2021 will have been the year that Apple finally embraced lossless music streaming and prices for hi-fi listening came down at Amazon and Tidal. But the biggest subscription music service of all, Spotify, seems likely to miss its original target for launching a higher-quality streaming plan.
Spotify HiFi, first announced all the way back in February, has yet to roll out despite the company’s early estimate that it would debut “later this year.” At the time, Spotify said HiFi would be available in select markets and that the company would “have more details to share soon.”
Over the next 10 months, those details never came.
Meanwhile, Spotify’s competitors didn’t wait around. Apple Music rolled out lossless and hi-res playback in June, offering the improved audio quality at no extra charge. Before that shift, services like Amazon Music Unlimited and Tidal had been demanding an added premium for the feature. But on the same day that Apple announced its plans for lossless streaming, Amazon said it would ditch the higher subscription price and include HD quality as part of the regular premium plan. It’s officially table stakes now.
There have been occasional signs of Spotify HiFi throughout the year; a “HiFi” button could (very briefly) be spotted in the app back in May — complete with explainers on using the feature. And an onboarding video for HiFi was leaked in August.
As 2021 stretched on, Spotify had a lot to say about podcasts but kept mum on the subject of HiFi and declined comment whenever The Verge asked about its status. Barring a last-minute holiday surprise, it seems we’ll be waiting until sometime in 2022 for Spotify HiFi. Hugely popular platforms tend to avoid launching major new features at the tail end of the year.
It’s possible that Spotify has had second thoughts about launching the feature — or at least is no longer in a rush to deliver it. You could argue that the company doesn’t need to bother with HiFi at all. Spotify already enjoys powerful mindshare with consumers for its playlist algorithms and user experience; the recent wave of Spotify Wrapped posts across social media was another fresh reminder of that.
Plus, there’s no longer any financial incentive. Apple has essentially forced Spotify’s hand to offer CD-quality streaming without wringing more money from customers. And if it’s not contributing to the bottom line, what’s the point? There’s also the possibility that Spotify ran into a legal quagmire in trying to update its music deals for HiFi.
Lossless music is fundamentally a niche feature that’s at odds with how music is often consumed these days. In a world of Bluetooth headphones and earbuds, Apple and Amazon are far more interested in hyping spatial Dolby Atmos audio than higher-bitrate streams that only shine on expensive gear. Even then, some people just can’t distinguish it from the standard, lossy quality they’ve been listening to for years. Spotify has yet to confirm whether it too will offer Atmos tracks — or even hi-res audio that exceeds 16-bit/44.1kHz.
Personally, I still hope Spotify HiFi does eventually launch. There’s a significant ecosystem of speaker hardware that’s compatible with Spotify Connect, making it easier and more convenient to enjoy the extra fidelity. And as we progress further into the streaming era, it feels like the option to enjoy music at higher quality should be there for those who want it.