Alexandre Jornod - Futuresource Consulting
High resolution audio, despite having been around for over fifteen years, is now closer than ever to achieving mainstream adoption. With the most affordable recording equipment enabling artists to produce music in High-Res, streaming services identifying improved audio experiences as a differentiator, audio manufacturers launching more premium devices, and further innovations in wireless connectivity, all the stars seem aligned for High-Res to reach the mass-market.
Despite this, there still remain some hurdles to overcome before High-Res can truly take-off.
Limited Content Library
This might come as a surprise to many but music content delivered in High-Res to streaming services is not that common. With the exception of the three major record companies (Universal, Warner, Sony) and a few independent labels, the majority of the content delivered to streaming services in 2020 is in CD quality (16bit) and not High-Res (24bit). As a result, the current size of the High-Res music catalogue is under 3 million songs on most High-Res streaming services as opposed to over 60 million on mainstream streaming platforms. This is mainly due to the fact that High-Res is currently not supported by the two leading streaming players Spotify and Apple Music, which doesn’t incentivise artists to deliver their content in higher resolution than CD quality.
High-Res Not Yet the Standard Delivery Format for the Music Industry
With the rise of home studio production and self-served distribution platforms, artists are now able produce and market their music on their own, without the help of a record label. This evolution, while representing a great opportunity for artists to remain independent, also means that artists choose the audio resolution of their music without the strict quality requirements often imposed by record companies. In that respect, most artists will stick to CD quality, as it is the most widespread and convenient audio resolution and the current standard within the music industry.
Restrained Support from Mainstream Streaming Services
As we have seen, the uptake of High-Res audio is heavily dependent on its availability to the public and consequently on its support by streaming services. While mainstream services have been historically reluctant to offer High-Res, especially in the case of Spotify, the market is changing and improved internet connectivity via fibre broadband and 5G are making large High-Res files easier to stream at home and on the move. Moreover, with competition intensifying between services, offering improved listening experiences could help streaming platforms to differentiate. This is why Amazon launched Amazon Music HD, to position itself within this segment as well as drive sales for its high-end smart speaker the Echo Studio. This strategy could easily be replicated by Apple.
In addition, contrary to the common assumption that consumers don’t have an interest for higher audio quality streaming, the recently published Audio Tech Lifestyles consumer research from Futuresource found that over 40% of the streaming users interviewed want better audio quality from their streaming service. It was by far the feature that gathered the most interest and demonstrates that there is indeed a desire from consumers to stream music in higher resolution.
High-Res Streaming Subscriptions Still Too Expensive
Content aside, the price of High-Res subscriptions appears to be one of the factors that is currently preventing High-Res from truly taking off. While most High-Res services have aligned their prices since the launch of Amazon Music HD to $14.99/month as opposed to previously $19.99/month, even at $4.99/month more compared to a standard subscription, it remains too expensive for most consumers, especially considering the limited size of the High-Res catalogue currently available.
Installed Base of High-Res Capable Devices Remains Small
On the device side, audio manufacturers have long been supporting High-Res. Their efforts have however been primarily focused on the higher-end of the market, which makes the number of High-Res capable devices appealing to mainstream audiences yet limited. High-Res compatibility is nevertheless slowly filtering through the mass-market, with companies such as Amazon, Sonos and other audio manufacturers making High-Res capable devices more accessible.