Considering iCloud — does audio quality still matter?

Jun 1, 2011
Finance

Maybe I’m already a dinosaur in my mid-20s. Maybe my priorities don’t come close to syncing with the kids coming up from behind. Maybe it doesn’t matter to anyone else but for all the excitement over the iCloud, I just want to know how the thing is going to sound. I still remember downloading songs […]

Maybe I’m already a dinosaur in my mid-20s. Maybe my priorities don’t come close to syncing with the kids coming up from behind. Maybe it doesn’t matter to anyone else but for all the excitement over the iCloud, I just want to know how the thing is going to sound.

I still remember downloading songs off of iTunes years ago, when all of the files were available at 128 bit and thinking how empty they sounded even on computer speakers. Burning the files to a disc and playing them on an actual stereo, or in the car, was a disaster.

I have audiophile friends to blame for that. Each pointed out within a few minutes how on a low bitrate file there’s a consistent, weird shimmering sound in the background of the track. I can still make it out if I close my eyes, even if I haven’t actually heard it in years.

That musical paranoia has dissipated somewhat these days. iTunes’ default file type is  currently 256kbps, and services like Spotify offer paid accounts at 320kbps. So we’re certainly doing better in this avenue than we were five years ago, but there’s still so much room for improvement.

Last.fm is free but streams at the dreaded 128kbps mark. Rhapsody streams at 128 for paid accounts and 64kbps for free users which is sort of unfathomable to me. Pandora, too, only streams at 64kbps for free users.

I’ll grant you that lower bit rate files aren’t so brutal to listen to on a laptop, where you’re probably not concerned with the best sound quality, but if I’m out walking around on a noisy street the last thing I want is some low quality audio to decipher. Give me the good stuff, man!

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Which brings me to my cautious optimism and/or reservations about the iCloud. I’m not worried we’re going to get a cloud full of poor-sounding 128 bit files. I’m more concerned at the idea that 256kbps is the high water mark. It can’t be. As storage gets cheaper and digital music becomes more common 256 should become the new 128. 320 should be our baseline, at least for now.

Maybe it’s unreasonable to want CD quality streaming, but we’re not going to nail this streaming business until we get it. When I can stream any record in my collection from anywhere I am and it sounds like I’m sitting next to a stereo system, then friend, we’ll have arrived. Until then, we’re just living in the clouds.

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Dan Kricke

Dan Kricke has been playing with electronics and writing about them for years. He loved his Sega Dreamcast and now the PlayStation 3. On the iPhone, he's a fan of sports apps and anything that offers new music.

 

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