The HiFi Saga

This story is a bit odd, but someone should write it down for one reason or another. It begins when Spotify announced “Spotify HiFi” on February 22, 2021:

“High-quality music streaming is consistently one of the most requested new features by our users.”, they wrote – and I agree. In my opinion, Spotify’s highest setting (Ogg Vorbis 320 kbs) sounds much worse than Apple Music typical AAC 256 kbps. 

“Spotify HiFi will begin rolling out in select markets later this year, and we will have more details to share soon.” 

“Premium subscribers in select markets will be able to upgrade their sound quality to Spotify HiFi and listen to their favorite songs the way artists intended.” Evidently, HiFi is meant to add a few dollars to the subscription price. 

I guess it makes sense. The monthly price of US$ 10 was inexpensive when Spotify launched in U.S. in 2011 and it’s even cheaper now, adjusting for inflation. Offering music in a “CD-quality, lossless audio format” would be a natural option to experiment with more pricing tiers. 

To promote the future product, there even was a video with Billie Eilish and FINNEAS promoting the idea as they “speak about the importance of high-quality audio options for creators and fans. “

Spotify of course is the leading music streaming service in the world, with a 32% market share.

What did Apple Music, the tech giant and number two music streamer in the world? Basically everything that could mess with Spotify plan!

(Of course, the “feud” between the companies has been so long and well documented that Spotify maintains an official timeline of its complaints and the remedial actions it has been pursuing.)

Apple announcement came on May 17, 2021. “Apple Music announces Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos; will bring Lossless Audio to entire catalog”.

“The next generation of sound on Apple Music is coming to subscribers June 2021 at no additional cost”.

It is really remarkable how Apple reaction was a point-by-point “rebuttal” of Spotify’s:

  1. Instead of coming “later this year” and any details “coming soon”, Apple said June.
  2. Instead of “being able to upgrade”, Apple would provide it “at no additional cost”.
  3. Instead of “select markets”, Apple basically just went global.
  4. Instead of “CD quality lossless” (aka 44.1 kHz 16 bits), Apple did the same PLUS high definition lossless (up to 192 kHz 24 bits) PLUS Spatial Audio (Dolby Atmos).

And Apple apparent rebuttal of HiFi went even further. Apple launched lossless and Spatial Audio on June 7th and on the next day Billboard published and interview with Eddy Cue, Apple’s Senior VP of internet software and services, where he not only hyped Spatial Audio as a “game changer”, the future of audio but also expressly stated that lossless [as championed by Spotify] is NOT the future. 

Q: The music industry, for a few years now, has been talking about lossless. It has said it will be the next-gen technology that’s going to change everything. And you seem to think Spatial Audio is going to be that. Was that initial thinking around lossless incorrect?

A: There’s no question it’s not going to be lossless. Because the reality of lossless is: if you take a 100 people and you take a stereo song in lossless and you take a song that’s been in Apple Music that’s compressed, I don’t know if it’s 99 or 98 can’t tell the difference.

For the difference of lossless, our ears aren’t that good. Yeah, there are a set of people who have these incredible ears, and that’s one piece of it. There’s the other piece of it, which is do you have the level of equipment that can really tell the difference? It requires very, very high-quality stereo equipment. What you find is, for somebody who’s a true, for example classical connoisseur, they may be able to tell the difference in lossless. I can’t tell personally — I do the blind tests all the time with the team — I can’t tell. That’s a problem. That’s not going to work because that’s a marketing play, not a true customer play. Dolby Atmos, Spatial Audio? You can tell. I can tell, everyone can tell. That’s going to make all the difference in the world.

Now, we’re supporting lossless and we think there’s a set of customers. It’s a small set of customers, but they want it and we’ll certainly give it to them, and they’ll have it as part of this. The good news is they’ll have lossless and they’ll have Dolby Atmos and Spatial. It really does work very well for that [set of customers], but it’s not going to be lossless [leading the way].”

Of course, Apple’s AAC 256 Kbs compressed format has long been a high-quality audio format, and the debate whether most/any listeners can really distinguish between lossy and lossless audio has been endless, but to hear an Apple senior executive dismiss lossless and high-definition lossless as something almost irrelevant that is demanded by a “small set of consumers” is quite striking. 

(In my subjective opinion, lossless sound much better than compressed on any decent entry-level headphone, high-definition lossless may be usually overkill indeed, and spatial audio on AirPods and such is basically a gimmick.)

Anyway, Apple approach of providing lossless for no additional cost had another major impact in the competitive landscape. Amazon, the third largest music streamer, already offered lossless and HD lossless for Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers since September 2019, in a few markets. Amazon priced lossless quite competitively, for only 5$ additional dollars, half the premium charged by lossless pioneers Tidal and Qobuz. Upon Apple’s announcement of lossless at no extra cost, Amazon announced it would to do the same immediately, bringing down the price of Music Unlimited HD down to US$10. 

(Curiously, Amazon has shown no rush to extend the international reach of HD. The service remains available only in US, UK, Germany, Canada, France, Italy and Spain. No announcements of any expansion have been made.)

Anyway, one can guess that Spotify’s plan to offer HiFi as an upgrade has been seriously challenged.

Meanwhile, Spotify has been conspicuously silent about those developments. As I write, more than six months have passed since the HiFi announcement, and no further details have ever released. 

The only official words about Spotify HiFi come from @SpotifyCares, and they are always the same when inquired about the subject:

“Hey there! All information about Spotify’s plans for HiFi can be found on our blog, For the Record: We don’t have any additional details to share at this time, but give us a shout for anything else.”

(Some details about HiFi have been ‘leaked‘).

One last detail about this odd brawl between music streaming services is that Spotify explicitly emphasized it would use integrated HiFi with Spotify Connect. “Ubiquity is at the core of everything we do at Spotify, and we’re working with some of the world’s biggest speaker manufacturers to make Spotify HiFi accessible to as many fans as possible through Spotify Connect. “

Apple on the other hand has made no much effort so far to bring lossless to the users’ audio setups. On the FAQ about how to listen to lossless on your iPhone or iPad [or Mac] it is simply stated: “To listen to songs at sample rates higher than 48 kHz, you need an external digital-to-analog converter.”

It is really astonishing to see Apple communicating this way, instead of using the launch of lossless to release some innovative DAC of their own, or maybe some kind of AirPlay upgrade. Instead, Apple is clearly positioning this feature for that “small set of users” who may have some idea and care about “external digital-to-analog converters”.

John Darko explains well why Apple Music’s hi-res streaming is a “bit of a mess” (the video at the end is surprisingly funny, considering the specificity of the topic).

(Meanwhile, I am curious how long the hype around Spatial Audio for music on headphones will still last and whether Apple will eventually regret/feel embarrassed about its role on it…)

Anyway, there still one third of year left to Spotify release its HiFi product and bring a new chapter this to this odd Cold War. 

P.S. As I was finishing this article comes the news that Apple has bought classical music streamer Primephonic for an undisclosed price.

“With the addition of Primephonic, Apple Music subscribers will get a significantly improved classical music experience beginning with Primephonic playlists and exclusive audio content. In the coming months, Apple Music Classical fans will get a dedicated experience with the best features of Primephonic, including better browsing and search capabilities by composer and by repertoire, detailed displays of classical music metadata, plus new features and benefits.

“We love and have a deep respect for classical music, and Primephonic has become a fan favorite for classical enthusiasts,” said Oliver Schusser, Apple’s vice president of Apple Music and Beats. “Together, we’re bringing great new classical features to Apple Music, and in the near future, we’ll deliver a dedicated classical experience that will truly be the best in the world.”

(This is really amazing. Finally we are going to see some specialized apps instead of the current one-size-fits-all approach?!)

P.P.S. The Apple press release on the acquisitions quotes Oliver Schusser, Apple’s vice president of Apple Music and Beats, not his direct boss, Eddy Cue. The lossless press release was also 100% Schusser and and zero Cue. So why on Earth was Eddy Cue talking with Billboard two weeks later about ‘lossless not being the future’? Why does Schusser not even mentioned during the interview? Apple is usually always so disciplined in its dealings with the press, this Billboard interview is really an outlier.

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