Amazon Music has become the biggest music-streaming service yet to add a higher-quality tier. Amazon Music HD launches in the US, UK, Germany, Japan and Austria this week.
It will cost $12.99 a month for Amazon Prime members and $14.99 a month for non-members. That’s $5 more than the cost of the existing Amazon Music service in each case, while undercutting the $19.99 price for Tidal and Deezer’s higher-quality tiers.
“The way the industry heretofore has priced this has been basically saying ‘we want this to be niche’. But I think the industry understands that sound quality isn’t niche,” Amazon Music VP Steve Boom told Music Ally ahead of the launch.
“We’re in the music business: why wouldn’t audio quality matter! And why would we want to reserve it just for a small group of people who are going to pay twice the cost of a regular subscription?”
Amazon will be offering a 90-day trial of Amazon Music HD, including to existing Music Unlimited subscribers. The tier has more than 50m songs available in ‘HD’ quality – CD-quality, 16-bit 44.1kHz tracks – including “millions” of tracks in ‘Ultra HD quality’. The latter category covers a range of 24-bit tracks with sample rates up to 192kHz.
“It will have what we believe to be the largest catalogue of lossless, uncompressed files in the industry,” said Boom, who described the HD / Ultra HD branding as an important sign of Amazon’s intent.
“It’s very important for us to demystify and simplify this area. It’s been difficult to understand! The first time you go on a website and try to look into lossless audio and are presented with all these different numbers. ‘I don’t know what any of that means!’” he said.
“We’ve researched and talked to consumers about things like ‘hi-fi’ and ‘hi-res’ and the truth is no one knows what they mean, or which one is better than the other. We found that to be really problematic: it wasn’t simplifying anything, it was just propagating this complexity.”
‘HiFi’ is the term used by Tidal and Deezer for their higher-quality tiers, while ‘Hi-Res Audio’ was the phrase chosen by a consortium of major labels, industry bodies and technology companies as the brand for higher-quality music, in a campaign that kicked off at the CES show in early 2017.
Amazon’s bet is that ‘HD’ is already a term that people recognise from the television world, and that ‘Ultra HD’ is a clearer indication of ‘even higher quality’ than a blizzard of numbers – although people will be able to see the exact bit-depth and sampling rate for any track by tapping or clicking on the ‘HD’ or ‘Ultra HD’ icon that’s displayed as it plays.
The launch of Amazon Music HD isn’t an enormous surprise – MBW reported on the plans back in April – but it’s still a big moment for the idea of higher-quality streaming music, coming as it does from the third-biggest service globally in terms of subscribers.
A recent report claimed that Amazon had more than 32 million subscribers across its Prime Music and Amazon Music Unlimited tiers, although Boom stuck to the official line of “tens of millions” when he spoke to Music Ally.
The biggest service, Spotify, does not have a higher-quality tier, although second-placed Apple Music did recently trumpet its ‘Apple Digital Masters’ initiative, which ups the quality at which music is encoded – as part of its standard catalogue.
Boom stressed that Amazon Music HD’s ‘Ultra HD’ catalogue will stretch well beyond the genres – classic rock, jazz and classical for example – that have traditionally been most-closely associated with higher-quality downloads or streams.
“I always play journalists Taylor Swift’s latest single ‘You Need to Calm Down’ because it sounds fricking amazing in Ultra HD. Everybody is ‘holy wow!’ because it sounds so cool and rich,” he said. “But I did it on purpose, too, because it’s pop, and a lot of people maybe associate this [HD] with classical, jazz and classic rock. It’s pop, as current as it gets, and it sounds brilliant.”
In the interview, Boom said that today’s launch aims to reverse one of the prevailing trends in the modern history of digital music.
“Going back all the way to 1999 or so, there’s been this constant tension between convenience and audio quality. Frankly speaking, at every turn along the way, convenience has consistently won out over audio quality in digital music,” he said.
Boom was keen to stress that there have been some significant positives to this: that convenience created a market for legal, paid-for digital music, with the US market alone averaging 61.1m paid subscriptions in the first half of this year. In Amazon’s case, ‘convenience’ is also a trend that takes in the launch of its Echo smart speaker and Alexa assistant, offering voice-controlled access to its streaming catalogue.
“We’re proud of what we’ve done: we think we’ve done as much as anyone in the last few years making music more convenient, ubiquitous and more accessible by everybody. But along the way, the thing that’s really been lost in that equation has been the audio quality,” he said.
“But we feel that with the evolution of streaming, the music industry is now at this point where audio quality is set to go mainstream… Consumers are starting to demand more out of their music-streaming service than just access to 50m songs.”
“Audio quality to date has really been reserved for audiophiles and people who geek out on stats and bit-depth and sampling rates. We think that time is in the past, and that we are moving into a new era where everybody is going to want to hear sound in the way it was originally intended to be heard.”
Amazon has been conducting research with its customers, asking the not just if they’d be interested in higher-quality music, but also whether that’s something they’d be willing to pay extra for. The results, he said, encouraged Amazon in its belief that HD can have mainstream appeal.
A key factor will be how Amazon markets its new HD tier to that customer base. It has a significant advantage over rivals with its knowledge of people’s shopping habits, including music (CDs and vinyl included) and hardware (headphones, hi-fis, smart speakers and more).
As long ago as April 2018, Amazon had more than 100 million members of its Prime program globally, while a study in March this year claimed that 86% of British shoppers buy products through Amazon.
Whether it’s the ability to target heavy buyers of classical-music CDs or classic-rock vinyl, or to launch marketing campaigns aimed at people who’ve recently bought a decent pair of headphones, proper hi-fi cables or who’ve chosen the top-spec Echo Plus smart speaker rather than the Echo or Echo Dot, Amazon should have the data to identify potential HD subscribers and craft marketing campaigns to reach them.
The three-month trial will help with that. Bloomberg also reported in July that Amazon was developing “a higher quality version of the Echo speaker” to be released before 2020. If correct, the device is likely to be unveiled at Amazon’s next media event on 25 September, with its invitation to journalists promising “some new things from the Amazon Devices and Services team”.
(At launch, Amazon Music HD will work with Amazon’s iOS and Android apps; with “select” Echo devices; Fire TV and Fire tablets, as well as hardware from the likes of Sonos, Denon, Marantz, Polk Audio and Sennheiser.)
In the meantime, Amazon can now justifiably boast that it has the widest range of music-streaming subscriptions in the market: from the limited-catalogue Prime Music as part of its Prime membership, through the $3.99 single-device Amazon Music Unlimited plan; the main Amazon Music Unlimited tier; and now Amazon Music HD. And don’t forget its recently-launched ad-supported service in the US.
“I always have to tip my hat to the labels here. They have been very supportive of our efforts. They see the opportunity in Amazon doing something different, and innovating in what we bring to consumers. They have supported us every step of the way,” said Boom, before returning to his central message about Amazon’s latest tier, and its potential to break out of the audiophile niche.
“We wanted to make this accessible and affordable for everybody. We strongly believe audio quality is something that should be accessible and affordable to everyone, and this is what customers increasingly are asking for,” he said.
“This isn’t about niche. This is taking quality out from being a niche thing to being mainstream. We are making a bold statement that this matters for everybody, and that as an industry we need to care about this. And we are pricing it in a way that people can care about it very easily.”