One of the key messages at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was the promotion of high-resolution audio, a new digital format that labels, device makers and retailers see as a way to potentially revive flagging download sales.
Put simply, high-resolution audio (HRA) refers to the way music is digitally captured in the form of computerized bits. The highest rate is 24-bit sound samples taken 192,000 times per second. CDs are generally captured at a rate of 16-bit samples taken 44,056 times a second. The idea is that more bits can lead to better sound.
If widely embraced by consumers, a new format gives rights owners a chance to resell yet another copy of their catalog titles. Labels and artists will also have the opportunity to add a premium for downloads that boast “better than CD quality.” And consumer electronics companies can sell more devices capable of playing back these high-resolution files. From an industry point of view, HRA is a win-win-win.
HRA has been around for several years, with HD Tracks one of the first companies to sell music files in the format five years ago. Since then, a number of other retailers have piled on — Acoustic Sounds, iTrax, Blue Coast Music and Native DSD Music. At a CES panel, the heads of these stores testified that their sales of HRA downloads have grown, though as private companies, they didn’t disclose their revenue from HRA music or the extent of the growth.
“We’ve sent millions of dollars to labels and publishers” from the sale of music delivered in HRA, HD Tracks president Norman Chesky told a packed audience at CES.
It’s those kinds of dollars that grab the ear of record companies. In the weeks running up to CES, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group declared their support of HRA, promising to release and license more music in the format in the coming months. Having an adequate supply of HRA music is key to growing the market. Sony Music executive VP of global business development Mark Piibe said just a tiny portion of Sony’s catalog is available in HRA.
There’s also the availability of hardware that can play back HRA files. In conjunction with a concerted effort by the Consumer Electronics Assn., Sony’s consumer electronics division was one of 40 companies at CES showing off audio equipment that can handle HRA — though some were extravagantly priced at thousands of dollars.
Amid the denigrations of the MP3 format as having “crappy sound,” however, there are still the issues of cost and convenience — two things that have trumped quality for more than a decade as revenue from download and streaming eclipsed sales of higher-quality physical formats. The MP3 is convenient because it requires less bandwidth to download and takes up less space on a mobile device. A phone with 16 gigabytes of storage can hold about seven hours of HRA files (or less, depending on the sampling rate) versus 190 hours of MP3s. These twin forces — convenience and cost — wreaked havoc on the industry’s efforts to launch Super Audio CDs in 1999 and DVD Audio in 2000.
Will they also kill the HRA movement? Perhaps not. The costs of both bandwidth and storage have come down considerably. Even Apple has started selling high-resolution versions of some albums, tagging them as “Mastered for iTunes.”
The challenge for HRA is whether it will be scalable beyond the typical older male demographic. Understandably, that is the big question the labels really want answered before they commit to the format. As with most things in music, you have to show them the money.