Streaming services need to do better by listeners and artists — HiFi is the way (Guest column)


This is a guest post by Nigel Harding, VP Artist Relations at Deezer. He argues that hi-fi audio shouldn’t be a luxury extra – but instead should be a fundamental part of the music experience.

The act of creating music is intense, personal and emotional. Artists pour their heart and soul into each song and aim to forge a deep connection with their listeners. 

As such, artists expect the medium or platform that hosts their music to accurately portray the song as intended. But there is a problem here: the way we listen to music today means that artists and audiences alike can be left short-changed and given an inferior experience. Yet there is an obvious answer to solve this. 

The impact of music quality on the listening experience

Nigel Harding, VP Artist Relations at Deezer

The way that we consume music today is predominantly via streaming services. Data from the British Phonographic Industry shows that streaming accounted for 83% of UK music consumption in 2021. We’re likely to see similar figures again this year. 

But as technology has stepped in to transform the way we consume music, there has been another unexpected cost to the experience as a whole: quality. 

Essentially, fidelity is in a worse place than it was since the mainstream uptake of the CD in the 1980s. The focus has instead been on convenience and quantity over quality. The iPod and other MP3 players were a major milestone in transforming how we consume music. But while we might have a thousand songs in our pocket, the quality was significantly reduced — CD bitrate is 1,411 kilobits per second (Kbps); MP3s range from around 96 to 320Kbps. So, even the best MP3s were only a fraction of the experience offered by CDs.

This meant that over time, we grew to accept the trade-off. While most of us can remember the quality offered by CDs, there is now a generation of young people who for the most part are unaware of what music in high-fidelity offers them. They are used to streaming lower-fidelity music, and often do so via bluetooth headphones (which reduce the quality even further). 

This is frustrating because it doesn’t have to be this way — we know we can go beyond CD-quality audio. If technology was the answer to create convenience, it can also be the answer to ensure quality. 

Opening up HiFi for everyone

Even for HiFi aficionados, there’s a degree of cognitive dissonance at play. 

We’ve seen that certain demographics are more likely to pay for HiFi equipment than others. Today, HiFi is often seen as a luxury — and includes a steep price point to match.  

But while they might play everything through their Sonos, they might be streaming low-quality MP3s, making it redundant. They might have invested in a state-of-the-art sound system, but then used standard copper wiring instead of gold, thus compromising quality. Or, the adverse could be true — say they have a HiFi subscription to a streaming platform, but then use bluetooth headphones to listen to it.

Then there is an even larger group of people who can’t afford the equipment and subscriptions or simply don’t care enough to invest in it. But that isn’t an excuse for us in the streaming space to shrug our shoulders and tell subscribers to lump it. We have a responsibility to both artists and audiences to provide great experiences and bring the two together. 

HiFi shouldn’t be exclusive. To keep HiFi as an exclusive — and costly — tier is a step backwards. With what we can achieve through innovations in streaming technology, we should offer HiFi for everyone.  

The equipment we use today (especially those that require bluetooth) means that HiFi won’t be heard at all times, such as during a commute. But it is important to offer better quality streaming when listeners do have the time and space, such as at home. They deserve a better quality audio experience. 

This will naturally require education, especially for those who haven’t grown up with HiFi and might need convincing. But the proof is in the listening — they will hear more, be immersed more, and enjoy music more. 

Doing better by artists 

As a platform that connects listeners to the artists they love, Deezer has a responsibility not just to our users, but to those who create music as well.

Artists spend weeks and months in the studio to create works of art. Producers and engineers spend their lives tweaking sounds in ways we might not even perceive in order to achieve perfection. The level of effort artists, producers and everyone else involved in making music is enormous. 

To then have all that work streamed in a low quality format is to do a disservice to their efforts. Artists should be able to have their music played as intended. That requires HiFi audio in order to do so.  

As an industry, if we are to truly represent both artists and listeners, then we need to ensure our own platforms are up to scratch. At Deezer, we are focused on ensuring that everyone who subscribes can access CD-quality, HiFi audio as we believe it is the right thing to do on both sides of the equation.

Written by: Music Ally