A Look at Apple's 'Mastered for iTunes' Program and its Effect on Sound Quality

Earlier this year, Apple began revealing more information about its Mastered for iTunes program, requesting that music professionals supply Apple with higher-quality recordings as source material for the compressed tracks made available for sale through the iTunes Store. The higher-quality source material, processed according to Apple's guidelines, is being requested to allow Apple to create better-sounding tracks in the 256 kbps AAC format used for the iTunes Store.

mastered for itunes logo
Ars Technica takes a thorough look at the Mastered for iTunes program and whether it truly does make a difference to consumers. While the whole article is an interesting read on some of the technical details of audio formats and mastering and the varying perspectives of several music industry professionals, Ars' conclusion is that the Mastered for iTunes program can make a difference in quality of iTunes Store music.

We enlisted Chicago Mastering Service engineers Jason Ward and Bob Weston to help us out, both of whom were somewhat skeptical that any knob tweaking could result in a better iTunes experience. We came away from the process learning that it absolutely is possible to improve the quality of compressed iTunes Plus tracks with a little bit of work, that Apple's improved compression process does result in a better sound, and that 24/96 files aren't a good format for consumers.

Ars worked with a number of audio engineers on test projects comparing various combinations of original 24-bit, 96 kHz master recordings, uncompressed WAV files ripped from CDs, standard iTunes Store tracks, and tracks created by applying Apple's Mastered for iTunes process to the master recordings. In one example, a standard iTunes Store track sounded "boxy" or "muffled" compared to the original CD master WAV file, but after processing through Mastered for iTunes tools, the resulting track sounded significantly better and more "alive" on a subjective basis.

Part of the difficulty in assessing sound quality comes from the emotional response involved in how sounds register to human ears. Some differences in sound quality can be quantified using various tools to analyze the waveforms generated by different audio files, but the ultimate measure of sound quality lies with the human ears receiving and interpreting the sounds.

Nevertheless, Apple markets the Mastered for iTunes program as providing a path for musicians and music professionals to have iTunes Store content more closely match "music as the artist and sound engineer intended", and more and more musicians are taking advantage of the program in attempting to improve the quality of their music available through the world's most popular music vendor.

Top Rated Comments

iBug2 Avatar
115 months ago
I still don't understand why they are not selling ALAC. The huge datacenters they built should support those transfers easily nowadays.
Score: 34 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Exhale Avatar
115 months ago
Unfortunately until "Mastering Engineers" stop with the "Loud is good (//www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tUhguPckZQ&t=5s)" ********, none of this matters.

Its literally the practice of polishing a turd.
Score: 29 Votes (Like | Disagree)
AppleDroid Avatar
115 months ago
I still don't understand why they are not selling ALAC. The huge datacenters they built should support those transfers easily nowadays.

This. All I want is a higher quality master copy of my digital songs. 128-256 is great for my ipod + headphones but there's a huge difference playing lossless files through my 7.1 setup vs compressed audio files.

I realize I'm in the minority but it has always felt wrong buying less-than-cd-quality tracks as my "master copy".
Score: 22 Votes (Like | Disagree)
doctorossi Avatar
115 months ago
I still don't understand why they are not selling ALAC. The huge datacenters they built should support those transfers easily nowadays.

I have the same question. I bought into the iTunes ecosystem only when the iPod started supporting ALAC playback and I expected ALAC content on iTunes to be just around the corner.

Here we are in 2012 and I've never purchased a song from iTunes. If they started selling them in ALAC, I would buy hundreds.
Score: 15 Votes (Like | Disagree)
AppleScruff1 Avatar
115 months ago
Once you go FLAC, you'll never go back.
Score: 14 Votes (Like | Disagree)
ghostface147 Avatar
115 months ago
Me too...sell me a NON-APPLE PROPRIETARY LOSSLESS FORMAT (such as WAV, APE, FLAC) and I would buy hundreds of songs a year. I own 0 from iTunes. I have over 24,000 songs...all ripped from my cds that I purchase each week from Amazon below $10 a pop with free shipping and 0 tax.

Apple open sourced ALAC late last year as well as made it royalty free.
Score: 12 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

microsoft edge ios android

Bill Gates Says His Preference for Android Over iPhone is Due to Pre-Installed Software

Friday February 26, 2021 3:35 am PST by
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates this week participated in his first meeting on Clubhouse, the increasingly popular invite-only conversation app, where he fielded a range of questions as part of an ongoing book tour. Gates was interviewed by journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, and given that the Clubhouse app is currently only available on iOS, naturally one of the questions that came up was...
First Look Big Sur Feature2

Apple Releases macOS Big Sur 11.2.2 to Prevent MacBooks From Being Damaged by Third-Party Non-Compliant Docks

Thursday February 25, 2021 10:07 am PST by
Apple today released macOS Big Sur 11.2.2, the fourth update to the macOS Big Sur operating system that launched in November. macOS Big Sur 11.2.2 comes two weeks after the release of macOS Big Sur 11.2.1, a bug fix update. The new ‌‌‌‌macOS Big Sur‌‌‌ 11.2.2‌ update can be downloaded for free on all eligible Macs using the Software Update section of System Preferences....
flat mbp 14 inch feature yellow

Redesigned 14-Inch MacBook Pro Expected to Feature Brighter Mini-LED Display With Slimmer Bezels and More

Thursday February 25, 2021 7:48 am PST by
Apple plans to unveil new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models with Mini-LED-backlit displays in the second half of this year, according to industry sources cited by Taiwanese supply chain publication DigiTimes. The report claims that Radiant Opto-Electronics will be the exclusive supplier of the Mini-LED backlight units, while Quanta Computer is said to be tasked with final assembly of the...
jon prosser imac 2021colors

Prosser: 2021 iMac to Come in Five Colors, Apple Silicon Mac Pro to Resemble 'Stacked' Mac Minis

Wednesday February 24, 2021 7:26 am PST by
Hit-and-miss leaker Jon Prosser has today alleged that the upcoming 2021 iMac models will offer five color options, mirroring the colors of the fourth-generation iPad Air, and revealed a number of additional details about the Mac Pro with Apple Silicon. In a new video on YouTube channel FrontPageTech, Prosser explained that the redesigned iMacs will come featuring options for Silver, Space ...
steam apple logo

Valve Ordered to Give Apple Information on 436 Steam Games As Part of Epic Games Legal Case

Thursday February 25, 2021 1:50 am PST by
Valve, the makers behind popular game distribution platform Steam, will be forced to hand over aggregate historical sales, price, and other information on 436 games hosted on the store to Apple, as part of the Apple vs. Epic Games antitrust case. As reported in a paywalled report by Law360, during a virtual discovery hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas S. Hixson ordered that...
apple store macarthur center

Apple Store at MacArthur Center in Virginia Permanently Closing Following Years of Safety Issues at Shopping Mall

Thursday February 25, 2021 4:45 pm PST by
Apple today indicated that its retail store at the MacArthur Center shopping mall in Norfolk, Virginia will be permanently closing after over 14 years of business, although an exact closure date has yet to be announced by the company. Apple has assured that it will be offering all employees at the store other positions within Apple, and said that it looks forward to continuing to serve...
m1 mac mini

M1 Mac Users Report Excessive SSD Wear

Tuesday February 23, 2021 7:07 am PST by
Over the past week, some M1 Mac users have been reporting alarming SSD health readings, suggesting that these devices are writing extraordinary amounts of data to their drives (via iMore). Across Twitter and the MacRumors forums, users are reporting that M1 Macs are experiencing extremely high drive writes over a short space of time. In what appear to be the most severe cases, M1 Macs are sai...
apple refurbished m1 mac mini

Apple Begins Selling Refurbished M1 Mac Mini

Thursday February 25, 2021 6:42 pm PST by
Apple today began selling certified refurbished Mac mini models with the M1 chip for the first time in the United States and Canada, with prices discounted by approximately 15 percent compared to brand new models as usual. For example, a refurbished Mac mini with the M1 chip, 256GB of SSD storage, and 16GB of unified memory is available for $759, compared to $899 brand new. Other custom...
qualcomm snapdragon x60 5g

iPhone 13 Lineup Expected to Use Qualcomm's Snapdragon X60 Modem With Several 5G Improvements

Wednesday February 24, 2021 8:10 am PST by
Apple's next-generation iPhone 13 lineup will use Qualcomm's Snapdragon X60 5G modem, with Samsung to handle manufacturing of the chip, according to DigiTimes. Built on a 5nm process, the X60 packs higher power efficiency into a smaller footprint compared to the 7nm-based Snapdragon X55 modem used in iPhone 12 models, which could contribute to longer battery life. With the X60 modem, iPhone...
2021 mbp sd slot feature2

Kuo: New MacBook Pro Models With HDMI Port and SD Card Reader to Launch Later This Year

Monday February 22, 2021 8:52 pm PST by
Apple plans to release two new MacBook Pro models equipped with an HDMI port and SD card reader in the second half of 2021, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who outlined his expectations in a research note obtained by MacRumors. The return of an SD card reader was first reported by Bloomberg's Mark Gurman last month. "We predict that Apple's two new MacBook Pro models in 2H21 will have...