Lossless audio will come to portable players eventually

A leader on Microsoft's Zune team understands the importance of lossless files in the future of portable audio players.

Matt Rosoff
Matt Rosoff is an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, where he covers Microsoft's consumer products and corporate news. He's written about the technology industry since 1995, and reviewed the first Rio MP3 player for CNET.com in 1998. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network. Disclosure. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattrosoff.
Matt Rosoff
2 min read

The great draw of portable MP3 players is quantity.

I remember when my wife and I took a six-month backpacking trip back in 1999. We never even considered bringing an MP3 player, which might have had a whopping 64MB of flash memory, enough for about a hour of audio compressed at 256kbps. Instead, we brought a Discman and about two dozen CDs in a soft case. We grew extremely bored with those CDs and ended up jettisoning or trading most of them.

In 2017, a 120GB player could seem as ridiculous as a 64MB player does today. Microsoft

Today, you'd laugh if somebody told you they were considering bringing CDs on a trip--why would you, when all but the most hardcore collectors could fit their entire music collection onto a hard-drive based player like the 120GB iPod Classic? I've even taken a stand against the audiophiles who decry MP3s and compressed audio--I think portability is worth the quality loss you have to endure, as long as you occasionally listen to uncompressed (or better, live) music to remind yourself how great it can sound.

But I've always assumed that this is a temporary state of affairs. Kryder's Law--which says that density of data on magnetic discs will approximately double each year--is presumably going to continue, and advances in flash-based storage could lead to an exponential jump in capacity. Of course, we'll all be listening to lossless files on our portable player someday. Right?

That's why it surprised me when a report by Todd Bishop--a former Microsoft reporter for one of Seattle's daily papers, who recently helped start a new Seattle-based tech site called TechFlash--cited representatives from Amazon's MP3 store and Rhapsody saying that they weren't really thinking about lossless music.

Selling lossless files won't make sense for the next year or two because of space constraints and the fact that many players (such as the iPod Shuffle) can't play them. But what about in 5, 6, 10 years? Don't you think kids who grew up with compressed files would switch to better quality audio if it cost the same amount? Don't you think they would notice the difference?

I think so. And Microsoft apparently does too. A Zune representative told Bishop she has a hunch that lossless audio will become extremely important in the future (although today's Zunes don't support playback of any audio at a higher bitrate than 320kbps, meaning they won't play back any lossless files). Her stance is in keeping with Microsoft's corporate culture, which has always bet on the next generation of hardware. With the exception of Vista, which received a media drubbing in part because of the steep hardware requirements for the Premium versions, most of the time this has turned out to be the right bet.