iTunes Radio Announced at Apple WWDC

I love watching Apple’s streamed product events. They have always been a company that knows how to put on elegantly simple, well-paced and exciting presentations. Yesterday’s 2-hour opening keynote event was no exception and I watched the video stream from start to finish.

If I haven’t said it before in my posts, I say it now with consideration emphasis…I’m a huge Apple fan. I’ve had Apple products since the Apple IIe was back in the 80s and have purchased a lot of their hardware and software in the intervening years. In my opinion, this is a company that does just about everything right…and for the right reasons. Simply put…they design and build the very best products in existing categories and expand the product categories in directions that can sometimes change everything. Just think about personal computers, software, ease of use, iTunes, iPhones etc.

But as much as I admire Apple and enjoy learning about their new products…I keep hoping that they will grab on to the idea of HD-Audio in stereo and surround and give it the push that it deserves. There were some rumblings a while back that Neil Young and Steve Jobs were exploring ways that Apple could offer better “high quality” sound. But with Steve Jobs’ death, Neil has moved forward with his Pono initiative for better sound with other partners. Apple rolled out “Mastered for iTunes” some time ago, but it misses the mark because they are still delivering “just enough” music fidelity from better source transfers.

The much-anticipated iTunes Radio announcement by Apple at their annual developer gathering in San Francisco was incorporated into the roll out of the new iOS 7, which is slated to emerge this fall. The new portable operating system looks like a killer. If you have a chance, go online and watch that part of the WWDC opening session on video. They’ve incorporated parallax into the viewing of the Retina display on the iPhone. That means that the phone and its gyroscopic sensor know when you move the phone and translates that to a sort of 3D image manipulation between the foreground icons and the background image. It’s very cool.

iTunes Radio is Apple’s version of Spotify or Pandora. As is typical with Apple, they will set the bar for user interface design and weave their new app into every piece of hardware you have. There will be Apple curated stations, stations that you can populate with eras or artists and lots of ways to explore new music too. There will be ads in the no cost version and if you pay for the $24.95 Apple Match cloud service, then it’s free. I think it will be very well received and should give the other services some stiff competition. But what if Apple upped the bar and included a couple of “stations” that I would like to see?

How about an HD-Audio station or a 5.1 surround music station? The issue of quality streams is already happening, so Apple had a golden opportunity to march out front and stream better fidelity than their competitors. I couldn’t find a source for the specifications of the audio that will be streamed but I’m guessing it won’t be different than Pandora or Spotify. According to Spotify, the audio standards for their streams are: “Pandora on the Web plays 64k AAC+ for free listeners and 192kbps for Pandora One subscribers. All in-home devices play 128kbps audio, and mobile devices receive a variety of different rates depending on the capability of the device and the network they are on, but never more than 64k AAC+.” So what does this mean?

Remember that CD standard audio (44.1 kHz/16-bits/2.0 channel audio) chews up about 1400 kbps (44100 x 16 x 2). The typical AAC or MP3 audio file is less than one tenth of that or 128 kbps. That’s a lot of data compression and the audio fidelity in terms of dynamic range and frequency response suffers because of it. Taking a look at the last line of the Pandora statement about it’s technical quality, they say “never more than 64k AAC+” is the standard for their streaming service. This is half of already marginal sound. Those of us that care about audio fidelity aren’t going to be happy.

iTunes Radio is an important development for Apple and for music loving consumers everywhere…but what if they had embraced even 320 kbps streams? Now that would be major move in the right direction.

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

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