updated 04:10 pm EST, Tue January 31, 2012
Neil Young contends Jobs wanted better audio
Musician Neil Young in an interview at the D: Dive Into Media conference made the contentious claim that Apple's late chief Steve Jobs would have been pushing hard for improved audio quality. The "Needle and the Damage Done" creator claimed that Jobs, despite creating the iPod for digital music, preferred to listen to vinyl records at home. Apple's co-founder would have allegedly been working on higher quality devices, not just formats like Apple Lossless, to improve audio quality.
To Young, digital music was good but threw away too much of the data in compression. Although not mentioned in the summary of the interview, the artist suggested that even a format like Apple Lossless to him still only had about 10 percent of the original quality. Listeners had been pushed into choosing "between quality and convenience," a decision they didn't have to make, he argued in a revisit of earlier views.
It's not apparent how well, if at all, technology could reach Young's targets. Apple Lossless, and earlier high-end formats like FLAC, were designed specifically to preserve everything included in the recording. Some of the issues are tied directly to hardware: at 700Kbps on average, lossless formats' bitrates make them almost three times larger than a typical 256Kbps iTunes track. Upgrading would take a 64GB iPod touch from tens of thousands of songs to several thousand, while it might also put too much strain on a 3G network for someone streaming through iCloud or a direct subscription music service like Rdio.
It's also uncertain how much of the story is just inference by Young versus reality. Jobs helped design the iPod based on his own feedback, and while a fan of classic 1960s rock, he typically saw his devices as advancing music rather than taking it a step back. Young may have as much been expressing hopes as views, since he has made a consistent effort for high quality sound himself through strategies such as putting his whole music history on Blu-ray.