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Amazon launches higher-quality audio streaming option

By | Published on Wednesday 18 September 2019

Amazon Music HD

Amazon yesterday confirmed that it was adding a new higher priced higher audio quality option at the top of its menu of music services. Amazon Music HD will cost subscribers £5 more than the company’s main full-catalogue on-demand streaming set up.

It means that Amazon now offers five levels of music streaming in some markets. A free playlists-based service for use on Alexa-controlled devices. A limited catalogue on-demand service as part of Amazon Prime. A full catalogue on-demand service locked to Amazon’s Echo and Fire devices for 3.99 a month. A straight up Spotify/Apple Music competitor for 9.99 a month (discounted for Prime members). And now the HD option.

An Amazon Music HD subscription will cost £14.99 a month in the UK, discounted to £12.99 for Amazon Prime members. The new option also went live yesterday in the US, Germany, Austria and Japan.

Subscribers on HD will be able to access the entire catalogue in higher quality audio, and a slice of the catalogue in “ultra high definition”. For those who care about such things, HD means a bit depth of 16 bits and a sample rate of 44.1kHz (basically CD quality), while ultra HD equates to a bit depth of 24 bits and a sample rate up to 192 kHz.

Amazon is by no means the first company to offer higher quality audio streams, of course, with Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz already doing the HD thing. Tidal is perhaps best known for offering higher quality audio, the HD option being added before Jay-Z acquired the company, with the Tidal brand originally created specifically for the HD service.

In fact, around Jay-Z’s acquisition so much was made about Tidal offering this higher priced higher audio quality service, you sensed that many consumers thought it was the only option the platform offered. Which arguably worked against Tidal, given that most consumers aren’t sufficiently interested in higher quality audio to pay extra cash to access it.

Which makes Amazon’s move into HD interesting. The company has always pitched its music services as targeting more mainstream audiences than the likes of Spotify and Apple. Hence the lower price point options with less catalogue or functionality. But past experiments with higher quality audio – whether in the physical product space, downloads or streams – have generally confirmed that HD music is of interest to a very niche audience.

Most users aren’t even streaming via the kinds of devices or headphones where you would notice the difference between a 320kbps MP3 and a higher quality audio file. And even on decent sound systems, for a lot of tracks the difference is hardly noticeable.

Of course, some consumers might still be attracted by the “hear it like you’re in the studio” line, even if they can’t actually tell the difference. But past campaigns based around that concept have still only resulted in a modest number of sign ups.

So, it remains to be seen if Amazon has more luck in turning larger numbers of consumers onto the “pay more for better audio” proposition. It is entering that particular market with a lower price point than its competitors. The market standard rate for HD audio is 19.99 per month. Amazon is undercutting that by five pounds/dollars/euros, before you even take into account the additional discount for Prime members.

That might be enough to get more people signed up. Though, for the music industry, one of the attractions of HD was the thinking that it could be a way to push up the cost of subscription streaming from the standard ten pounds/dollars/euros price point, generating extra income for both rights owners and services.

Obviously, Amazon Music HD does that, but not to the same extent as Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz. And now Amazon’s HD service is available for 14.99, it will be interesting to see if its competitors in the higher audio quality space seek to also drop their prices in order to compete. Meaning the overall cash boost of HD across the market will drop on a user-by-user basis. Though maybe that’s worth it if overall uptake goes up.

Of course, for some in the music community, increasing the audio quality of streams isn’t just about the money. Which is something the VP of Amazon Music, Steve Boom, wanted to stress as he put his HD service live yesterday.

“We spoke with many artists while developing Amazon Music HD, who were excited about the potential for fans to be able to stream their favourite music and hear it as it was originally recorded”, he said. “As we usher in a new listening experience for our customers and the industry, we’re combining the convenience of streaming with all of the emotion, power, clarity and nuance of the original recordings”.

To what extent the music community is really “excited” about the prospect of their songs and recordings being available in a higher audio quality that most fans can’t even detect is debatable. Though at least one member of the music community definitely is “excited”. And that, of course, is Mr Neil Young, who has led his own ultimately unsuccessful business ventures in an attempt to boost the audio quality of digital music.

“Earth will be changed forever when Amazon introduces high quality streaming to the masses”, he shouted to the sky yesterday, very much on board with Amazon’s HD audio adventure. “This will be the biggest thing to happen in music since the introduction of digital audio 40 years ago”, he added, somewhat optimistically.

So there you go. The earth has changed forever. Amazon Music HD is here. The biggest thing to happen in music since, well, definitely Monday.