Spotify Hi-Fi Might Not Really Matter, Experts Say 2021


Key Takeaways

Spotify Hi-Fi will launch this year, with lossless, CD-quality audio.Hi-Fi streaming will be for Spotify Premium subscribers.Most users on earbuds, or in noisy places, won't notice the difference. Nubelson Fernandes / Getty Images

Spotify is adding a high-quality audio-streaming option called Spotify Hi-Fi. It will be "CD-quality," and will be available "later this year." But will anyone notice?

Spotify Hi-Fi will stream lossless audio to devices, and directly to speakers. It should make streamed audio every bit as good as CDs, or other high-quality sources. But given that we all listen to music on crappy Bluetooth speakers, or via earbuds and AirPods, we might not be able to hear the difference. 

"I believe most people are listening to music on the [Spotify default] 160kbps or even 320kbps setting," musician and music-video creator Calvin West told Ach5 via email.

"I'm certain most people will not notice the difference between 320kbps or 160kbps and lossless. In fact, I would even say that half of audiophiles who claim to hear the difference between 320kbps and lossless would fail a blind test."

Lossless, Hi-Fi: What's the Difference?

Digital music is measured in bits, just like any other digital media. We consider bit-depth and bitrate. Bit-depth is mostly irrelevant unless you're recording and producing. Bitrate is what concerns us here. As West says above, Spotify already goes as high as 320kbps (kilobits per second).

"The iPod revolutionized music distribution, but reset the quality bar to 128kbps AAC," says Verge editor Nilay Patel on Twitter. "It's just been a slow march back ever since."

CDs have a bitrate of 1,411 kbps. Lossless just means that the music is compressed without losing any information. MP3s are "lossy," like JPGs. They are cleverly engineered to throw away parts of the audio that you probably won't notice, in order to achieve tiny file sizes (and smaller bitrates when streamed).

With Spotify's lossless offering, we're finally back to where we were in 1980. 

Speakers and Headphones

If you're listening to music on earbuds, or in the car, or at home on your Amazon Echo speaker, then you don't need lossless streaming. The performance of a music system is not only about the source. Nor is it, as we seemed to believe back in the 1970s, only about the speakers.

"Of course there are other factors at play when it comes to the quality of your music," says West. "Most important of which are your speakers or headphones."

Ideally, you'd have a good source, great speakers, and good equipment in between. There's no point feeding the headphone jack of a cheap phone into a $20,000 amp and speakers.

"The jump from 24kbps to lossless would be noticeable to everyone except users on their phone speakers."

Equally, if you live next to an airport or freeway, those $20,000 speakers are pointless, even with an amazing CD player. 

"Earbuds may be good for running, but not for picking up tiny details," programmer and founder of TechTreatBox Luke Kowalski told Ach5 via email. "So yes, I think that the gear you use and the circumstances really matter in this case."

It's down to context, then, and streaming higher quality than you can hear is just a waste of mobile bandwidth. 

How Can You Improve Your Audio Today?

If you're already using Spotify, then you should check your current quality settings. Spotify has instructions for this.

Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

The lowest rate, used on poor network connections, is 24kbps. For Spotify Premium (paid) plans, users can specify up to 320kbps.

You should consider your listening situation, and pick a setting to suit. Or choose "automatic," and let the computer take care of it.

You may not be able to tell the difference when Spotify Hi-Fi arrives, but you will definitely notice the difference between Spotify's Low and Very High options. "The jump from 24kbps to lossless would be noticeable to everyone except users on their phone speakers," says West.