In case you didn't know (where have you been?), Spotify HiFi is the ubiquitous music streaming service's long-anticipated entry into CD-quality streaming. It was initially teased in 2017 and promptly disappeared from consciousness.
Then, on 22nd February 2021, the company officially announced Spotify HiFi to the world at its 'Stream On' event, but this time it promised the tier would be with us by the end of the year. A leaked video and a cheeky icon glimpse in the iOS app gave us our first look at HiFi in the wild. Things were looking good.
Since then we have been mostly waiting. And waiting. At the time of writing, Spotify has less than 10 days to make good on its promise.
When (if?) HiFi launches, Spotify Premium subscribers will be able to 'upgrade' their membership so they can listen to higher-quality streams, although said streams still won't be 'hi-res' quality (generally defined as anything above CD-quality) the kind that are already offered by rivals Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon and, since June 2021, Apple Music.
Will Spotify Premium subscribers have to pay a surcharge for not-quite hi-res streaming? Even this hasn't been clarified, although when Apple Music casually rolled out its Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless tiers for free to subscribers this summer, it likely quashed any designs Spotify may or may not have had about instigating a price hike.
In fact, although Spotify claims "high-quality music streaming" has consistently been one of its users' most requested new features, it remains tight-lipped about its HiFi tier's price, device compatibility, territories and launch dates as we come to the end of play on 2021. Did I mention that Tidal, our top choice when it comes to streaming services, recently introduced a free tier in the US?
I'm prepared to go on record and say that I think Spotify wasn't prepared for any of this, and that it will struggle to meet the demand for a HiFi tier that doesn't come at a premium. I also think it doesn't really matter.
Why I think Spotify HiFi isn't coming this year
In short: coin – both what Spotify stands to gain and what its subscribers will now be willing (or unwilling) to part with.
Apple Music now offers its ALAC 24-bit/192kHz hi-res files for £10 ($10) per month. Amazon Music HD can get you 24-bit/192kHz FLAC streams for the same money, or £8 ($8) per month if you're a Prime member. If Spotify goes ahead with its plan to present its OGG files (which are currently capped at a bitrate of 320kbps, even if you select 'very high' quality) but in 16-bit/44.1kHz CD-quality for £10 ($10) per month or potentially more, buyers are certainly likely to notice the discrepancy – even if said streams are compatible with Spotify Connect, as is promised.
The consumer speaks with their wallet, a truth that presents itself ever more readily in these continued trying times. Spotify has long been a go-to platform owing to its loyal early adopters (having launched in 2006) and of course its super-accessible free tier. Despite what the company says, I do not think music lovers turn to Spotify for quality. They turn to it for convenience and for sociable, cheap (often free) music.
A few weeks ago my Instagram feed was packed with Spotify Wrapped stories, my friends and acquaintances clearly eager to share their most-streamed artists and listened-to genres. It's times like these that I'm struck by how prevalent Spotify is over other services – we have figures, of course, but social media is the voice of our era. Being vocal about your music is something other platforms have long tried to encourage – Apple has a heart-shaped 'love' button next to tracks to get you to be more public regarding your music tastes – with varying degrees of success.
When dancing professionally, the words "Don't worry! I'll share the playlist with you!" are often said by choreographers after rehearsals, the inference being that I must practise in my own time and be better by the next rehearsal. There is never a Spotify prefix added to that promise, although Spotify is invariably the vehicle used. Why not? It isn't necessary; every self-respecting human who works with music knows their way around Spotify.
Don't get me wrong, I want you to care about better-quality hi-res music. Upon listening to songs I regularly use for testing on Apple Music, along with a quality pair of wired headphones and a portable DAC (none of which Apple sells), the difference in quality, in detail through the leading edges of notes, reveals itself to me like turning on a switch to illuminate a dark room. I feel cheated that I've been sharing, rehearsing, and in some cases performing to lossy (but easy to email) MP3 files for much of my career.
But that just brings me to another sticking point...
Why the Spotify HiFi delay doesn't really matter
In order to explain, a bit of background information is necessary. When Apple Music updated its offering to include Lossless (at up to 24-bit/48kHz) and Hi-Res Lossless (with sample rates greater than 48kHz, up to 24-bit/192kHz) files at no extra fee to subscribers, we praised its generosity.
At the same time, we knocked Tim Cook's mixed message (and from a company that prides itself on direction and vision) because Apple's own headphones cannot play these files. The Bluetooth connection boasting the bandwidth to wholly support them does not yet exist.
Although Apple's free improvements left rival streaming services looking a little flat, Apple had seemingly shot itself in the foot, because its hugely successful AirPods do not play ball with its new higher-resolution streams – not even its flagship AirPods Max (£549, $549, AU$899).
Of course, this issue is not unique to Apple – no Bluetooth headphones offer the capability. Yes, some wireless headphones claim to support hi-res streaming – but even then you aren't getting a lossless audio experience. For example, Qualcomm’s popular aptX codec supports 16-bit/48kHz files, while aptX HD supports 24-bit/48kHz, and these are considered both streets ahead of 'standard' codecs such as SBC. But the codec simply determines how Bluetooth transmits from the source device to your headphones, and both aptX and aptX HD are lossy formats – so even if the audio you are streaming boasts the same resolution as lossless audio, it isn't truly lossless. However you try to paint it, Bluetooth connections are not lossless – not even the highest-quality one around, Sony's LDAC.
Now, Spotify. It stands to reason that if you're on a tight budget, you probably don't own a set of premium wired audiophile-grade headphones or a hi-res multi-room audio system. Although the uninitiated might think that whacking on a HiFi track through the old Bluetooth portable speaker is a good idea, unless your kit is higher up the food chain, you won't benefit from or hear the difference between HiFi and plain old vanilla Spotify.
Is there really a need for lossless quality in Spotify's admittedly extensive oeuvre? I am not so sure.
Conclusion: Spotify does not need a HiFi tier
There, I've said it. For many subscribers, Spotify needs HiFi like Primark needs a collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld. Spotify fills the gap for users who need a track cheaply, quickly, and without taking a big chunk out of their phone's data allowance. It doesn't need hifalutin and often inaccessible bitrates and resolutions.
According to the market and consumer data company, Statista, Spotify had 158m paid-for subscribers at the start of 2021. By the second quarter of this year, that figure had increased to 165m. The company kicked off the third quarter of this year with 172m premium subscribers worldwide, up from 144m in the corresponding quarter of 2020. Seven million new subscribers within three months, from April to June, all without a dicky bird on Spotify HiFi.
Need to locate, check, share or simply hear a track right now? I defy anyone to tell me that they haven't found themselves heading to Spotify's extensive catalogue as their first port of call. Yes, you may buy your music later (in hi-res or physical format) but come on, Spotify is most obliging initially. Similarly, when you need a new white T-shirt because you've just spilled your coffee down the one you were wearing on the walk to work, where do you go? Tell me it's to Mr. Lagerfeld's store on Regent Street. I'll wait...
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