Update, May 2021: Apple has just announced the arrival of lossless and high-resolution audio on Apple Music. In addition, there will be “spatial audio,” which is a term for audio recorded – or remastered – using Dolby Atmos, which is today’s equivalent of 5.1 audio (sort of). This makes it a good time to revisit what high-resolution audio means, and who can benefit from it. tl;dr: most people don’t care, won’t hear the difference, and don’t even have the gear to play it back correctly.
I’ve been writing about music and audio for more than fifteen years, and I’ve always been of the opinion that music is more important than sound; that what matters is what we listen to, rather trying to only listen to music that sounds perfect (or nearly so).
If you read about audio equipment in the hi-fi press, you’ll see that much of the audio equipment mentioned in these magazines is more expensive than most people would ever spend on a stereo setup. There are cables that cost more than my car, and speakers that can cost as much as a small home.
A few months ago, I came to a realization. I don’t recall which article I read that pointed this out, but this type of audio is not just high-end, but it truly is luxury hardware. It’s the Jaguar and Porsche of audio. The amplifiers, speakers, and cables you see in these audiophile magazines are not targeted at the average listener, but those who have a great deal of disposable income. This is fine; there’s nothing wrong with people spending their money on what is often hand-made hardware from small, dedicated companies. But it’s only something that a tiny percentage of people can afford, or even appreciate. Audiophiles will scoff at people like me; in a recent forum discussion, I was told that, by purchasing a Yamaha amplifier, I was buying a "lifestyle" brand. I hadn’t been aware that this is an insult: it’s the audiophile equivalent of "philistine."
If you consider high-resolution music, which is widely discussed as being essential to make music "sound like the artist intended," you may, at first, think of this as progress; a better quality format, going beyond the pokey LP, the limited CD, and the underperforming MP3 file. But it’s not. Most people cannot hear the difference between a CD (or even a good-quality digital download) and a high-resolution audio file. And, even if they can, they need expensive, nay, luxury equipment to appreciate it.
And here’s where the problem lies. The audio industry has lost so many consumers at the low end – it used to be that most people had a stereo system in their homes; now they are satisfied with Bluetooth speakers – that it is trying to convince everyone, not just luxury hi-fi fans, that quality of the music they listen to sucks. There are economic reasons for this, of course. If they can convince some people that their audio files aren’t good enough, then they can perhaps get them to buy more expensive hi-fi equipment. In recent years, the mid-range hi-fi market – those "lifestyle" brands – has collapsed, and these companies only really survive because they sell lots of other products. So there’s not a lot of choice between Bluetooth speakers – or the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, etc. – and higher-end audio equipment.