Spotify Waited Years to Roll Out High-Definition Audio. The Delay Just Might Pay Off

Spotify Waited Years to Roll Out High-Definition Audio. The Delay Just Might Pay Off

In February 2021, Spotify announced its high-quality audio offering, called HiFi, and released a promotional video featuring Billie Eilish and her brother/producer, Finneas, waxing about the benefits of listening to recordings in their natural state rather than the compressed files that became standard in the digital era. “The streaming war is going Hi-Fi,” Billboard proclaimed a few months later.  

But it was a false start. Spotify’s HiFi didn’t materialize, and the company officially announced its delay in January 2022. There were rumblings about HiFi in June 2023, but the rumors amounted to nothing. Instead, Spotify pushed ahead with building an all-in-one audio platform by building its podcast business and launching an audiobook offering.   

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Now, HiFi appears to be back on track. This month, news broke that Spotify will finally launch a high-definition audio tier later this year. Still called HiFi, Spotify will offer the tier for an extra $5 per month for individual plans ($16.99 compared to $11.99, which bakes in an expected $1 increase from the current $10.99), according to a Bloomberg report. The HiFi tier for family plans is reported to be $19.99, $3 more than the current $16.99.  

Waiting three years could come with some advantages. First, there’s a large addressable market that wants high-quality audio. A 2023 MusicWatch survey found that 85 million Americans aged 13 and over agreed that obtaining the highest sound quality is important and that they would be willing to pay more to get it, according to MusicWatch’s Russ Crupnick. That’s a big uptick from 2020 when a previous MusicWatch survey found that it found that 69.2 million people aged 13 to 65 were open to paying more for studio-quality sound. Most of that change represents greater interest in high-quality audio, as population growth has been “only about 1% per year,” says Crupnick.  

“Once people realize that audio quality is available and they hear it, it is hard to go back,” says Qobuz managing director Dan Mackta. “The challenge is just getting people to actually hear it.” 

There are two types of premium audio streaming: 16-bit, known as “lossless” or “CD-quality,” and 24-bit, which is commonly referred to as “high-resolution.” Both Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited offer CD-quality and higher definition tiers that go up to 24-bit/192 kHz. Qobuz streams 24-bit audio up to 192 kHz. Spotify streams up to 256 kbps for subscribers — far below CD quality of 1,411 kbps— and 128 kbps for ad-supported users.  

Early high-definition entrants like Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music Unlimited and Apple Music have done much of the dirty work educating consumers about audio quality. Amazon Music, which debuted high-definition audio in 2019, saw strong demand and engagement, Amazon Music vp Steve Boom told Billboard in 2021. Apple Music rolled out lossless audio and Spatial Audio in June 2021. More than 90% of Apple Music listeners have engaged with Spatial Audio, the company said in January, adding that plays of music available in the format have more than tripled in the previous two years.  

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The streaming market has matured over the last three years. Spotify currently has 59 million more subscribers than it did at the end of 2021, giving it a larger base from which to upsell a premium audio tier. Consumers have also warmed to the notion of paying more for a music subscription. Spotify’s first large-scale price increase in July 2023 was followed by an additional increase in May in the United Kingdom and Australia, and the United States will follow later this year — all without a material amount of subscriber churn, company executives have said.  

Spotify will have to convince its subscribers that high-quality audio is worth a premium, however. Amazon Music Unlimited originally charged a premium for high-definition audio but later made it a standard feature for the lower-priced, standard subscriber plan. Likewise, Apple Music offers lossless audio and Spatial Audio at no extra cost. To counter its competitors’ pricing strategies, Spotify could make HiFi a bundle of premium features. In 2022, Spotify reportedly surveyed consumers about their willingness to pay for a premium tier that offers high-definition audio, additional playlist and library features, limited-ad Spotify playlists, and other add-ons.  

But Spotify HiFi could also encourage its competitors to follow suit by further raising prices. Mackta says Qobuz intends to raise prices at some point in the future. In fact, Qobuz lowered prices in 2019 — a standard plan is currently $12.99 per month — in response to larger services like Apple Music and Amazon Music making high-definition audio a standard feature. “In general,” he says, “music is too cheap.”