Apple plans to offer 24-bit audio over iTunes Music Store

24-bit audio offers theoretically better sound quality, but consumer audio equipment is unlikely to benefit

An Apple advertisement for the iTunes online music store.

An Apple advertisement for the iTunes online music store.

Apple is reportedly planning to offer 24-bit audio files for download on its iTunes online music store, complementing or possibly replacing the 16-bit audio files currently available. A CNN report claims that major music labels are in discussions with Apple to offer the higher quality audio files for purchase.

24-bit audio is theoretically superior to the compressed 16-bit, 256KBps AAC audio currently ubiquitous on the iTunes Music store; it is able to contain a wider range of audio frequencies than 16-bit, and most professional audio recording equipment operates natively in 24-bit. Releasing audio in a 24-bit format on iTunes would preserve the same sound quality as a studio recording, allowing iTunes users with high quality equipment access to uncompromised and uncompressed music recordings of their favourite artists.

However, the advantages of 24-bit audio are generally not important to the majority of music listeners — the wider theoretical frequency range and audio nuances can only be faithfully reproduced by high-end stereos and headphones. For example, Apple's bundled earbud headphones are only able to accurately reproduce sounds within the 20Hz-20,000Hz range that the 16-bit audio format already covers. The AAC audio format currently used on the Apple online store is also only a 16-bit codec, so the premium quality files would need to use a high quality codec such as Apple Lossless — which supports 24-bit encoding at high sample rates, but results in large file sizes.

It's likely that Apple's higher quality audio files would also attract a price premium over their compressed counterparts. According to analysis done by the MacStories Web site, Australian iTunes users already pay 69% more than US users for the same content.

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Campbell Simpson

Campbell Simpson

PC World
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