24-Bit iTunes Music

by Christopher Paul on February 22, 2011

Various places (do a Google Search) are reporting that Apple is in talks with the music labels to offer their content at a higher bit rate. CDs are “downgraded” to 16-Bit from the original 24-Bit “Gold Master” that is used to record and produce the music in the studio. The files will be larger and continue the hardware growth that Apple thrives on. It, in theory, could boost sales of digital music.

I would venture to guess that most pirated music is a digital rip of a CD – already 16-Bit. The difference between a song bought in iTunes and one you get off some torrent site is price. If Apple offered 24-Bit songs, something that couldn’t be ripped from a CD, it could make their offering more attractive.

Part of the rumor is the current line of iPods & iPhones would need retooling to support the higher bit rate. Also part of the rumors is the idea the higher bit rate songs would have a premium price.

It would be unfortunate if new hardware was needed just to process the higher quality songs. I thought Apple would simply offer a firmware update. The current hardware can read different file compression formats and the bit rate should go along with them. iTunes already supports 24-Bit songs so it would need to convert those songs before copying to the portable device. You probably wouldn’t be able to offer 24-Bit iTunes purchases over the phone either. Its not ideal but it wouldn’t be permanent once you end-of-life your iPhone (which for iPhone 4 users would be between 1.5 to 2 years).

But the idea that I would pay a premium for the extra bit rate is what would get to me. That cost is more permanent. Would they offer to convert your music for free or for another premium? Consumers paid extra for iTunes Plus tracks which offered higher quality and no FairPlay DRM. To convert your existing library to the non-crippled format, you had to pay an extra 29 cents. To have to do that again would be insulting.

The argument for going to 24-Bit is the sound quality would be better. Critics have said the CD killed music because it couldn’t reproduce the same natural sounds found on vinyl. But it would be a mistake to charge people extra just for the extra bits. Most people won’t be able to tell the difference. Most people probably don’t care in spite of what the critics say.

The precedent is more of a concern for me. It’s yet another attempt to raise the cost of a product that has virtually no distribution costs. First it was iTunes Plus songs, then the variable pricing which brought back the price increase. No songs are offered for 69 cents; I bet most of the songs are $1.29, now. To add another 30 cents or more to bring the price up to $1.59+ per song would just make what little purchases I make not worth the cost. It’s like an artificial format shift. Moving from records to tapes made the music portable. Tapes to CD allowed the sound quality to increase. CD to MP3 let you take your library anywhere and lowered distribution costs. Another digital format won’t add the same kind of value.

I don’t mind paying the $1 or $1.30 per song for the convenience of having things integrate well with the whole Apple ecosystem. That’s the value I get. But it’s barely enough to cover the costs of the music I pay. I don’t buy as much music because the price/value equation is not equal for me. To make price & value more unbalanced for me will only slow my consumption even further. And I’d venture that others like me would resort to unauthorized means to find the music they want at the price that equals the value they place on the music.

So, in theory, the 24-Bit tracks could entice audiophiles to purchase digital music because the quality would be better. But if the Apple & the labels add yet another price tier to their music, it would set their products back and only upset those who paid to upgrade their music library before. It’s another format shift – one that doesn’t provide any value to the consumer.

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