Or, we could say that Apple is about premium quality, ease of use, and value, thanks to a line of durable products much beloved by a growing customer base. If the latter is true then what took us so long to figure out the mixture of Beats Music, Beats Headphones, Apple Music, iTunes, and quality audio?
It’s In The Mix
Apple’s entire history of product development is somewhat unique. The company is more of an integrator than innovator, yet the two combine to form new products which become industry segment disruptions.
iPod and iTunes Music disrupted the music industry. The iPhone disrupted the nascent smartphone industry. Other examples abound, but Apple’s history of development and market disruptions are rife with a unique mixture of innovation mashed up with off-the-shelf components.
The iPod took advantage of cheap and small storage to become an iconic device which would hold entire music libraries. iTunes wasn’t the first place online to sell music, but integration with the iPod and a simple buy and install process made it the ubiquitous device of choice.
The iPhone? It’s a slender device with a big battery, a big screen, a bunch of sensors, and applications that make it the most diversely capable technology device ever. Those examples may be oversimplifications, but you get the idea. It’s all in the mix of innovation, ecosystem, and integration.
Apple Music Trail
Apple’s music library boasts more than 30-million titles and the highest brand recognition. The company’s acquisition of Beats Music and the Beats line of headphones seems like a natural fit to iTunes but I suspect Apple has more in mind that just pushing digital songs down the pipe to be listened to on overpriced cans.
Technology of any kind has a point of diminishing returns. That explains why MP3s are still so popular. MP3 was the first popular digital music format, but the difference in sound between that aging standard and Apple’s follow up, AAC, though improved in every corner– file size, sound quality, etc., is not easily distinguished by the average listener from older MP3 music files.
A typical compact disc (CD) is a lossy compression file format that runs somewhere less than 1.5Mbps. So-called high resolution MP3s at 320kbps are much smaller, use far less lossy data, but, again, sound much the same to the average listener as a CD (which, arguably, sounds worse than a vinyl record, but that’s a different issue). The number of audio file formats that exceed standard MP3s in nearly every aspect is growing. AAC, Ogg Vorbis, Window Media Audio Lossless, FLAC (free lossless audio codec), all have their benefits and drawbacks. But clearly, there is room for improvement and perhaps a new standard for audio and listening.
Here’s what I see in Apple’s music product mix. Beats headphones. iTunes Music Store. Apple Music. Lightning connector. And a new high-resolution audio standard. Mash them all up and toss in a new digital audio converter (DAC) and a new line of Macs, iPhones, and iPads will provide listeners with the best music listening experience available.
Can’t Hear The Solution!
Here’s the problem, and it’s one Apple is familiar with already. The iPhone’s Retina display is great; crisp, sharp, vibrant, but smartphones from Samsung, Google, and others have even higher resolution displays with strong color. So what? It’s difficult for the average user to tell the difference, one from another. That’s the problem with music, too. There’s diminishing returns by all the problems in the music chain with higher quality components. Stream lossless or high-resolution audio from the Apple Store or Apple Music. Push the higher quality music from iPhone to iPad via a fully digital Lightning cable and connection to super-tuned Beats headphones and what do you get?
Improved audio, yes. But will anyone be able to tell the difference?
Aging rocker Neil Young brought higher resolution audio to the world with Pono and the world yawned. Or, maybe not. It was hard to tell if there was any impact on the market from higher quality music because nobody really cares. Or, put another way, nobody could tell the difference.
Maybe Apple’s vaunted engineers have figured out a way to take higher resolution audio and mix it with a digital connection from end-to-end, including tweaks to the headphones themselves, and make it sound noticeably better than a decent MP3; compelling enough to make buyers stand in line for Apple’s latest and greatest. Or, maybe not. But wouldn’t nearly perfect music make iPhone 7 and a new line of Macs worth upgrading to in the future?