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Tidal Waves

Date: 5th November 2014

Tidal Waves

History always repeats itself, but still humankind manages to regularly forget this fact – usually about once every generation. Take the music industry for example; several decades ago the booming record business was assaulted by a new and highly convenient music format that began to eke away at sales. In 1975 Compact Cassette was thought to be a lo-fi irrelevance, but by 1980 it was beginning to win music buyers’ affections on a vast scale…

The industry’s response was two-fold. First it ran the infamous ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ campaign, in which it persuaded popular recording artists of the day to effectively tell people that they shouldn’t be using tapes because it was starving the music business of royalties. Then it realised that people weren’t paying any attention to such pleading, and duly co-opted cassette. It ramped up the quality of official prerecorded tapes and lowered prices, with the result that by 1988 it was the best selling music carrier in history, according to the British Phonographic Institute.

Time and again, people have shown that they put affordability and convenience over quality when buying music. Of course we all like good sound, but how we get the music is more important. To that end, we’ve seen the music industry do precisely the same with downloads as it did with cassette. After trying to litigate Napster out of existence in the nineteen nineties, the music business – with not inconsiderable help from Apple – started selling its wares online. Then, as the number of internet connected devices exploded, people began to wonder why they should bother to actually download files at all. The result was the growth of music streaming services, with the likes of Spotify becoming highly successful, and why not? Streaming is great – like being given the keys to God’s own music library. You can search, browse and enjoy with no limits.

Actually though, there was always one downside. We’re back to the quality issue. History teaches us that people seek convenience above all else, but that doesn’t mean they eschew decent sonics. Cassette really took off when the major music labels started using Dolby Noise Reduction and chromium dioxide tape; suddenly a well set-up hi-fi cassette deck, Walkman or car player was capable of getting surprisingly good sound from these prerecorded tapes. People loved cassette’s convenience, but really took it to their hearts when the sound was sorted.

Spotify, for all its versatility, powerful app and vast choice, has one failing at the moment – sound quality. It, and its cousins such as Google Play Music, only offer MP3 quality. Whilst state-of-the-art dCS DACs can make compressed audio surprisingly palatable, it’s still not a patch on uncompressed 16/44.1 Compact Disc audio via a Debussy DAC for example, let alone high resolution music through a Vivaldi. At the very least, music streaming needs to deliver proper CD-quality sound if it is to win people’s hearts and minds.

At last though, times are changing. New high quality streaming services like Quboz and Tidal are proving that there is real demand for better sound. These services cost around £20 a month and promise no less than 25 million-plus tracks to listen to in real CD quality. Like Spotify these streaming services also offer offline download functionality, and have extensive curation facilities via a slick user interface, also via iOS and Android apps.

This shows the direction of travel for the music industry, and also hi-fi too. The recent reappearance of high quality digital music – this time in the modern, streamed, idiom – can only be a great thing for music lovers. When cassette got better, ever more people took to it; history teaches us that the same will happen for streaming. It finally gives normal people – as opposed to audiophiles who invest lots of time into their hobby – the ability to access decent quality music, and untap the immense potential of the world’s best digital playback systems. For dCS, it is music to our ears!