Canadian rocker Neil Young, an outspoken promoter of high-definition audio, calls out Apple in his latest diatribe about declining standards in the streaming music biz.
While ripping Apple Music for distributing what he calls “low-quality audio,” he throws down the gauntlet and challenges Apple to make music great again.
Young’s broadside against Apple Music comes in a launch message for his new website, the Neil Young Archives — a skeuomorphic shrine to every last shred of his musical career.
“Today all music suffers from low quality audio throughout the distribution chain. It starts with big tech companies like Apple,” Young writes. “Apple Music controls the audio quality that is served to the masses and chooses to not make high quality available, reducing audio quality to between 5 percent and 20 percent of the master I made in studio in all cases. So, the people hear 5 percent to 20 percent of what I created.”
Young’s call for higher-quality audio comes as streaming music surges and downloads and physical sales plunge. The music industry’s overall revenue climbed 11.4 percent in 2016 as streaming overtook sales for the first time.
As music biz prognosticator Bob Lefsetz says, “streaming has won.”
Neil Young Archives uses Xstream by NYA
Apple Music and streaming leader Spotify cater to the growing number of people consuming tracks on demand. Apple Music streams audio at 256kbps. Spotify lets subscribers who pay for its premium tier to stream at up to 320kbps.
The Neil Young Archives, on the other hand, uses the Xstream by NYA streaming plugin. Young worked with Singapore company OraStream to develop the tech after his wannabe iPod-killer, PonoPlayer, bit the dust. He calls it “the highest quality streaming audio ever provided over the internet.”
Young delivers the goods via a website with a retro vibe that looks like a filing cabinet. It even uses old-school toggle switches to select features and a spinning red spider as a progress indicator.
Too big to wail?
Young warns that you need a high-powered computer and excellent bandwidth to take full advantage of Xstream by NYA’s capabilities. If the higher-quality audio proves too much to handle, users can switch to 320kbps. (The Neil Young Archives currently doesn’t work on mobile devices.)
The fact is, gigantic file sizes might sound great on audiophile hi-fis. But most people listen to music on earbuds or Bluetooth speakers — not high-end pro gear. To the average listener, the sound quality boost promised by tech like Xstream is likely negligible.
Still, Young frets that the lack of a high-quality audio option on Apple Music strips the incentive for record companies to produce the best possible digital files for new music. He also fears this will damn the fantastic tracks of the past to a lo-fi audio hell.
“Apple not offering a top-quality tier has led labels to stop making quality products available to the masses,” he says. “Stimulating a top-quality tier would restore and bring the great classic recordings of all music history to full-resolution digital.”
He then issues Cupertino a challenge.
“Apple was built on music,” Young says. “There is a great opportunity to rescue the art form that helped Apple become great.”
Apple Music audio quality
Apple might take issue with Young’s complaints. The company has a long history of creating software that makes music easier to create and consume.
Apple revolutionized the music business with iTunes, and continually pushes for higher quality. Even its delayed HomePod smart speaker puts high-def audio front and center, attempting to differentiate itself from Amazon Echo and Google Home on sound quality rather than on Siri’s capabilities.
Mastered for iTunes
Describing its Mastered for iTunes initiative, which highlights tracks mastered specifically for iTunes distribution, the company plays up its commitment to delivering “music the way the artist and recording engineer intended.”
The copy reads like something Young himself could have written.
“Mastered for iTunes is all about the quality of the source,” Apple says. “24-bit audio has a remarkably wide dynamic range which is preserved during encoding to AAC and these files are virtually indistinguishable from the original. Some of the best audio engineers in the business have a hard time telling them apart even on high-end audio equipment. Experts may be able to tell you that they are different in some subtle ways, but they can’t necessarily tell you which one they like better. This isn’t about AAC vs. CD or vinyl. It’s about creating the best possible master for the unique characteristics of each medium.”
Apple talks up its “powerful and practical software tools” designed for pro musicians.
“We want the music to sound as close as possible to the way it did in the studio or in the concert hall, preserving your vision and intention,” Apple says. “We want artists and sound engineers to be thoroughly satisfied and proud of the results they can now achieve in our format. So we have worked very hard to provide both the monitoring and quality assessment tools, plus an end-to-end mastering and encoding process that delivers the best possible audio for today’s digital world.”
The quest for high-quality digital music
Maybe Young’s ahead of the curve and not just a lovable crank prone to stunts like pulling his albums from Apple Music because they don’t sound good enough to him.
Committing to a new, resource-intensive standard that promises the highest possible audio standards might make sense for niche projects like the Neil Young Archives, which serves up tons of unreleased audio and video, all diligently notated and lovingly preserved for posterity. It’s completist effort for hard-core Young fans — and not the kind of endeavor that makes sense on a broad scale (at least not right now).
Basically, Apple and Young want the same thing: Music that sounds as good as possible. They’re just taking radically different paths to filling our ears with audio gold.
P.S. Want to try out Young’s experiment in high-quality streaming? Sign up for free access to the entire Neil Young Archives with unlimited streaming through June 30. After the free trial ends, subscriptions will be available “at a very modest cost,” according to the site.