Several years ago, Apple decided that the sound quality offered through its iTunes digital music download service needed an upgrade. The previous fidelity standards hovered around 128 kbps (recall that uncompressed CDs run at 1400 kbps) with some recent moves towards 256 kbps. This level of quality is reasonable for the ear bud, portable music crowd but is incapable of delivering the kind of fidelity that audiophiles demand.
From what I’ve read, Steve Jobs was a huge music fan and interested in better quality audio. Apparently, there were even some discussions with Neil Young about the merits of better downloads and living up to the artist’s intent. Nothing ever happened because of Steve Job illness and ultimate death, but the company that he founded and guided so skillfully has a culture for quality. This should naturally translate to audio (I write this on the 30th anniversary of the original MacIntosh computer…which launched on January 24, 1984!).
So along comes “Mastered for iTunes” in 2012, which is a set of tools and production procedures that is supposed to improve the quality of the 256 kbps downloads that we all acquire. They upped the quality of the iTunes site with the moniker of iTunes Plus in 2007 and are now coordinating with the major labels and other suppliers to get 96 kHz/24-bit files submitted to their production gateway (all labels use a program called iTunes Producer to submit new tracks or albums to Apple). The previous standard was simple CD resolution.
According to a company statement, Apple is keeping the new “higher” quality masters in their systems to allow for full advantage of future improvements to your music.” What does that mean?
It means that Apple is asking the companies to give them so-called “high-resolution audio” versions of their content so that they can market them as “Mastered for iTunes”. However, they are still subjected to 256 kbps compression using AAC or the new and improved HD-AAC formats. The statement does hint at perhaps iTunes will offer uncompressed versions of these higher spec’d source files…but I’m pretty sure that they will be limited to CD quality and not high-resolution versions. And it won’t matter anyway because most of the recordings are not taking advantage of high-resolution audio specifications during the sessions.
And think about it for a second…does outputting a 96 kHz/24-bit version of files that was mastered for CD release really create a better sounding download? No, it definitely does not. So all of this re-working of older masters in bigger bit buckets (with or without new mastering sessions…which is not happening) means nothing to end consumers interested in quality.
In fact, tests that have been done on the “Mastered for iTunes” versions of releases from Universal Music Group and others shows that they aren’t really any better than standard CDs. There is some real potential in the concept of using better sources, but the reality is that the files coming from the mixing and mastering studios are still heavily compressed, were produced using 48 kHz sampling rates and lots of other processors and were mastered for maximum volume through FM radio. We need to lobby for alternative versions of classic recordings and new releases in “audiophile mastered” style.
So the real question is do the labels, producers, artists and engineers care enough about sound quality to change the production procedures that they’re using to include a version of their masters that might appeal to audiophiles? So far, they’ve given no indication that they do.