Beats is now part of the Apple organization. Pundits and professionals have been trying to sort out why Tim Cook and the Apple board decided to spend just north of $3 billion dollars on a second rate set of headphones, a streaming music service, and the expertise of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. I don’t think Apple is looking for the “cool” factor as some writers have claimed and I know they’re smart enough to know that the headphones suck. But they do recognize where the music industry is going. Apple made the Beats purchase so that they could set themselves up once again as the end-to-end solution for music delivery. It’s in their DNA and it guarantees that Apple can define the user experience (keep things simple) and in the case of audio…the fidelity of the final listening experience.
For the past several years, iTunes Producer (the piece of software that labels use to prepare and interact with the Apple site) has been demanding higher quality masters from all of the label partners. It’s more than just “Mastered for iTunes”, this is a mandate to accept nothing less than 96 kHz/24-bit stereo PCM masters from Warner Brothers, Universal Music, and Sony Music. All of the independent labels have also been delivering “better quality” masters. However, the delivery format and specifications of the files on iTunes have steadfastly remained AAC files at 256 kbps. But that going to change…as early as next week (click here to read my post of the HD iTunes site and new HD iPhone 6).
The new iPhone 6 will have a substantial upgrade for audio starting with a high-resolution capable DAC (sample rates up to 192 kHz and word lengths to 24-bits…although I think they may limit the sample rate to 96 kHz since that’s more than enough and what they’ve been collecting). Apple has already talked about their plans to connect devices digitally to headphones. They call it MFi and it uses a Lightning port to send digital information to a pair of headphones. And I think that’s one of the new strategies that will allow fidelity enhancements in a portable audio world.
The analog port will soon become a thing of the past. Meridian and several other makes of high-end speakers have been delivering digital audio to their reference speakers and doing things like crossovers, amplification, and other processing in the digital domain before converting to analog at the last possible moment. Apple is pushing this type of thinking for its portable devices. It won’t surprise me at all if Tim Cook announces that the iPhone 6 and a new set of Beats headphones will be using the MFI Lightning enabled connection. All sorts of cool things can happen if the headphones have additional power, a DSP chip, and controller for “personalizing” the sound. Why bother building in a bass boost when you can allow the end user to custom tailor their sound to mirror a specific model of headphones or even a room of JBL M2 Studio Reference Monitors?
There are big changes in store for music delivery. Apple is about to change the paradigm again. Now if we could just get the music producers and artists to “return to the soul of music”.