Amazon on Tuesday announced Amazon Music HD, which offers 50 million CD-quality songs — 16 bits at 44.1 kHz. Customers also can stream millions more songs in Ultra HD — better than CD quality — with a bit depth of 24 bits and a sample rate up to 192 kHz.
Amazon Music HD will play the highest quality audio customers’ devices and network conditions will support. It is compatible with a variety of devices, including desktop computers, iOS and Android mobile devices, select Echo devices, Amazon Fire TV and Amazon Fire tablets.
It is also compatible with many third-party devices, including most products from Denon and Marantz with HEOS Built-in, Polk Audio, Definitive Technology, Sonos, McIntosh and Sennheiser.
Subscriptions begin at US$12.99 a month for Prime members, $5 a month for current subscribers to Amazon Music, whether they are on the Individual or Family Plans, and $14.99 a month for Amazon customers who are not subscribers.
Amazon Music HD is now available to stream in the United States, UK, Germany and Japan.
New subscribers to Amazon music can get a 90-day free trial. Current subscribers can try the HD service at no additional charge for 90 days. After the trial period, the subscription renews automatically at the appropriate price.
The launch of HD Music might pose a problem, suggested Russ Crupnick, managing partner at Musicwatch.
“I do worry that there are too many Amazon streaming offerings, ranging from Prime to Echo to free with Alexa,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “The multitude of options has become very confusing to consumers.”
Streaming Bitrate Claims Are Tricky
Amazon claims HD Music offers more than double the bitrate of standard streaming services.
However, Tidal for some time has offered lossless CD quality with its FLAC-based Tidal HiFi service.
CD-quality FLAC 16-bit 44.1 kHz streaming music has been available for some time from Qobuz and Deezer. Further, Qobuz was the first music service to offer FLAC 24-bit up to 192 kHz streaming files with its Hi-Res service.
That said, Amazon is the first of the major players to offer CD-quality streaming audio.
Apple streams music at 256 bits, while Spotify and Google Play stream music at 320 bitrates.
A high-fidelity service is not a big differentiator, Spotify VP Paul Vogel suggested.
“I don’t think core Spotify or Apple users will switch over en masse,” Musicwatch’s Crupnick said. “They like their services and most think the quality is good enough.”
Still, competitors will offer better sound quality “sooner rather than later,” he predicted.
Going for the Money
“Amazon is making the bet that its older, higher-income customers are more concerned about sound quality than the average streaming user,” remarked Mark Mulligan, music analyst at Midia Research.
“Amazon’s installed base of Prime subscribers represent one of the most valuable consumer groups in the entire digital ecosystem. and Amazon has identified that there is demand for spending more on higher-quality music,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
MusicWatch has done “a lot of testing on the concept of high-res ‘good as recording studio’ audio,” Crupnick said. It found that about one quarter of streamers “are passionate about sound quality, listen a lot on mobile devices and don’t think the quality is good enough, and are willing to pay to get something better.”
Streaming music accounted for 80 percent of the United States recorded music industry market’s revenues, the Recording Industry Association of America reported.
Total revenues at retail grew 18 percent to $5.4 billion, and streaming music revenues accounted for $4.3 billion of that — up 26 percent, driven by paid subscriptions, which hit a new height of 61 million.
Possible Markets for HD Streaming Audio
Most current devices cannot stream CD quality music, and Amazon is widely expected to announce new, CD quality-capable devices at an upcoming event Sept. 25.
HD audio “is the next logical expansion from video,” noted Ray Wang, principal analyst at Constellation Research, “but the car may prove to be the best venue.”
Most people may not notice the difference in music quality on their current devices, but “in the car, HD audio may make a big difference,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
Streaming music to automobiles is one of the five trends shaping the music streaming business, because “the car is the primary battleground of the streaming vs. radio standoff, as all of the major streaming services now offer solutions for in-vehicle listening,” noted Midia’s Mulligan.
“Apple has CarPlay, Google has Android Auto, and even Spotify has made its first steps in that space,” he pointed out, “confirming tests of its long-rumored voice-controlled smart assistant for cars.”