Billboard reports that the three major music labels—Universal, Sony, and Warner—have collectively announced their support for hi-res audio for streaming services. This is a big step up from the inferior sound quality of MP3s—inferior because they’re compressed—and will instead offer listeners studio-quality audio. That’s great. But I doubt many people care.
Unless these labels, in conjunction with Pandora and other entities, are planning to offer hi-res audio for free to people already using streaming services, no one’s gonna bite. No one batted an eye when Neil Young released Pono, and Tidal has struggled to sell its “HiFi” plan which is twice the annual price of the normal one (and twice the price of competitors Spotify and Napster). Think about people you know. Many are perfectly content to stick their phone into a platform that emits a slightly better sound quality than laptop speakers, and no one sits around and gripes about it. The main reason is that the difference in audio quality between an MP3 and a vinyl record is not so noticeable to the casual listener that consumers are throwing their hands up in frustration at a medium that’s just no longer viable.
This isn’t VHS vs. Blu-ray. I don’t go out and buy the album because the sound quality is better on the physical copy than the digital one. I buy the album because I like physical copies, period. Put another way: the convenience of a streaming service is immeasurable, but if the audio quality was low enough that the convenience was outweighed, I wouldn’t subscribe. The current quality is more than good enough. I mean, would Netflix be as popular if its standard picture was 240p?
If record labels really think they can sucker people into upgrading albums they already own, or streaming services nudge customers into a more expensive plan, they’re kidding themselves. Unlike video, the quality over several decades has not increased so noticeably that no one will refuse to revert to older mediums—hell, even cassettes aren’t that bad. So yeah, hi-res audio will be ubiquitous—but that’s because it’ll become the baseline, not because people will be eager to pay.