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Spotify for iOS now streaming at 320Kbps

That's CD-quality, folks, giving this premium subscription service a leg up over the likes of Pandora and Slacker. But is higher fidelity worth the money?

Spotify Ltd.

There was a time when streaming audio meant sacrificing fidelity. Many early Internet radio stations delivered an AM-quality 64Kbps stream, while the "good ones" topped out at 128Kbps.

Even Spotify for iOS, the app version of the popular music service (which CNET called "the best free music option since stealing"), could muster only 160Kbps--a bit better than FM radio, but a far cry from CD-quality.

My, how times have changed: Spotify for iOS can now stream music at 320Kbps.

That's a big deal for folks who typically listen through headphones, which is where you can really detect the difference in bit rate. But that big a jump will be noticeable regardless of where you listen, be it through a speaker dock or your iDevice's own speaker.

Indeed, at this very moment I'm listening to my personal music hero, Brendan Benson, through an Altec Lansing speaker dock, and it sounds amazing--far better, I must admit, than Pandora One, which streams at 192Kbps.

There are a couple caveats. First, to use the Spotify app, you must subscribe to Spotify Premium, which runs $9.99 per month. (Thankfully, there's a 48-hour trial, which you can extend to 30 days by installing the Spotify desktop client, signing in, and inviting some friends.)

Second, 320Kbps streaming doesn't kick in automatically. You have to venture into the app's settings screen and bump the quality from the default Low to the new Extreme.

So let me ask you this: how important is audio fidelity to you? And would you pay for Spotify Premium when you can enjoy lower-bit-rate services like Pandora and Slacker for free? (And for other music service options, check out this post.)

Me, I'll choose free over fidelity every time--but, hey, I'm a cheapskate.