Digital music has forever changed the way people listen to their favorite tunes but many artists and sound engineers have been unhappy with the quality of distributed tracks thus far. Neil Young, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine have all gone on record to voice their concerns regarding the overall poor quality of today’s MP3s.

Up to this point, publishers have submitted CD masters to Apple for inclusion in the iTunes store. Tracks are then encoded using a “lossy” compression format called Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) before being made available for download. This is primarily done to reduce the overall size of the file which allows more songs to be stored on a single device.

These compression algorithms try their best to exclude data that most wouldn’t notice. And while they may sound great to the average listener, the fact is that the typical MP3 only retains 3 to 5 percent of the data from the original recording. Compact discs only contain 15 percent of the data that artists intend to be heard. The rest of the richness and complexity of the original track is forever lost.

Music icon Neil Young petitioned for Apple to improve the digital standard. Young met with Steve Jobs to discuss this very issue before his passing and it seems his persistence has paid off.

Apple has unveiled their Mastered for iTunes section featuring full albums and individual tracks that have been encoded using a full high-resolution file for improved fidelity. Music fans can now enjoy higher quality versions of albums from the likes of Coldplay, Madonna, Pink Floyd, U2 and Nirvana, just to name a few. Of course, only those with higher-quality audio equipment will likely hear any difference in the new recordings.
Cupertino has also published a technology brief (PDF) and new tools for sound engineers to use during the mastering process.