Deezer Elite Gets Global Expansion as High-Definition Audio War Heats Up

In the global war for audio streaming supremacy, high-definition audio represents a relatively small battlefield. Nevertheless, numerous companies are vying for (the relatively small amount of) customers that care about audio quality enough to pay a premium.

The latest action came today (Feb. 10), when Deezer expanded its Deezer Elite product to Europe, Latin America, Asia Pacific and Canada. The company announced Tuesday existing Deezer listeners on Sonos can upgrade to Deezer Elite at the old pricing with a one-year commitment. Pricing for new users will be announced in March.

Deezer Elite offers Deezer's 35-million track library for streaming at FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec, files at a standard of 1,411 kbps or higher through Sonos speakers and components. A typical quality for a download store or streaming service is 320kbps. Of course, the requisite question is: do consumers want a high-quality audio streaming product. And if they do, how big or small is this segment of listeners?

The company, which claims 6 million subscribers and 16 million listeners worldwide, says Deezer Elite, with the help of its partnership with Sonos, already has 200,000 users -- both free trials and subscribers -- in the United States since its launch in September. Its partnership with Sonos has undoubtedly helped reach that number.

Information released by Deezer suggests its audiophile listeners are discerning and active. Deezer says Elite users have "almost twice the listening time" as other Deezer listeners. An internal survey of Deezer Elite users and found upward of 90 percent believe high-quality sound is important and 65 percent said they will never go back to MP3 files.

High expectations come with a higher cost. Audiophiles will be expected to pay more. The standard cost for "high-def" streaming is $19.99 per month, double a standard subscription service price, although promotional discounts can suppress the cost in the first year. Deezer users can upgrade and pay the standard $9.99 for a full year. In March, new Deezer Elite users can get a 30-day free trial.

A shift to high audio quality is a sensible direction for a music industry searching for new digital revenue. Digital music's first era -- the MP3 download -- encouraged consumers to place convenience over sound quality. But downloads have joined CD sales in decline. Streaming services are expected to pick up that slack. And, for the most part, they have plugged the hole. According to Nielsen Music, overall music consumption -- combining unit sales with streaming activity -- declined only 2 percent last year.

Audiophiles may have stuck with CDs or vinyl, but now they're being courted like never before. Neil Young has turned into an audiophile evangelist with his Pono download service and portable player. Tidal was recently launched by the high-definition streaming service recently launched by the company Jay Z plans to buy, Aspiro AB. And on Monday, Japanese electronics manufacturer Onkyo expanded its e-onkyo high-definition audio download store to the United States, United Kingdom and Germany.

"There is a lot of momentum happening in streaming and it's going to keep getting better for music lovers," said Sonos CEO John McFarlane in a statement.