Hi-res audio: once the preserve of obsessive audiophiles who spend all their extra cash on the very best headphones and pricey Tidal subscriptions, the best-sounding music is becoming a little more attainable thanks to Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited.
Both companies announced that they would be bringing hi-res audio to their streaming platforms at no extra cost to subscribers, in a surprising move that’s bound to shake up rivals like Spotify, Tidal, and Deezer.
To our knowledge, it’s the first time that a music streaming service has offered hi-res audio without tacking on a premium price tag – and in the case of Amazon, it’s actually made its existing, more expensive hi-res tier (Amazon Music HD) free for all subscribers.
So, will the other major streaming services follow suit? We think it’s about time.
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What is hi-res audio?
Hi-res audio is lossless audio that’s capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better-than-CD quality music sources. In other words, hi-res music files closely replicate the sound created in the studio at the time of recording, revealing far more detail and clarity in the music than ‘lossy’ formats like MP3.
While hi-res audio is growing in popularity, it’s not a new concept. However, it’s becoming far more accessible than it used to be, with a growing number of music streaming services offering 24-bit/192kHz files transferred at a rate of 9,216kbps.
However, these streaming services often hide their hi-res audio files behind expensive subscription prices; for example,Tidal Premium costs $9.99 / £9.99 / $11.99 a month while Tidal HiFi is far more expensive at $19.99 / £19.99 / AU$23.99 a month.
That could all be about to change with the latest announcements from Amazon and Apple, as the two tech giants bring hi-res audio to all subscribers – no extra cost necessary.
What’s next for streaming services?
Apple and Amazon’s announcement comes not long after Spotify announced that it would be introducing a new streaming tier, Spotify HiFi.
Spotify HiFi, which is launching later this year, is set to bring CD-quality files streaming to the world’s most popular music platform. Although it will offer lossless audio at upwards of 1411kpbs, Spotify hasn’t committed to truly hi-res audio yet.
What’s more, Spotify HiFi is expected to cost more than a regular Premium subscription – but Apple and Amazon’s delivery of hi-res audio at no extra cost could force the streaming giant’s hand, and cause it to offer the service for free to existing subscribers.
It could spell trouble for the likes of Tidal too, which has traditionally been marketed as an upscale alternative to the likes of Spotify, with its collection of hi-res Tidal Masters. If Apple and Amazon can offer the same service for free, why would anyone fork out for a Tidal HiFi subscription?
It seems that there’s no real reason for making hi-res streaming more expensive than the lossy files we’ve become accustomed to. Over the last decade, storage has become more affordable, playback hardware has become faster, and broadband and mobile downloading has become more affordable. In short, hi-res audio is more attainable than ever, and music streaming prices should reflect that.
There are, of course, other costs associated with hi-res music. To fully appreciate higher-quality music files, you’ll need a decent pair of headphones or speakers, and you may even want to invest in an external DAC for your phone or PC to really get the most out of your music.
Still, making hi-res streaming less expensive is the first step in democratising high quality music, and making it more accessible for casual music listeners. Hi-res audio is no longer the sole preserve of audiophiles, and Apple and Amazon are the first companies to recognize this. Here’s hoping the other major streaming services follow suit soon.
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Olivia was previously TechRadar's Senior Editor - Home Entertainment, covering everything from headphones to TVs. Based in London, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, What to Watch, Top Ten Reviews, Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine. Olivia now has a career in PR.