Quality of Audio Files

The music industry has been moving away from CD’s for some time now, and digital music has moved right into the forefront. For a long time, digital music meant illegal downloading from sources such as Limewire, which was a large contributor to the declining CD sales. Now that iTunes has developed and has recently become the largest retailer of music, it is clear that the CD is on its way out, and digital music is where the industry is today. I am not here to delve into whether or not iTunes is a good asset to the industry, but how digital music has effected the standard of audio quality.
In the first quarter of 2008 Apple sold 22.1 million iPods. This number has greatly increased since their first quarter in 2005 when they only sold 4.58 million units. This suggests that most people listen to music on an iPod or some other mp3 player, and that most of those people do not have a high standard for the quality of the audio they are listening to. When people are listening to music on small inexpensive ear buds, it doesn’t matter how good the audio file is, it still won’t sound good. This suggests that people don’t really care how good their music sounds, they just like the convenience of having 20,000 or more songs at their fingertips. Because of this, iTunes is very successfully selling very low quality mp3s, and there isn’t much argument for better quality audio. Not to mention, illegal downloads tend to be of even worse quality than iTunes.
iTunes sells their mp3s at 128 kbps with DRM protection and iTunes Plus AAC files at 256 kbps with no DRM protection. The iTunes Plus files are a step in the right direction being pretty much comparable to CD quality audio. The only problem with iTunes Plus right now is that only select music is available. When it was originally introduced, the songs were about 25 cents more than the regular iTunes files, which is exactly the wrong way to promote the higher quality audio. It also was obviously unsuccessful seeing as the prices are now the same.
When the majority of people listening to the music don’t really care about having a more accurate, higher quality sound file, it’s hard to argue for investing money in offering higher quality music. Luckily, iTunes seems to be moving in the right direction, but it seems more like a moral decision to preserve higher standards rather than a great business decision. The amount of people complaining about iTunes lower quality audio was only a small percentage of customers and I would say that a big part of the reason to implement iTunes Plus was to appease artists that didn’t want people hearing their album as a low quality mp3. Other vendors like Amazon sell 256 kbps files which may be another contributing factor.
With technology always advancing, it is now a lot more feasible to download larger, higher quality audio files without worrying about storage space or significantly longer download times. The question though, is do enough people care? I would say that they don’t, but businesses should give customers the control of the quality of their music. CD’s were dictated by the medium in which they were played. Now that we have so many different ways to compress audio, standards have gone out the window. What I want to see is a model like iTunes Plus for the entire iTunes catalog. I feel that businesses are responsible for the future of audio quality and it will be interesting to see where it goes.



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