Streaming-music listeners really don’t care about missing out on CD-like sound quality

Who cares about quality?
Who cares about quality?
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Streaming-music listeners really don’t care about sound quality.

A recent survey by MusicWatch found that few music fans would pay more to listen to music with better audio quality. The consumer research firm, which polled 7,700 people, asked listeners who stream music for free what it would take for them to pay for a service. Just 6% said that CD-like sound quality could persuade them to part with their hard-earned dollars.

This is bad news for Jay Z’s Tidal, which is built on the opposite premise. It bet that music fans would pay more for better sound quality, namely 1.4Mbps lossless streams that are truly as good as a CD. But so far, that theory hasn’t panned out. The $19.99-a-month premium platform, which also offers a standard MP3-quality service for $9.99, has failed to grow its subscriber base. In September, Jay Z tweeted that Tidal had 1 million subscribers, up from 770,000 in April.

By way of contrast, Spotify, which only offers MP3-quality sound, had 20 million paying users by that point. And Apple Music, which launched in June with comparable audio quality to Spotify, had 6.5 million paying subscribers by October. Both services cost $9.99, although industry-leader Spotify also has a free, ad-supported tier.

An additional 11% of streaming music listeners surveyed said they would pay for a streaming platform if the quality was as good as the recording studio. But that’s an extremely high bar to meet with standard headphone jacks on smartphones, where 67% of streamers listen to music. Apple is reportedly experimenting with high-res, 24-bit sound quality that’s as good as a studio recording, which would require it to retool the audio jack on its phones.

The one streaming feature that had the best odds of getting users to cough up a monthly fee, the survey found, was complete listener control—or the ability to select any artist, album, or song they want, whenever they want.