Apple and other digital retailers such as eMusic are working with record labels to improve the quality of music files sold in their online stores, according to CNN. In most cases, the retailers are toying with the notion of offering customers the option to buy larger, high-fidelity files for a premium price.
This premium option for audiophile downloads isn’t exactly a new thing – digital stores such as Bleep have been selling lossless .WAV and .FLAC files alongside MP3s for years, and artists such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have offered fans similar options in selling their recent self-released albums. That said, since the iTunes store accounts for 66 percent of the paid digital-download market, a move on their part toward higher-quality audio could have a larger impact on both digital retail and digital playback devices.
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The main shift in offering better digital files involves moving away from 16-bit compression – which has been the standard for compact discs for years – in favor of the same 24-bit compression used for master recordings in professional studios. The industry standard has been to downgrade the masters from 24-bit to 16-bit for CDs and commercial MP3s. As a result of this standard, few computers and digital media players are equipped to play 24-bit files. (Many models of Mac computers and the iTunes program can handle these high-resolution files, though iPods and iPhones cannot.)
It may be a few years before digital retailers and electronics companies fully embrace 24-bit sound as a new standard for the market, but it certainly looks like things are headed in this direction. It may not be much longer before everyone has the option to purchase tracks that sound exactly like what modern producers hear in their studios.