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A Sense of Lossless

Friday, December 29th, 2006

When you buy a song in iTunes, you get a protected AAC audio file with a 128 bit rate. In other words–it’s copy protected and of a lesser quality than a CD. We’ve all heard plenty about the problems with the copy protection (mainly in terms of interoperability) but not so much so far about the low quality. Audiophiles, of course, have been griping about this for a while, but just plain users are pretty happy with the sound piping into their ear buds.

But this year looks like the one where digital music really hits the home stereo system, where the sound limitations of a 128 bit rate are much more likely to be heard by people who don’t normally subscribe to Stereo Review. So the question comes up–what happens to our music libraries then?

Clearly in the future we will be using codecs (these are the systems that squeeze all the bits that represent the music, into densely packed computer files) that are bigger and yield quality at least as good as CDs are now. One thing working heavily in our favor is that storage gets cheaper and cheaper, and chips that do the decompression get more powerful. In ten or twenty years, it won’t be a problem that songs eat up a bunch more storage–it will be a minor blip compared to the spaciousness of our disk drives. (Twenty years may sound like forever, but I have thirty-year-old LPs rotting in my storage basement now that are a constant taunt to me — not worth a repurchase or the effort to convert to digital, but I’d sure like to have them in my library.) Apple itself even has devised a codec called Apple Lossless, though the most popular lossless formats seems to be an open-source standard called FLAC. In any case, it seems obvious that one day when people buy songs on the iTunes store (or whatever follows it) it will be in a “lossless” format. (Here’s a link, BTW, to an excellent blog on the subject.)

But what about digital songs already in our library? Hope you saved the CD’s that you originally ripped–if so, you can rip them again in a lossless format. The big question is what happens to the songs you bought from iTunes or other stores. The music industry has long considered it a birthright to make you re-purchase songs when you switch formats. One reason it hates digital music is that it’s simple to take the previous format–CDs–and move the music to the computer without paying tribute. Though its also possible to digitize the tunes on your LPs and cassettes, it’s a messy process that seldom results in a flawless transfer, so people sometimes wind up rebuying music. But this case is different. If you bought a digital song that sounds just a bit crappy when you play it on your stereo, it is worth paying another buck a song to upgrade it?

Here’s a great opportunity for the music labels. Why not do what software vendors have always done? Create an upgrade path. For a low fee per song–a quarter? A dime? A nickel?- -allow a copy-protected song in a lossy format to be swapped for a similar version in a lossless format. And if the record companies are really smart they’ll go even one step further–allow unprotected MP3s to be similarly upgraded. It would almost be like an amnesty program for those who have procured the MP3s by shady means.

Unfortunately, the history of the record labels indicates that they will fight tooth and nail to set up a situation where those wishing lossless audio files will have to rebuy ones they already own at full price. But since an unauthorized alternative exists–there will be an unlimited supply of lossless files created from CDs–most people won’t bite. Is anyone thinking about an upgrade path?

In the meantime, it would be nice if there were a way to get higher quality songs purchased right away. A company called musicgiants offers what it calls lossless quality downloads (all four labels are on board) for $1.29 a cut, but its format isn’t supported by iPods. One more argument for interoperability.

1 Comment

  • Micheal

    Today music is still one of the powerful forces which remain in society and influences cultures all over the world, the difference today is we have international access to all sources of music using the internet network.

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