Lossy Hype, Or Wishing for Files Bigger Than Jesus

· Joanthan Poritsky

Yesterday, Apple put a bombastic splash screen up on their webpage, promising today would be a day we would never forget. The web exploded with buzz about major changes coming to iTunes, though by the evening it became clear that the impending announcement was the introduction of the Beatles’ catalogue to the iTunes Store. Early this morning, that turned out to be true, the prolific rock group’s entire oeuvre showed up sporting special features galore. It’s a good looking collection, but was it worth hijacking the front page of the world’s largest music reseller for 24 hours?

First of all, it’s important to understand the history of Apple’s relationship with the Beatles. All of the Beatles albums are owned by Apple Corp., a company that predates Apple (née Computer) Inc. by about a decade. The two have sparred in court for decades, most recently after Apple entered the music business with the introduction of the iPod. The “Beatles on iTunes” story has been floating around the tech world for years, and is probably the last of the major Apple rumors of the last decade (the tablet and the phone/PDA being the others).  That it has been put to rest is a big deal given the contentious history.

Apple now serves up 256 kbps (kilobits per second) AAC files to its many listeners. Most people aren’t audiophiles, not to mention the fact that most don’t even have the equipment to tell the difference between bitrates. Still, there is something to be said for lower compression, higher quality formats, like Apple Lossless, which is basically a high bitrate AAC file. The biggest problem with any compressed file is that you can’t fill in the missing bits later. With a CD (also digital, but with very little compression), when you have enough storage to up your bitrate from 256 to 320, it’s only a matter of re-ripping the disc. I had hoped that Apple’s big announcement today was going to be the introduction of Beatles content for purchase as Apple Lossless files, with other artists to follow.

Compression is a tricky business, especially considering that formats, wrappers, and encoders will come and go throughout the course of history. Who knows if we’ll still be able to play AAC files in the future, or if we’ll even want to? All I know is that I’m much happier having The Beatles’ albums as Apple Lossless on my hard drive, ripped from the CDs which I keep safely tucked away. They sound wonderful.

A final thought: iTunes originally sold 128 kbps audio for their entire store until they changed everything over to 256 kbps last year. When files doubled in quality, Apple offered purchasers the ability to upgrade to the newer, better format at a discounted rate. It’s an interesting model, and one consumers should get used to in a climate where formats will continue to change. That being said, if one had bought the CD in the first place, one wouldn’t have to worry about paying for anything again.