Hi-res audio streaming is not a new phenomenon and, despite a steady increase of the number of products allowing its playback, it has remained a niche format, mainly reserved to audiophiles.
In its latest Music Streaming Report, the Digital Entertainment Team at Futuresource Consulting said the key reasons for this slow uptake have been mostly attributed to the lack of awareness of hi-res, the price of hi-res streaming subscriptions and the limited availability of hi-res content.
In addition, the complexity of the hardware required for an optimum listening experience, coupled with the fact that, until now, none of the mainstream streaming services have been offering it, have made it difficult for hi-res streaming to grow beyond niche.
However, recent developments in both the hardware and streaming domain might be stepping-stones towards mainstream adoption of hi-res. Firstly, Amazon has just launched Amazon Music HD in the US, UK, Germany and Japan, becoming the first mainstream streaming service to offer hi-res. This new plan, which provides CD quality (16bit/44.1 kHz) and hi-res streaming of up to 24bit/192 kHz (when available) is priced at $14.99/month and $12.99/month for Prime members; compared to a minimum $19.99/month for Tidal and Qobuz, the other high-audio quality streaming services.
Additionally, thanks to the growth of wireless speakers, notably driven by Amazon, the components required to fully benefit from hi-res have been significantly simplified, now incorporating all the required audio components into a single device. To successfully establish its service, Amazon will need to launch a new speaker, which offers an enhanced audio experience to justify the extra investment. This new device is rumoured to launch imminently and is likely to have a significant impact on bringing hi-res to the mass market by leveraging Amazon’s wider ecosystem.
Similarly, the audio manufacturer Devialet and streaming service Qobuz have recently partnered in France to offer for a fixed monthly price (from €39.90 per month, depending on the length of the contract) and a one-off initial payment, a high-end wireless speaker with a CD quality streaming subscription. This partnership might help in reducing the barrier of adoption for high-quality streaming by providing both the device and its content under a unique subscription. It also introduces long-term contractual commitment to a streaming plan, which so far was a specificity of telcos and TV cable providers.
While these two initiatives are mainly focussing on CD quality streaming (hi-res being anything above CD quality), they are expected to create awareness about higher audio quality streaming on top of incentivising users to invest in better quality speakers. This could build a favourable ground for hi-res audio to thrive. With Amazon offering hi-res as part of its Amazon Music HD plan, artists and labels will be incentivised to deliver their content in hi-res, progressively creating a catalogue of hi-res content large enough to become a viable option for consumers.
Spotify and Apple Music could also follow Amazon’s move into high-quality streaming. While Spotify consistently rejected the idea so far (currently offering a maximum quality of 320 kbps), Apple Music, with its newly rebranded Apple Digital Masters could implement a similar offer. Like Amazon, it could benefit from the synergy of its in-house cloud storage service to have lower hosting and delivery cost for hi-res files and consequently be able to offer a similar price point.
With the initiatives mentioned above, combined with companies like MQA, which continues to champion the benefits of hi-res audio, the sector is set to move to its next wave of development. These developments will help the up-sell of wireless audio-hardware, taking the experience to another level.
In Futuresource’s Audio Tech Lifestyles survey from H1 2019, up to half of smart speaker owners surveyed said they want a smart speaker with better sound quality than they currently own, indicating the strong potential for up-sell and upgrades.