all this 'info' about 24-bitness is just advertising for the manufacturers, so when Apple eventually DOES make a 24-bit iPod (there will be no 'upgrade'), the public will know they are listening to "better quality", because they have been told so for a year or two. It's a manufacturing-led situation, because they know we love new technology, but only if we think we KNOW its better. So we are all just being massaged with 24-bit info, and when 24-bit files becomes more prevalent, we will buy new equipment to play them on. Mission Accomplished! Noam Chomsky would probably call it "Manufacturing Consent". See what I did there? :)

By Wilbert3 on 24 Feb 2011

Are the masses ready for 24-bit?

Probably not yet, so all this 'info' about 24-bitness is just advertising for the manufacturers, so when Apple eventually DOES make a 24-bit iPod (there will be no 'upgrade'), the public will know they are listening to "better quality", because they have been told so for a year or two. It's a manufacturing-led situation, because they know we love new technology, but only if we think we KNOW its better. So we are all just being massaged with 24-bit info, and when 24-bit files becomes more prevalent, we will buy new equipment to play them on. Mission Accomplished! Noam Chomsky would probably call it "Manufacturing Consent". See what I did there? :)

By Wilbert3 on 24 Feb 2011

On the other hand...

... I have an iPhone and I personally thank the day Apple introduced the "Reduce to 128Kbps when transferring to iPhone/iPod" setting in iTunes (thank you! :^)

Now I use my iPhone heavily as a smartphone and far less as a music player. So it's very helpful that I can put twice the amount of music on there, given how many apps I have & how much room they take up.

I listen to music on the iPhone mainly when I'm in the car (it streams over Bluetooth) or less often with my speaker dock.

The only time I use the 256Kbps is at home when playing off the PC and streaming to a couple of Airport Express devices.

I very rarely use headphones, but when I do, I have a pair of small closed-can fold-up AKGs (which are a big step up from the Apple earbuds).

None of the stereo equipment I have is particularly expensive or of high quality and it's more something to have on in the background than sit down and actively listen to it (I simply don't have the time).

I'll be the first to admit I've not got perfect hearing, but having gone from having my music collection in WMA (VBR 50-95Kbps) to AAC (VBR 256/128Kbps) is a big step up in quality and I don't notice the drop in quality from their CD counterpart (even with the classical CDs).

I'm sure many people would throw their hands up in horror, but at the end of the day, it's what works for you and what you're happy with...

When I'm in the car, there's always a lot of background noise so quality isn't paramount, neither is when I'm listening on headphones on a long train journey, or even on the speaker dock (which is an Altec Lansing BTW, not a Bowers & Wilkins ;^)

My one recommendation would be get a decent set of headphone (I paid about £50 for mine and the jump in quality was impressive).

So I'll quite happily stick to the 256Kbps rate for now... Lossless takes up far too much room (alas) - especially given my CD collection!

By mrmmm on 24 Feb 2011

On the other hand...

... I have an iPhone and I personally thank the day Apple introduced the "Reduce to 128Kbps when transferring to iPhone/iPod" setting in iTunes (thank you! :^)

Now I use my iPhone heavily as a smartphone and far less as a music player. So it's very helpful that I can put twice the amount of music on there, given how many apps I have & how much room they take up.

I listen to music on the iPhone mainly when I'm in the car (it streams over Bluetooth) or less often with my speaker dock.

The only time I use the 256Kbps is at home when playing off the PC and streaming to a couple of Airport Express devices.

I very rarely use headphones, but when I do, I have a pair of small closed-can fold-up AKGs (which are a big step up from the Apple earbuds).

None of the stereo equipment I have is particularly expensive or of high quality and it's more something to have on in the background than sit down and actively listen to it (I simply don't have the time).

I'll be the first to admit I've not got perfect hearing, but having gone from having my music collection in WMA (VBR 50-95Kbps) to AAC (VBR 256/128Kbps) is a big step up in quality and I don't notice the drop in quality from their CD counterpart (even with the classical CDs).

I'm sure many people would throw their hands up in horror, but at the end of the day, it's what works for you and what you're happy with...

When I'm in the car, there's always a lot of background noise so quality isn't paramount, neither is when I'm listening on headphones on a long train journey, or even on the speaker dock (which is an Altec Lansing BTW, not a Bowers & Wilkins ;^)

My one recommendation would be get a decent set of headphone (I paid about £50 for mine and the jump in quality was impressive).

So I'll quite happily stick to the 256Kbps rate for now... Lossless takes up far too much room (alas) - especially given my CD collection!

By mrmmm on 24 Feb 2011

On the other hand...

... I have an iPhone and I personally thank the day Apple introduced the "Reduce to 128Kbps when transferring to iPhone/iPod" setting in iTunes (thank you! :^)

Now I use my iPhone heavily as a smartphone and far less as a music player. So it's very helpful that I can put twice the amount of music on there, given how many apps I have & how much room they take up.

I listen to music on the iPhone mainly when I'm in the car (it streams over Bluetooth) or less often with my speaker dock.

The only time I use the 256Kbps is at home when playing off the PC and streaming to a couple of Airport Express devices.

I very rarely use headphones, but when I do, I have a pair of small closed-can fold-up AKGs (which are a big step up from the Apple earbuds).

None of the stereo equipment I have is particularly expensive or of high quality and it's more something to have on in the background than sit down and actively listen to it (I simply don't have the time).

I'll be the first to admit I've not got perfect hearing, but having gone from having my music collection in WMA (VBR 50-95Kbps) to AAC (VBR 256/128Kbps) is a big step up in quality and I don't notice the drop in quality from their CD counterpart (even with the classical CDs).

I'm sure many people would throw their hands up in horror, but at the end of the day, it's what works for you and what you're happy with...

When I'm in the car, there's always a lot of background noise so quality isn't paramount, neither is when I'm listening on headphones on a long train journey, or even on the speaker dock (which is an Altec Lansing BTW, not a Bowers & Wilkins ;^)

My one recommendation would be get a decent set of headphone (I paid about £50 for mine and the jump in quality was impressive).

So I'll quite happily stick to the 256Kbps rate for now... Lossless takes up far too much room (alas) - especially given my CD collection!

By mrmmm on 24 Feb 2011

Oops...

... Sorry for the post x 3 - was having browser issues (ahem)

By mrmmm on 24 Feb 2011

Lack of ipod playback not too important

Just speaking personally, the lack of 24-bit playback on ipods isn't too important as the listening conditions there are generally compromised and conversion is easy (although I have a feeling the more recent ipods can play 24-bit...).
However, I would definitely buy music from them if, and only if, *uncompressed* (ALAC or AIFF or WAV) 24-bit files are being offered. Some computer converters and most external audio interfaces can handle 24-bit playback with aplomb. However if lossy data-compressed files are being offered, then it's yet another instance of obfuscation...

Hopefully the "it's digital therefore it must be good" attitude may be evaporating a little, at last.

By muso_ed on 24 Feb 2011

Previous high quality formats

If you look at how popular the previous high quality formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio were compared to MP3, you'll see that in the market, the low quality option wins out. People just want to get more of their library on their device and they don't care about or notice the quality. So 24 bit is not going to be a big seller.

By martincowen100 on 25 Feb 2011

The idea of jumping from 16 to 24 bits is hilarious. 16 bit was originally chosen because very few people could tell the difference between 16 bit and the original sound and those that could could only do so under very carefully controlled condition.

So there are a few people who can appreciate a jump to 17 bits under somewhat unusual circumstances and maybe the odd freak who could detect a difference at 18 bit but 24?

For someone to be able to appreciate the difference between 23 and 24 bit would be the audio equivalent of a person being able to see the pixels on a 32" SD TV from about half a mile away.

By qpw3141 on 26 Feb 2011

It's a money-spinner!

I do not have a big music collection - I am still using a 1 GB Creative Zen Nano Plus. I was amazed when I first heard music from the media player fed straight into my ears - I could hear bits of backing music that I was just never aware was there when I listened to the CD from a hi-fi across the room or in the car.

But it is in the interests of media player suppliers that audio files now be issued in a new larger file format, so that consumers need to upgrade to a media player with higher capacity. My 1 GB player will not go far with 24-bit audio files!

By steelworks on 27 Feb 2011

Try it before making a decision?

Perhaps invest in some decent speakers, say B&W, that are capable of 24 bit, then download something from this website, http://www.bowers-wilkins.com/Society_of_Sound/Ove
rview.html

and then perhaps have a reasoned view, unless you have cloth ears perhaps!

By Kevano on 1 Jun 2011

Try it before making a decision?

Perhaps invest in some decent speakers, say B&W, that are capable of 24 bit, then download something from this website, http://www.bowers-wilkins.com/Society_of_Sound/Ove
rview.html

and then perhaps have a reasoned view, unless you have cloth ears perhaps!

By Kevano on 1 Jun 2011

Leave a comment

You need to Login or Register to comment.

(optional)

advertisement

Most Commented News Stories
Latest Blog Posts Subscribe to our RSS Feeds
Latest ReviewsSubscribe to our RSS Feeds
Latest Real World Computing

advertisement

Sponsored Links
 
SEARCH
Loading
WEB ID
SIGN UP

Your email:

Your password:

remember me

advertisement


Hitwise Top 10 Website 2010
 
 

PCPro-Computing in the Real World Printed from www.pcpro.co.uk

Register to receive our regular email newsletter at http://www.pcpro.co.uk/registration.

The newsletter contains links to our latest PC news, product reviews, features and how-to guides, plus special offers and competitions.