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Spotify, the most popular music streaming service on Earth said that one of its most requested features has been a lossless audio streaming. Despite these requests Spotify’s maximum sound quality has stubbornly stuck to a 320kbps Ogg Vorbis stream. For those of us looking for lossless audio, Spotify’s response has been—dream on! Well, in an online “event” called Stream On, Spotify has finally confirmed that lossless audio or Spotify HiFi is coming in 2021.
Late last month Spotify unveiled its plans for the future in a star studded, spectacularly overwrought Stream On video 'event'. At nearly two-hours that felt more like four, the overlong and overproduced promo video featured a parade of scripted musical celebrity guest spots that included Justin Beiber, Billie Eilish, Bruce “the Boss” Springsteen and others. But the cameos didn’t stop at musicians, it also included Spotify's podcast dignitaries like Harry & Meghan and even Barack Obama whose wife, Michelle has a podcast on Spotify.
From Stream On's opening montage Spotify fixed its focus firmly on the 'content creator' as the future of Spotify's business model. Then co-founder and CEO, Swedish tech billionaire Daniel Ek walks the viewer through some of the company’s history and its grand plans to dominate the future of audio entertainment. But buried within Spotify’s largely superficial Kool-Aid distribution video were a few solid minutes of information about new features and Spotify’s expansion plans for the next year. While it’s never really stated outright, the message is loud and clear: Spotify will begin to compete for 'content creators' with other platforms like YouTube and TikTok while becoming more social-media focused as it moves to globally dominate audio entertainment in all of its forms. The music app will expand into new interactive social features and in-app advertising for creators with Spotify Marquee, as the service grows its video footprint with Spotify Clips letting its creators go more multi-media and interact with fans and followers.
Unmistakable code is embedded in the language used throughout the Stream On event. Spotify is making heavy use of the term creators (YouTube-style) to talk about what we can assume is the real target for its new features… creators willing to buy ads. To that end, Spotify projects aggressive creator growth within five years. The music streamer says that it presently hosts over 8-million creators but targets 50-million by 2025. It’s a lofty goal, and you can bet that every new feature introduced during Stream On is laser-focused on achieving it, including Spotify HiFi.
85 New Countries & 36 New Languages
Spotify’s going even more global in 2021 with its broadest international expansion yet. This year will see Spotify envelop an accumulated market-population of over 1-billion humans. The additional 85 new countries will bring Spotify’s count to just over 170. However one nation that will still have to do without Spotify is China, home of the world’s largest consumer market.
This year’s expansion includes many “deep cut” nations that aren’t as well-known as consumer markets for popular music. However, many of those nations across Asia, Africa and the Caribbean have deep cultural ties to their own music, if less well-known to global audiences. Paired with some of Spotify’s moves toward being more social and focused on more user-generated content, we could see some interesting new and very old music getting a global audience for the very first time. Someday, you may find yourself following virtually unknown artists that specialize in obscure, modern takes on ancient African or Asian musical styles that echoes some of the earliest forms of music humans have ever produced.
The Spotify announcement Audioholics is most interested in is HiFi. It was introduced in a segment featuring artists Billie Eilish and Finneas while sitting in comfortable-looking lawn chairs surrounded by what appeared to be “bubble” listening rooms containing vintage audio equipment set in a sprawling backyard on a sunny day. The backyard scene looked every bit as hip and cool as the artists themselves. Unfortunately, the segment’s artists were no more informative than Neil Young back when he introduced his short-lived Pono device. Rather than technical details about the stream, the spot featured a superficial checkbox of audio adjectives that are important to the two artists, including 'detailed' and 'loud'. But rather than learn anything about Spotify HiFi, I was possibly made just a little stupider for having watched the Finneas and Eilish segment. Fortunately, there was a Spotify HiFi blog post that corresponded with its Stream On announcement that provided what little information we have.
What We Know So Far...
Spotify doesn’t release a blog post on its official website without several layers of approval, including copy-editors and legal. Although details are kept purposely vague, we may glean some details from omission.
From Spotify’s blog post:
“Beginning later this year, Premium subscribers in select markets will be able to upgrade their sound quality to Spotify HiFi and listen to their favorite songs the way artists intended.”
Dream Spotify Account
The roll-out will only target “select markets”, considering Spotify’s huge global expansion it's likely that some markets may never see HiFi. Concessions will be made in many of the nations with small music markets. Within the top music-markets destined to get the HiFi tier you can expect it to roll out in higher population density areas first.
“Spotify HiFi will deliver music in CD-quality, lossless audio format to your device and Spotify Connect-enabled speakers, which means fans will be able to experience more depth and clarity while enjoying their favorite tracks.”
Dream Spotify Account
“CD-quality” and “lossless” are the only details about the stream. Spotify Connect speakers work over wi-fi, which has no problem passing a compatible lossless stream, but this isn't so when you select Bluetooth. Even using hi-res codecs like aptX-HD & LDAC, Bluetooth introduces its own compression even from a lossless stream. So, if you’re out in the world streaming Spotify HiFi to your Bluetooth headphones or speakers you won’t be getting a totally lossless stream.
Currently, Spotify streams audio in lossy Ogg Vorbis, a royalty free audio compression format. At the highest setting available to Premium subscribers today, Spotify streams at up to 320-kbps. A lossless or 'CD-quality' stream will provide approximately 700-kbps to 1411-kbps. So, if you’re streaming over a 4G/LTE or 5G network, you’ll want to mind your data plan and if it’s limited, download over wi-fi when you can.
A lossless stream should not be confused with the high-resolution audio streams offered by competitors such as Tidal, Qobuz, Deezer and Amazon Music HD. Since Spotify has made no mention of high-res audio, we can assume it’s not part of the plan. But lacking high-res shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for most audiophiles because the streaming services that offer hi-res only feature up-to 10% of their total library in a high-res format. So, it’s very likely that most of what you’re listening to on Tidal is only CD-quality.
The ferocity of the CD-quality vs. high-resolution debate rivals that of recent US Presidential elections. It's been the stuff of sick-burns and shattered egos in online forums since the beginning of digital music storage. But, I think most on both sides of that debate would agree that the two most important contributors to sound quality in a music recording is simply:
A/ The quality of the studio recording itself.
B/ The mastering.
The file delivering the music is a potential choke-point that exists further downstream. A music file stored in high-resolution, such as 24-bit/192kHz may be nice to have, but only where the first two components are in place. Whether or not the human ear is capable of hearing a difference between high resolution and the CD standard of 16-bit/44.1kHz is the crux of the debate.
Spotify HiFi Price
Spotify hasn’t mentioned tiered pricing for Spotify HiFi, but that doesn’t mean it won’t cost extra. Spotify Premium costs about $10 per-month and competitors offering CD-quality streams bill customers $15 to $20 per-month for a lossless library that includes a small number of high-res songs. So, Spotify could easily justify added cost and if you had to bet, the smart money is likely on requiring Premium subscribers an extra $5 or $10 to unlock HiFi in the app settings, bumping a Spotify HiFi subscription to 15-20 bucks per-month. But I'm going to go out on a limb with my own HiFi cost prediction. I think Spotify will roll the HiFi option into the standard Spotify Premium subscription at no extra cost. An equivalent monthly bill for Spotify HiFi won't likely help it to siphon off many Tidal HiFi or Amazon Music HD users, but I don't think that's the reason they're introducing HiFi.
My main reason for believing HiFi won't cost extra is the emphasis of the whole presentation. Spotify isn’t adding HiFi because it’s requested by audiophiles. Those of us who place importance on good sound are not Spotify’s target market, we’re an afterthought. Spotify’s Stream On master plan is intended to attract over 40-million creators in the next five years. A big part of that strategy involves giving those creators the tools to attract subscribers. Providing lossless audio simply makes Spotify a reliable home for any artist’s catalogue. If Spotify provides HiFi at no extra charge to its Premium subscription, it practically eliminates its competitor's advantage while giving creators like BIllie Eilish and Finneas the confidence of knowing that on Spotify, their work will convey both of their aforementioned “detail” and “loud” requirements.
But as Audioholics, we shouldn’t despair that we’re not really the target market for Spotify’s upgraded sound, or that Spotify really doesn’t care enough about sound quality to provide hi-res audio. We should be thrilled that any bump in “sound quality” is even on the radar at all. Throughout the nearly two-hour presentation, Stream On gave sound quality only a brief if simplified mention, about as much as a Super Bowl beer ad gives to the actual taste of their beer. But at least it was there, and for that I suppose we can thank Eilish and Finneas for their scripted spontaneity on Dream On. When Spotify HiFi becomes available in my area, I’ll give it a try.
When I audition Spotify HiFi, I’ll even use Eilish’s song Bad Guy, which I’ve heard several times as a Tidal Master in its high-resolution MQA audio format and I'll compare how it sounds. Bad Guy sounds great on a good pair of headphones with a DAC/Amp. The song has interesting turns in the arrangement and as Eilish alludes to in her pitch, there are a lot of little details in her music that I appreciate hearing at a higher bit-rate than 320kbps. Eilish even has a suitable voice for the style of music she performs. Although Eilish is no Andra Day a female vocalist that the Tidal algorithm recently acquainted me to, that girl’s got pipes like Billie Holiday!
We discuss the launch of delivery service Urban Sherpa with its founder. Plus Sony Xperia M4 Aqua, Google Deep Dream, Spotify vs Apple, Twitter opening in NZ, Hawaiki funding progress, Mega IPO progress and the untimely passing of Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata.
This NZ Tech Podcast hosted by Paul Spain (@paulspain) with guests Brian Dewil (Urban Sherpa), Ross McDougall. Published by NZ’s Podcast specialists – Podcasts NZ.
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