Most people, particularly millennials and Generation Z, wouldn't stand for watching videos on a boxy, grainy television set. Yet, that's essentially the equivalent of the poor-quality sound they get when they download or stream music from services that don’t support high resolution.

These platforms and services compress large music files to give customers an important trade-off: convenience. So, you get to listen to your favorite Pink Floyd album (plus millions of other songs) in every room of your house and while you walk to the subway, but you sacrifice the high-definition sound and arrangement the artist intended.

But what if we didn’t have to sacrifice quality for convenience?

With the launch of Amazon Music HD, the industry is approaching a tipping point in how the masses consume music. The changes aren’t only on the consumer side. Just as the dominance of streaming services prompted artists to change the way they create songs — shorter introductions, longer albums and more remixes to drive up clicks — the rise of high-res music may bring a revolution in how music is engineered now that listeners can (once again) hear every nuance.

Even before Amazon's announcement, the download lagu Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported, in May 2019, that major labels released around 1,000 albums per month in high-definition "studio quality" formats — a 29% increase from the prior year. I believe that increase is bound to accelerate.

As a veteran developer in the audio industry, I agree with rock legend Neil Young when he called this leap in high-res music availability “the biggest thing to happen in music since the introduction of digital audio 40 years ago.”

What is high-res music?

Hi-res music files deliver the complete range of sound from a recording. When a file is compressed, the content loses its resolution, which diminishes the clarity and nuance of the sound — the same way an image with lower resolution is blurrier than a picture with more pixels per inch. High-res audio files tend to have a sampling frequency above 24-bit/44.1kHz with an average bitrate of 850 kbps, widely accepted as CD-quality. By contrast, typical compressed streaming audio files come in around 16-bit/320 kbps.

Beyond the loss of a crisp sound, a compressed or “lossy” file can also lose accuracy and other details of the recording, such as how instruments are layered, a wider soundstage with differentiation across left and right sides, and authentically awesome gems that preserve artistry and history.

Why do we put up with lossy files?

In today’s on-demand, multitasking culture, convenience is king. According to a CTA study (registration required), only half of Gen Z customers and 58% of younger millennials think sound quality is the most important factor in purchasing audio tech or physical audio. Unlike other generations, Gen Z doesn’t talk about how digital audio in streaming services is compressed and how this can negatively impact sound quality. Instead, they prioritize convenience.

I think this is because they don’t know what they’re missing.

Where can we access high-res music?

In 2015, Jay-Z bought TIDAL, a paid streaming service launched the year prior that specialized in lossless audio, podcast and video content, which Spotify did not offer. TIDAL along with Qobuz earned a dedicated cult following of anywhere from 1-3 million subscribers combined by 2018. But that hasn’t come close to Spotify’s 100 million paid subscribers.

Amazon Music HD is now the largest player to introduce high-res streaming, offering over 50 million songs in high-definition and an additional few million in “Ultra HD,” promising even better quality than CDs.

Why Amazon could be a tipping point for access

Amazon Music HD could trigger a major shift in the quality of the music mainstream music fans access every day. Amazon’s streaming music service already has 32 million subscribers, plus millions more who access a sampling of Amazon’s catalog as Prime members. It’s likely we’ll see a spike, and soon.

Amazon also announced its content will be compatible with audio components from top brands to make it as seamless as possible for consumers to enjoy.

How to play that (really good-quality) funky music

Customers who want to enjoy high-res tunes uncompressed, uninterrupted and in high definition need the right technology in their homes. In other words, consumers using the wrong types of speakers, amplifiers or headphones could pay for high-res content without hearing the HD quality.

If you’re on a budget, a good integrated amplifier combined with great bookshelf speakers or headphones will deliver excellent high-res sound.

For those looking to upgrade their home audio systems to the next level, a dedicated processor, amplifier and full-range speakers will deliver the sharpest, lifelike immersive listening experience for high-res music from an array of sources, like records, CDs and of course, high-res streaming services.

To make the most of Ultra HD, check out Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend” or Tool’s new album, Fear Inoculum.

What’s next for the audio industry

Consumer interest in audio is at an all-time high, and millennials listen to more content than any other generation. While convenience in the audio industry may have been the focus for the last 10 years, the market is now at a point where convenience and accessibility are no longer a differentiator; they’re simply a requirement to play in the market at all. Based on my experience working directly with pro audio dealers, engineers and consumers, I believe consumers of all ages will begin to demand quality married with convenience. Artists are also about to double down on quality.

Audiophiles like myself have been geeking out on high-res music all this time; now, a move like Amazon’s has the power to expand top-quality sound to more mainstream music enthusiasts. This is bound to be the beginning of the future of how we listen to music.