ANALYSIS: The future of quality audio

Quality audio: there are people willing to pay

A group of experts from the hi-fi and music industries discuss the future of music in the home and how more can be done to educate the general public on good quality audio

The panellists

  • Ben Gomori, DJ, record label owner and promoter
  • Enno Vandermeer, founder and chief executive of Roon Labs
  • David Steven, chief executive of dCS
  • Tony Faulkner, independent recording and mastering engineer
  • Paul Noble, founder and artistic director of Spiritland

Q: Is streaming going make, break or change the current music industry model?
Enno Vandermeer: It’s safe to say it’s going to change the landscape of it. The major labels have struggled a bit through the download era into the streaming era. One of the challenges is that since the beachhead was established by the mass streaming services, labels are now wondering how streaming can address the needs of the niche customers – those who want high-res and premium products and not just the all-you-can-stream £9.99 a month. So, there’s a lot more change to come. Spotify only launched in the US five years ago, so it’s still very early days.

Enno Vandermeer
Enno Vandermeer

Paul Noble: It has totally changed how people listen to music and the context they see it in – an endless playlist of tracks. When we talk about breaking the music industry, I suppose it does a lot of damage to the artists. The time and devotion that people used to give to an album – streaming has killed that.

David Stevens: What we see a lot of is that streaming and playlists are fantastic for music discovery, but a lot of people still want that act of listening to a complete performance – an ‘album’. But those people are fewer and fewer.

Ben Gomori: It’s often that narrative that gets told, but there are people who are voraciously listening to the same album over and over again. It just depends on your preference.

There should be a duty or responsibility on behalf of the streaming platforms to put the albums that we do like to listen to in front of us again. I haven’t seen anything on a streaming service that says, ‘you haven’t listened to this album in a while’. Spotify lists your most-listened-to tracks and artists of the year, but not most-listened-to albums and it could very easily incorporate something like that. I’d like to see more stuff like that, which keeps us going back to those great albums, because they’re still out there. You could always say that the other side of the coin would be maybe it’s doing us a favour by not having to listen to a full album. Some people think they’re the be-all and end-all.

It’s becoming a more sustainable thing and, like it or not, it’s the future.

Q: What about the vinyl revival? Why do you think that has seen a boost with a younger demographic if streaming is the future?
There are a lot of young people that are buying vinyl, but I saw a statistic that people who are buying vinyl don’t have a record player. You can understand it if all you’ve ever known is being bombarded with content and choice and this intangible digital stuff – having something physical is quite nice. But those people are still listening to music on streaming services as well. The two things can coexist, and the vinyl thing is very weird at the moment. It’s just being bought and not listened to. It’s a strange dynamic.

Ben Gomori
Ben Gomori

EV: I have to agree that vinyl and digital are not mutually exclusive. They’re two different use cases. Streaming is obviously very convenient, you can lean back and do it easily. Listening to your vinyl is a ritual, it’s a deeply immersive experience, something that you do proactively.

The point on collecting the physical object as a sort of ‘badge of honour’, there’s something to that – ‘Look at my collection. You can tell something about me on the basis of what I’ve chosen to buy’.

There are people willing to pay a premium for something of higher quality. The challenge we have is getting the whole world back up from compressed files to CD quality

Q: Is the future of music high-resolution, CD-quality or compressed?
DS: We’d all like to say it’s high-res, but it’s actually all three. There’s a portion of the population that hasn’t known anything other than MP3 and compressed and that’s the challenge. How do we get well-recorded music and fantastic user interfaces in front of people? The more people can hear how good the music can sound, the better for all of us.

BG: This is the only industry I can think of where the technology that people are using has got worse. When you think about screen resolution, that’s on a continued upward trajectory. There’s no reason for MP3 and lower format compressed music to exist. Bandwidth is getting better and storage is getting cheaper.

As soon as streaming services realise there’s an incentive and an up-sell, where some people are willing to pay for it, it will filter down and eventually it will become normal, when everyone’s got super-fast internet connections. It’s inevitable, which is great.

The problem with audio is that a lot of people aren’t going to be able to tell the difference between MP3 and WAV. But we have become used to the norm being worse-sounding quality for convenience’s sake and streaming providers can’t see that the desire is there, because people have been given this step down.

EV: The reason companies like Spotify stick with 320kbps quality is because it has bandwidth costs. The labels charge 70 per cent of whatever the gross rate is on those streaming services. So out of £10, the streaming services have £3 left to work with. There’s a disincentive for a streaming service to make high-res available as they actually become dependent on breakage. If they sell or supply high-res, they would really have their fingers crossed that you didn’t stream that very much, because they would easily lose money on a single usage. 

David Steven
David Steven

PN: A lot of this is about delivery and that’s why, when companies like Apple make it really easy, you buy it. If Tidal offered a £30 a month, high-res or super high-res option, people would sign up. They need to make it easier for people.

Q: How receptive do you think most people would be to high-quality music? Are you preaching to the converted or are you demonstrating to people that can pick up on it?
PN: I think that everyone can hear it and the way in is to play tracks that people know.

When people come to Spiritland and we put them in the sweet spot and play something like David Bowie or Queen – something that is ingrained into everyone’s DNA – they hear it and it’s a revelation. Suddenly, they realise the space in these tracks, the reverb, they didn’t realise there were synths all over the intro, it’s like hearing the music for the first time.

People who love music deserve to hear it at its best possible quality. We’ve gone down this road of compression and miniaturisation, which means people are listening to it on their phones on a speaker the size of a peanut, or on a laptop.

BG: That’s the real challenge, you can supply people with high-quality and high-res music, but if they’re going to be listening to it on a crap pair of headphones or a computer speaker, they’re not going to notice.

So how do we get people to be able to appreciate it? That comes with creating experiences with better sound quality.

But the other thing is good-quality sound equipment becoming more accessible, which I think will happen.

There’s a disconnect between the audiophile world and most people who are listening to music, and it’s how we bridge that gap and find a product in the middle? It’s a big challenge, but I’m confident it will happen. It’s already starting.

EV: One of the most interesting metrics in the music industry is that, of the titles that have grown over the past few years, they’ve consistently had 40 per cent of users opting for the hi-fi tier. And the whole music industry perceives this metric as an indication that there is hope – there are people willing to pay a premium for something of higher quality. I personally feel the challenge we have is getting the whole world back up from compressed files to CD. High-res? Not yet because, the bar having been lowered by the original iPod, most people still think that’s good enough.

Paul Noble
Paul Noble

Q: What’s the plan for getting people into high-quality sound?
The biggest challenge is probably access to the kind of equipment necessary to reproduce the sound.

The difference between playing back a red-book [CD quality] file on some very cheap consumer electronics device versus an entry-level audiophile product is tremendous. Perhaps much bigger than that between a red-book and high-res PCM file. So getting over that initial hump is really the challenge. And it’s difficult, because there are not many channels for high-performance audio.

In the past few years, the Apple store has become a channel for products that are better than people are used to. So clearing that hurdle is a big one. The Apple store is selling more higher-end products. That’s a channel that people trust. Hi-fi stores are not very accessible. We know where they all are, but the general public doesn’t know they exist in many cases.

BG: That gap is being shortened. There are more companies coming into play that are affordable and that people know to be better than a Bluetooth speaker. So it’s coming, but slowly. 

DS: A big challenge for us is there isn’t a hi-fi store on the high street anymore. We rely on people who trade up, starting with a smaller system and eventually build up to a dCS system. So the challenge for us is to make sure there are people coming through.

For me, the baseline was always Sonos. It’s a brand that everyone knows, it’s really easy to use and you can put them in any room in the home. But then, increasingly, you’ve got Amazon, which came out with its little voice-activated speaker. It’s giving that thing away so that you buy more toilet rolls on Amazon, not so that you can play music. So the danger is that devices like take the quality back a step again. It’s a constant battle to get people to appreciate good sound.

  • Main image left to right:  Ben Gomori, Enno Vandermeer, David Steven, Tony Faulkner and Paul Noble