Apple just upped the ante in the world of iTunes audio, having finally launched its Mastered for iTunes campaign. Essentially, the world’s most popular music outlet has started an initiative to assist sound engineers in creating the maximum fidelity possible within iTunes’ current 256Kbps constraints. So far, the new section contains around 100 albums, variously representative of rhythm and rock through the ages, with plenty more to come.

While it remains unclear exactly how far-reaching these plans actually are, we expect Apple to slowly build out its Mastered library over the next several years. For studios and publishers working on unreleased records, Apple has put together an expository primer and a software package to aid their high(er) fidelity iTunes transitions. PC Mag has the specifics:

Apple is now providing a freely available set of tools for mastering engineers: Master for iTunes Droplet is a drag-and-drop program that lets you encode uncompressed masters in iTunes Plus format; afclip, which checks any file for clipping distortion; and AURoundTripAAC Audio Unit (catchy!), which compares an iTunes Plus file to the source to check for clipping in a different way.

Apple is relying on its own CAF (Core Audio File) format for these tools, which could pose compatibility issues with some existing digital audio workstations depending on workflow. For example, Apple’s Logic Pro 9 and Avid Pro Tools 10 support CAF, but Cakewalk SONAR X1 and Steinberg Cubase 6 don’t. That shouldn’t be a problem in most situations, since we’re talking about the delivery portion of the mastering stage, but it’s worth noting.

Unfortunately, these measures are little more than a technical stopgap. Compressed audio files of this sort, no matter how efficiently copied or cleverly crafted, simply cannot replicate the quality of true lossless audio. As PC Mag says,

it’s impossible to achieve the level of detail previously available on CDs, let alone SACD or DVD Audio. An ideal solution would have been to skip this latest step entirely, and simply make available Apple Lossless (or even 24-bit) digital masters through iTunes directly—files that you can already buy from HDTracks and other online stores, albeit from somewhat limited catalogs.

Still, such files carry much larger footprints, and it’s undeniably in Apple’s best interests to keep individual track sizes low enough to download over typical 3G connections. Indeed, until the world’s cellular carriers upgrade their networks (and network management!) enough to handle heavier traffic demands, there will always be a place for the lowly AAC and MP3.