Deezer chief content & strategy officer Alexander Holland: “The last few weeks proved that hi-res and high fidelity streaming are becoming more mainstream”

Suddenly, everybody’s talking about high resolution. But that’s not the same as everyone listening to it…

You see, the stark truth is that, over the years, most changes in the way we listen to music have involved trading down in terms of audio quality, rather than up. And, while the movies have Blu-ray and UHD, the audio graveyard is piled high with formats that promised much, but never found a significant audience willing to pay for them.

Now, however, hi-res streaming could finally succeed where the likes of HD-CD, DVD-Audio and SACD failed. Because the imminent launch of Apple Music’s new Spatial Audio service, and the anticipated arrival of Spotify HiFi later this year are turning hi-res into a des-res as far as the biggest streaming companies are concerned.

Until now, sound quality has not been a major driver of digital music. Purists may have been horrified by the move to compressed MP3s in the download era, but most consumers have continued to value convenience over hearing music the way the creators intended.

Slowly but surely, however, lossless music has built a niche in streaming, mainly through smaller companies, such as Qobuz, Tidal (which famously succeeded in getting the majority of its subscribers to sign up to its premium HiFi service) and Deezer.

Amazon was the first of the big four to get involved, launching Amazon Music HD in 2019. The retail giant says subscribers to that service grew 100% year-on-year to March 2021 (although, as always, it doesn’t disclose unit numbers).

Amazon Music HD was already competitively priced – £12.99 for Prime members, £14.99 for others (Tidal is £19.99) – but what has really blown the market wide open is Apple Music’s decision to make its service – which has support for Dolby Atmos, an immersive format which even non-audiophiles will recognise as a major upgrade – available at no extra cost to its standard service (£9.99 per month). Amazon immediately cut its HD prices too, meaning Prime members can access it for just £7.99 a month, and others for £9.99.

That leaves us with a lot to unpack. Hi-res has long been touted as a way to push up Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) and thereby increase the pot from which artists and songwriters get paid, with Spotify’s plunging ARPU long a concern for the industry. 

Indeed, as Deezer chief content and strategy officer Alexander Holland tells Audio Media International: “HiFi quality music brings listeners a lot of value – and, as an additional benefit, when you subscribe to HiFi, more money goes to the artists.”

But if the pricepoint drops across the board – and who would imagine an already under-pressure Spotify can afford to do anything except match Apple and Amazon, even if it has just announced long overdue price rises for some standard subscriptions – all that goes out the window. Presumably, labels have signed off on the lower prices but artists, already joining the #FixStreaming and #BrokenRecord campaigns in droves, might be less keen (although it should be noted that Billie Eilish helped launch Spotify HiFi and Apple Music is endorsed by the likes of J Balvin and Giles Martin). Having your music heard the way you intended is great, but it might not pay the rent.

But then, as this column noted at the start of this month, churn is about to become a factor in mature streaming markets for the first time. And hi-res and price, particularly when combined, are two of the few distinguishing factors available in a market where everyone is essentially selling the same product.

The more established hi-res players at least have first mover advantage. Holland says that Deezer, which launched a hi-res service as long ago as 2015 and offers access to Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format, “has learnt a lot about what HiFi fans really want”.

They want the best experience possible and they’re specifically looking to enjoy lossless music as it was intended to be heard, with all its nuances and details,” he adds. “We also want to make sure that HiFi fans have as many options as possible to enjoy their music. That’s why we’ve built a comprehensive list of integrated partners over the years.”

Some of the other streaming players also have direct interests in selling subscribers hi-res audio gadgets, of course, although whether that’s easier or harder than selling hi-res subscriptions is open to debate.

Qobuz, which only offers studio-quality sound streams and downloads, is now available in 18 markets and is notably popular with classical and jazz fans, says it has no plans to change its current subscription charges, which stand at £14.99 per month or £149.99 for an annual plan. It hasn’t declared a recent figure for subscribers, although a spokesperson confirms the service is “growing”.

Deezer, meanwhile, is used to seeing its innovations belatedly taken up elsewhere (see SoundCloud’s recent move into user-centric payments, something Deezer has been pushing for for years) and seems unfazed by recent developments.

Our goal is to make sure that Deezer brings value to both artists and music fans,” says Holland. “We’re not ready to announce anything [on price] just yet but are considering the implications on our users, technology and business. It’s clear that our industry is going through a fundamental transformation right now. We would never want to stand in the way of that.”

Indeed, Apple’s intention seems to be to turbocharge the hi-res market into the mainstream, and it has the hardware ecosystem in place to do so, especially now the price tier barrier has been removed. As we’ve come to expect from Apple, its offering follows the ‘it just works’ template, with Atmos tracks set as the default when available and using compatible hardware, while Spatial playlists will promote the concept.

But there’s still a high risk involved with making hi-res happen, not least because, despite the near-ubiquity of the HiFi branding, most services offer differing quality levels and access to varying formats – for example, Sony’s catalogue isn’t yet available on the Atmos format. 

So can the sector finally truly deliver what Dolby Laboratories president/CEO Kevin Yeaman, at the Apple Music launch, dubbed “a new music experience that is transforming how music is created by artists and enjoyed by their fans”?

“The last few weeks proved that hi-res and high fidelity streaming are becoming more mainstream,” says Holland. “For a long time, high fidelity has been perceived as niche and only for audiophiles. However now everyday consumers are better understanding what makes lossless and FLAC quality sound a desired experience.”

So now, at least people say they want a high resolution revolution. Will they actually get it? Watch – or rather listen to – this space…