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[News Focus] Apple’s free update of lossless format to reshape digital music in Korea

Apple’s move puts pressure on Korean providers offering paid-for lossless music plans; Spotify also set to launch CD-quality streaming later this year

(123rf)
(123rf)

Last month,Apple rolled out two big updates -- a lossless audio format and Dolby Atmos support -- for its flagship digital music service. As Apple Music subscribers get the two upgrades at no extra charge, attention is now placed on Korean digital music providers that offer similar content in separate pay plans.

With the updates, Apple switched over 20 million tracks to a lossless format named ALAC, or Apple lossless audio compression. Apple said it plans to make its entire catalogue of over 75 million tracks available in the ALAC format. At the same time, it kicked off what it calls “Spatial Audio” with a Dolby Atmos feature that allows artists to record multidimensional audio.

Although only select music files are available in the lossless format and Dolby Atmos, it is only a matter of time before the majority of its files will be upgraded in terms of sound quality, an important matter for music enthusiasts.

Apple’s share in the Korean market is estimated to be fairly small. According to WiseApp, the local digital music streaming market is led by Melon, whose list of top 100 hit songs is widely tracked and monitored by Korean listeners and industry watchers.

In recent months, YouTube Music has been gaining ground in the Korean market, partly helped by the popularity of the YouTube Premium service, but the overall market is still a playground for homegrown players such as Genie Music, Flo, Naver Vibe and Bugs.

Yet Apple’s latest gambit deserves attention, as it is likely to attract paying local subscribers who have signed up for similar lossless music plans based on the widely used FLAC, or free lossless audio codec.

Melon offers a hi-fi streaming club plan that allows users to enjoy FLAC music files for 12,000 won ($10.60) a month. Bugs, known for its large library of FLAC-formatted digital music, offers the plan at the same monthly rate.

Apple, a latecomer in the Korean digital music market, offers Apple Music, now equipped with a growing list of lossless music, at a competitive price of 8,900 won per month. Even though some users downplay the potential of Apple’s digital music service, citing the lack of certain popular Korean singers, there are enough iPhone and iPad users here who might try out the CD-quality streaming music or multidimensional effect based on the Dolby Atmos feature.

Spotify, which started its service in Korea in February, is also expected to offer a lossless digital music plan within this year. It is not clear whether Spotify’s “HiFi” service will require a separate paid subscription plan. What is clear is that given Apple is moving forward with a free lossless offering, Spotify and Korean digital music providers alike will be hard pressed to justify a paid-for plan devoted to lossless music.

The broader shift of digital music from the MP3 format to lossless codecs such as ALAC and FLAC is still in its early stage, but the direction toward high-quality files is firmly set. The installation of faster broadband networks, advanced wireless technology and unlimited data plans combine to accelerate the shift toward the lossless digital music market, experts said.

The longstanding standard-bearer is the MP3 format, but it relies on “lossy” compression, referring to a type of audio data compression that results in some data loss and lower sound quality in return for smaller file size.

In contrast, Apple Music’s lossless format starts out at CD quality 16-bit at 44.1 kilohertz (which means the digital audio is sampled 44,100 times per second, or the quality of CD) and goes up to 24-bit at 48 kHz.

Apple Music also provides high-resolution lossless audio for some tracks, which supports 24-bit at a whopping 192 kHz. This format is designed for true audiophiles who have a complete set of lossless-compatible gear, including wired, high-end headphones and an external digital-to-analog converter.

On Scheherzade, a major online community of music enthusiasts, a host of users have been posting questions about what kind of equipment is needed to listen to Apple Music’s lossless music without any true loss in quality.

Ironically, none of Apple’s current wireless earphones or headphones support its own lossless music. Experts believe Apple might incorporate lossless support into a future version of its popular AirPods Pro, which are rumored to launch next year.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)
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