Friday 15 November 2019

Music: New adventures in hi-res audio

Starry night: Usher, Rihanna, Niki Minaj and Madonna at the launch
Starry night: Usher, Rihanna, Niki Minaj and Madonna at the launch
John Meagher

John Meagher

Apple quietly killed off the click-wheel iPod last September and a generation of devotees mourned. What would we do once it packed in? Would we have to rely on the cloud and/or the iPod Touch, or similar, which offers all manner of superfluous features at a price when what we only want is a dedicated music player? For the past month or so, my fears have become redundant and, dare I say it, so too has the fifth generation iPod Classic I used daily for years.

What's taken its place is hi-res audio streaming which has really come of age this year. I've been trialling services from Norwegian company Tidal - in the news this week thanks to the heavyweight endorsement of Jay-Z (who has invested in the company), Madonna and Coldplay - and French firm Deezer Elite and both are claiming to offer CD-quality music. The sound clarity and fidelity really are remarkable when listening to Tidal through headphones on my phone and Deezer Elite on Sonos wireless speakers (whom it is partnering with for the foreseeable future).

It makes me realise that in my enthusiasm for carrying around several thousand songs in my pocket - to paraphrase Apple founder, the late Steve Jobs - I was content to listen to songs that had been compressed to such a degree that what I was listening to was only an approximation of what the artist had completed in studio.

In order to cram as many albums as possible onto my iPod, I had used the 'lossy' format for MP3, which had served me perfectly well until I got to hear FLAC [free lossless audio codec, since you're asking].

The difference is quite astonishing. I listened to one of my favourite pieces of music, Brian Eno's An Ending (Ascent) on Tidal and compared it to the lossy version on my iPod, and the depth and complexity of the former made a mockery of the thin, weak version of the latter. After more than a decade of listening to MP3s on the go, I'd become conditioned to accepting inferior reproduction - just like so many others have.

This year has seen hi-res audio take off in a big way. Deezer Elite rolled out its service to Sonos customers in 150 countries last month and in January, Tidal launched in Ireland. Both are hoping to appeal to people who already pay for streaming services and to the audiophile market who have hitherto been unimpressed by digital music's sound fidelity.

Tidal currently costs €20 per month - roughly double what Spotify charge for its service - while those who subscribe to Deezer Elite for a year pay €9.99 a month. Deezer hopes that existing customers will upgrade and point to a survey where 65pc of triallists say they would not go back to standard MP3.

For its part, Tidal is the more nimble of the two. It doesn't require users to own a Sonos system and it utilises Apple's popular AirPlay system. It worked beautifully on my smartphone too - the real killer of my trusty iPod. But it's not perfect. Deezer had the new Sufjan Stevens album (see panel) available on Monday morning, hours before Tidal.

Those who still want to own hi-res music, rather than 'loan' it, have a number of options, although deep pockets tend to be needed for the hardware. Earlier this year, Sony launched a new Walkman - bearing the unsexy name NW-ZX2 - which comes with a €1,100 price tag. For that you get 128GB of storage - enough for about 800 songs with audio quality reportedly superior to that of CD.

Neil Young also launched his PonoMusic player, although its comparatively small capacity makes this device - which is shaped like a Toblerone - not nearly as appealing as some might have hoped.

Of course, audiophiles have been able to enjoy hi-res music on the go for quite some time, but eye-wateringly expensive devices from the likes of Astell & Kern have proved a barrier.

For that reason, the high-end streaming services seem like a real breakthrough because they make a universe of music available in a fidelity that's very close to what the artist achieved in studio. The growth of the quality headphones market has helped too, not least when the €300 pair you got for Christmas is ruthlessly exposing how shallow and bland so much of the compressed music you're listening to on your phone actually is.

I can't help but feel that what Tidal and Deezer Elite are doing will utterly change the game from a consumer point of view, but what impact will it have for the artist?

Both say they pay double what the lower-res streaming companies offer and Jay-Z made suitable noises about being on the musician's side. But streaming has upset many artists, with Thom Yorke and Taylor Swift, among several condemning Spotify's payment model. In fairness, the world's biggest streaming company has been quick to challenge this.

It's a row that will rumble on and on, but streaming - and hi-res audio, in particular - is here to stay.

Listen up: Album of the week


Carrie & Lowell

(Asthmatic Kitty)

One of the great US songwriters of his generation returns with a highly personal album that explores love and loss, parent-child relations and the trials and tribulations of growing up. He has wisely dispensed with some of the sonic clutter that spoiled his last album, The Age of Adz, favouring instead the sort of minimal, lo-key approach that first got him noticed more than a decade ago. Heartbreaking opener Death with Dignity sets the tone, and while Stevens' concerns are clearly autobiographical (Carrie is his late mother; Lowell is his step-father) his songs are truly universal. Delicate and beautiful, it's one of 2015's essential releases.

key track: 'Fourth of July'

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