updated 03:00 am EST, Fri February 24, 2012
Albums optimized for 256kbit AAC iTunes format
While still not a place serious audiophiles would be caught dead shopping from, Apple has opened a "Mastered for iTunes" section on the iTunes Music Store. The new section features albums from a variety of artists that have been remastered from the highest-fidelity source files and tuned specifically for optimum reproduction within the limits of iTunes' 256kbit AAC file format. The company also issued guidelines for mastering practices.
Apple is providing record labels with new mastering tools, including a drag-and-drop "Master for iTunes" program that converts uncompressed AIFF or WAV files to iTunes Plus format, and a PDF guide that suggests submitting original 24-bit/96kHz sources rather than CD masters for the best possible conversion, explaining that "Keeping the highest quality masters available in our systems allows for full advantage of future improvements to your music," suggesting that the company may decide to offer even higher-quality or possibly some form of lossless files in the future. Apple has also provided two anti-clipping distortion tools and a guide that details best practices for converting music for the iTunes Store.
The section also brings new emphasis on buying whole albums rather than just individual songs, an issue that has caused some friction with some musicians and labels. Albums span the gamut of musical styles, from U2's Achtung Baby to Philip Glass' 9th Symphony, along with a selection of jazz, Pink Floyd and various recent and older albums. There are currently around 100 albums on offer, with samples to let users judge for themselves, though a quick test of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy did sound noticeably better than the non-"Mastered for iTunes" versions.
Online stores exist that already sell lossless or higher-fidelity music files than iTunes, such as HDTracks, but often have severely limited catalogs or focus only on classical music rather than offer the robust assortment that iTunes does. For many, the difference between the compressed files of the iTunes store and a CD is difficult to hear, particular given recent-day tendencies of bands to use over-driven amps, deliberate distortion techniques and "digital loudness" in their music -- and of course the tendency of most people to play music on computers and iOS devices rather than on audiophile-grade stereo equipment.