CES 2016: Will Affordability Position Hi-Res Music to Go Mainstream?

Neil Young
AP Photo/John Locher

Neil Young speaks during a session at the International CES Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, in Las Vegas. 

Hi-res audio is resonating loud and clear at this year’s CES, with more than 60 manufacturers showcasing products compatible with various deep-bit formats.

The leap in device availability and affordability means that the era of high-res may have finally arrived, Marc Finer, senior director of the Digital Entertainment Group, tells Billboard.

“One of the key things that’s accompanied the expansion of devices is that the range of manufacturers includes every type of compatible products and available via various carrier plans. The bottom line is that these devices are now affordable,” he says.

Maybe so, but several manufacturers are not yet sharing pricing on their newest offerings. Sony is showcasing three new models in its h.ear series—including a sleek wireless headset and speakers - but pricing is not yet available. With our without a price tag, the sound is impressive. Sony -- along with a consortium of pro audio and music companies including Columbia Masterworks, dCS Ltd., Doshi Audio and Sweetwater Sound -- is drawing people to its demo space with the sounds of iconic artists Miles Davis, Simon & Garfunkel, Harry Nilsson and Leonard Bernstein mastered at N.Y.’s Battery Studios.

Companies are also expanding the places where consumers can immerse themselves in a quality audio experience. JVC, Pioneer and Sony are among those trotting out hi-res car audio systems. “These players will be introduced in the coming months; they weren’t even around last year,” Finer says.

Dovetailing with the greater mix of devices, today at CES the Consumer Technology Assn. and Music Watch are releasing a new study that segments music fans into four segments; audiophiles, who are already entrenched in the hi-res market, those who don’t identify at all with music, and the middle-ground of casual “convenience and lifestyle” consumers of music and more active “music enthusiasts.”

It's that latter group of enthusiasts that the CTA, DEG, RIAA and other organizations are targeting with new educational and marketing outreach, which includes easily identifiable marks on both audio files and electronics products.

“Next to the access of music, the ability to go online and download or stream on demand, the number-two most important thing for the music enthusiast is sound quality,” he says. “They want to be in the studio with their favorite performer. They want to have that emotional connection and right now none of the services that are in the MP3 world are providing that.”

Hi-res audio sampling is easy to come by at CES. Not so much in the real world. But, Finer says, this is changing. Last fall Best Buy installed hi-res listening stations featuring content from Sony Music, Universal Music and Warner Music in most of its stores. “The displays provide consumer access to listen to the clips, both catalog and new releases, and the idea is to refresh them every few months,” Finer says. Additional retailers will add stations later in the year, he noted.

Another previous hurdle to hi-res adoption, the availability of titles, is also beginning to shift. “It’s a chicken and egg scenario,” Finer says. “Some say where’s the rest of the music? We need more. Others say we need more devices.” Today’s availability of thousands of albums is poised to grow with more players on board, he says. “The goal is to put hi-res into the production cycle.”