The Audiophile Future?

Apple announced last week that music fans have downloaded over five million songs from its iTunes Music Store since its launch two months ago. In addition, the company reports that over 46% of the songs have been purchased as albums, and over 80% of the over 200,000 songs available on the online store have been purchased at least once.

Apple also announced that it shipped its one millionth iPod music player last week. Apple introduced the third generation of its portable digital audio player in April, edging out consumer electronics heavies like Sony, whose portable music players have been floundering due to built-in file use restrictions.

When the iTunes store was launched, critics quickly pointed out that the service was only compatible with Apple's computer products, which represent about 5% of the personal computing market. This makes it all the more remarkable that five million audio files have been downloaded—and bought—in such a short period.

Critics have also suggested that with only 200,000 songs currently available, and at 99¢ per download, the iTunes appeal would be limited to Apple's early adopters, with its success tapering off rapidly. So far, however, this clearly has not been the case, and Apple says PC users will be able to download songs from the iTunes Music Store when it is released for the Windows platform by the end of this year.

Pricing and limited title availability issues may prove irrelevant, since, as any audiophile will testify, download audio quality may be good enough for portable devices and most car systems, but it just can't cut it for critical listening in the home. That attitude is reflected in last week's Vote results, where a hefty 92% of our readers say they have never legally downloaded an audio file. Most seem disgusted at the idea of listening to downloaded files; as reader Al Earz comments, "Why download compressed versions of any music? What purpose does it serve? This completely baffles me."

However, as reader Paul Abbott points out in last week's Soapbox, the success of iTunes isn't about sound quality and compressed formats: "What current (and future) download systems offer is convenience. No need to go to a bricks-and-mortar store, no need to find space for hundreds (or thousands) of CDs in your house, and no need to spend time looking for one or two discs out of thousands when you jump in your car and hit the road."

Arguably, convenience is what gave CD players the edge when they replaced turntables in most folks' home systems and slowly edged out cassette decks in cars. Audiophiles cringed at early CD sound, but soon set to work perfecting it over the ensuing decade.

It's easy to imagine the same thing happening with audio downloading. There are many young audiophiles dedicated to maximizing download audio sound quality with higher bit-rates and variable bit-rate encoding. As digital bandwidth to the home increases, demand for ever-higher-resolution audio files may finally reach the critical mass needed to make it worthwhile for the labels to provide songs in more audiophile-friendly formats.

Abbott notes, "For . . . convenience there is (and will always be) a trade-off. Currently it's lower resolution and limited selection. Over time that margin will narrow." Critical audiophiles should keep in mind that, as reader Mitchell Gusat wrote, "We're still in the Stone Age of Digital. . . . But, can one dream of ripping and encoding high-rez formats? Chances are that the MP3 VBR of a 24/192 or DSD recording will better the 16/44 layer. Things are moving ahead fast. Format wars and copyright/DRM confusions are only delaying the inevitable."

Will audiophiles accept their traditional role in the format dance? Historically, once the mass market has adopted an audio format it finds convenient (the LP, CD or downloaded audio file), audiophiles are expected to grumble a bit and then get down to the business of perfecting it.