Lossless audio represents the latest attempt to imbue digital music with the richness and fidelity of fresh vinyl. After two decades of compressing files to compensate for sluggish internet connections, lossless audio promises a more accurate representation of original recordings. And though most of us can’t tell the difference between compressed and uncompressed music, audiophiles argue the superior sound quality is worth its weight in larger file sizes.
Files Size Dilemma
Lossless poses a challenge for the music streaming industry, which has historically reduced file sizes as much as possible to minimize data usage. Compression is gauged by measuring a file’s bitrate, namely the number of bits processed per second. As an example, industry leader Spotify currently offers three options for streaming audio, including a 96kbps format and a premium-quality 320kbps alternative. Even this has been heavily compressed from the original version.
Some believe that unedited audio represents the future of music streaming. Codecs like FLAC and Apple’s ALAC compress each file without deleting any bits of data to enable high-quality reproduction later. Lossless files can be restored to their original condition after being uncompressed, whereas lossy files are permanently diminished for transit. Lossless files are typically recorded at 1,411kbps, and companies around the world are racing to meet anticipated demand for high-quality music streaming. From the Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound to Jay-Z’s Tidal service, there are now dozens of hi-res audio streaming platforms. Subscriptions are generally more expensive than services offering ‘normal’ file quality, with varying catalog sizes and device compatibility.
Is Quality Worth the Extra Investment?
Rather than getting bogged down in technical descriptions of platform compatibility and sampling rates, it’s more pertinent to consider whether consumers can tell the difference between lossy and lossless audio files. In 2015, NPR uploaded snippets of six songs, each at three different levels of quality. Few people were correctly able to identify which of the six files had the highest quality. And while anyone listening to a track at 96kbps will appreciate how much data is lost in translation, nobody is proposing abolishing today’s 320kbps standard in favor of 1,411kbps. Many of us still rely on patchy 4G when we’re on the move, and even some domestic broadband accounts struggle with streamed content. Superior sound quality is no compromise for endless buffering if a connection isn’t up to the job.
One possible solution to bandwidth issues lies with adaptive bitrates. Neil Young’s Xstream brand (formerly known as Pono) claims to deliver seamlessly changing playback quality, rather like video streaming services. However, this rather negates the purpose of hi-res audio in the first place. If people can’t tell the difference between 320 and 1,411kbps, they might as well save their bandwidth and use the lower quality file. And if they are able to distinguish between different bitrates, they’ll be distracted (and likely irritated) by constant fluctuations in file quality.
Too Many Playlists
Lossless files like FLAC also require dedicated hardware or apps. That means consumers could end up with two apps per device containing incompatible playlists, or even different MP3 players. The only workaround is to use a package like VLC, which plays pretty much any audio or visual file format. Indeed, downloading in advance or listening at home via a universal media player may be the only ways to truly enjoy lossless audio, for now, courtesy of best-of-both-worlds platforms like Qobuz. That’s of little use to anyone determined to stream hi-res soundtracks on the move, but hopefully, the forthcoming 5G network will deliver on its promise of always-on connectivity. This might represent the point when lossless music streaming finally enters the mainstream.