This month Apple announced its 4K HDR AppleTV, in addition to some other higher profile products. Sure, 4K is cool from a technology perspective and for those who sit very close to very large televisions. Better than 4K is the inclusion of HDR, or high dynamic range. Audiophiles needn't hit up Wikipedia for that one. Just like in music, where dynamic range can make or break an album, high dynamic range can make a film much better than the jump from 1080p to 4K. But, this article isn't about 4K, HDR or television at all. It's about Apple's announcement that it will also upgrade 1080p HD movies, that people have purchased through AppleTV, automatically to the 4K / HDR versions at no cost to the consumer. In addition, Apple won't charge a premium price for 4K content going forward.
Wait, what!? This sounds like an alternate universe from that in which audiophiles live. Imagine every time a "better" version of an album was released, we received it at no charge or we could purchase the album for the first time at the same price as the previous versions.
Album Dream Land
- Lossy 16 bit / 44.1 = $10
- Lossless 16 bit / 44.1 kHz = $10
- 24 bit / 96 kHz = $10
- 24 bit / 192 kHz = $10
- DSD = $10
- MQA = $10
The example above isn't apples to apples, comparing the current state of music purchasing and streaming with what Apple is doing for its customers, but it gets one's brain thinking about what's going on and the possibilities. Let me continue this area of thought, even though it may be a little all over the place. Again, it gets the brain going.
Purchasing video through AppleTV or iTunes gives the purchaser access to that video from any Apple device without additional cost. Apple also allows renting a video for around 1/3 or 1/4 the price of the purchase, but access is limited to a finite number of hours. I don't currently know of an audio purchasing or streaming model that works the same way, thus reason why this isn't apples to apples.
There's no free lunch or free higher resolution. In other words, someone is paying for this "free" 4K upgrade. My cursory search lead to no information about Apple eating the cost for its customers or the content owners agreeing to an actual free upgrade. It appears the the content owners have agreed, begrudgingly, to allow Apple to sell the 4K versions at the same price as the 1080p HD versions. If Apple is paying for the 4K upgrades behind the scenes (similar to how Amazon paid Universal $9 per album for Lady Gaga's Born This Way release, but offered it to customers for $0.99), the cost could be baked into the new and required 4K AppleTV or Apple is just freeing up some of that cash stored in Ireland.
"I have to have 4K video because it's so much better than 1080HD."
- said no civilian consumer ever.
"I have to have high resolution audio because it's so much better than CD."
- said no civilian consumer ever.
Is this type of upgrade even possible in our world of high resolution music? For starters there is a parallel, in that civilians watching video on standard sized televisions from normal viewing distances, likely won't notice a difference between 1080p and 4K (image), just like civilians listening to high resolution music in the car or on Apple earPods, likely won't notice a difference from MP3. In other words, has any civilian really asked for 4K or high resolution audio? That similarity aside, the only thing reasonably close to Apple's "free" upgrade, is Tidal offering its HiFi customers access to MQA music at no additional charge. Like it, love it, or hate it, MQA is a new version for which Tidal, and likely the record labels, wanted to charge a premium, but the smart people prevailed (thanks Pål).
Outside of the Tidal MQA example, I don't see any company in high resolution music with any sizable leverage to persuade record labels into a "free" high resolution upgrade. I for sure don't see any audio company with enough money to cover the cost behind the scenes. Yes, there was the PonoPromise, that said if a higher resolution version of a purchased album was made available, the consumer would get it at no charge. To the best of my knowledge, this option was never exercised by a single customer (hmm). In other words, the promise sounded great and didn't cost Pono a dime. I wonder what would have happened if all the 16 bit / 44.1 kHz content available at the Pono Music Store, when the company was more than an Under Construction web page, would have been upgraded to high resolution. Could Pono and the labels really have pulled it off and given away the high resolution master at no additional charge?
Aside from the free upgrade part of this, there's the whole issue of different pricing for different resolutions. Apple has managed to persuade the content owners of movies that keeping prices the same will be beneficial. If only, there was someone or some company that could persuade the record labels that this pricing model is beneficial. Perhaps it isn't beneficial. It seems beneficial in that lower prices should equate to more sales, but who am I? Just a guy who hasn't purchased much high resolution because the product is too expensive for what one gets.
On the other hand, if high resolution consumers had a giant company like Apple, negotiating prices and upgrades, this may seem beneficial at first blush. However, companies as large and as powerful as Apple can do whatever they wish, as evidenced by Apple not even supporting lossless audio, Blu-ray, FLAC (natively), etc... There's no free lunch or free high resolution.
Anyway, Apple's "free" upgrades to 4K and homeostatic pricing, got me thinking about our industry and if this could actually happen when it comes to audio. There are many more angles to take and options to consider in this discussion, but it'll be tough to persuade me that a "free" upgrade consisting of tens of thousands of titles will ever happen in HiFi.