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If Radiohead releases studio-quality 'King of Limbs' downloads, will anyone listen?

March 28, 2011 |  6:00 am

Radiohead_TKOL Ah, the good old days, when sonic philistines debated the merits of vinyl over compacts discs.

This week, Radiohead may well spark a debate over FLAC versus AAC that could bring a misty eye to audio historians. Radiohead's new release on Tuesday isn't about alphabet soup. Rather, the band is offering fans, via a London company called 7Digital, their first chance to download is latest album, “The King of Limbs,” in higher-quality digital formats.

FLAC stands for free lossless audio codec and, at 24 bits, is said to feature the same audio fidelity in which bands record their songs. In the mastering process, when recordings are made ready for copying on to CDs, the accuracy is taken down a notch, to 16 bits, a process that has annoyed recording engineers and bands because some of the nuances of their music can sometimes be lost.

But the losses are minimal when compared to what happens to music files when they are compressed into downloadable formats such as MP3 and AAC, which stands for advanced audio coding. These formats were spawned in the 1990s to allow listeners to squeeze more songs onto devices such as the iPod, which debuted in 2001 with a whopping 5 gigabytes of memory. That was enough to hold "1,000 songs in your pocket," according to Apple honcho Steve Jobs, but only if they were aggresssively compressed.

That sales pitch, along with the introduction earlier in 2001 of the iTunes music store, led to a mass migration from high-fidelity audio and toward the convenience of lo-fi digital songs.

A decade later, Radiohead is swimming in the other direction -- back toward high-fidelity releases. Working with digital music company 7Digital, the British band plans to sell a high-quality download of its album for $11.99 (the version also comes bundled with a CD-quality copy and an AAC compressed copy).

Will listeners go for quality? Ben Drury, chief executive and co-founder of 7Digital, believes at least a certain segment of the market will.

"I’m definitely not saying this is the mass-market format of the future," Drury said. "Certainly, people who spend significant sums on hi-fi equipment have been vocal about the poor quality of MP3s. But that's been quite niche."

What's changed in the last few years is the increasing number of households that have installed home theater systems around their flat-screen TVs to get surround sound. And when they're not watching movies, many pipe through music.

"Millions of people who use their PlayStation 3s to watch Blu-ray movies are typically hearing 24-bit sound," Drury said. "Personally, I find it annoying that I can get better quality audio watching a movie than when I listen to music."

Will that be enough to move the needle on sales of high-quality so-called lossless audio? Certainly, music companies are keen to find out. A "yes" will mean they can charge a higher price for premium quality songs or get people to repurchase albums at higher quality.

The early signs are encouraging. Drury said test releases done by 7Digital have indicated that as many as 40% of consumers opt to pay a few extra dollars for the higher, CD-quality version.

-- Alex Pham