High-resolution audio, in short, is a high-quality sound experience. It is available in almost any format, including streaming and download options. But you don’t have to be an expert, or pitch-perfect to enjoy it. You may not even know terms like bit depth or 44.1 kHz. Though when you listen to a high-resolution audio format, the details it conveys may affect your feelings and emotions as much as your analytical skills.
Overall, you will enjoy the music more and take-it-in in greater detail. You can imagine why it’s important for music lovers and filmmakers. Several other industries employ this modern invention daily.
In order to completely understand hi-res audio, we have to look at how the sound was recorded and reproduced throughout the years and how sound quality has changed.
We can divide this music evolution into 3 groups: analog, digital and digitally compressed.
Analog recordings such as vinyl records, even to this day, can have great value, because of the high quality and details of sound they convey. Other kinds of analog recordings are magnetic tape and wax cylinders. They all capture and reproduce the sound vibrations directly. Though they can provide an enjoyable and detailed sound quality, they are physical and fragile objects. This means they are not ideal formats for storing large music libraries and make it difficult to stream, share and download.
The need for a more practical way of recording and storing music became a partially digital solution, the CD. In this case, the sound vibration is captured and then converted to a series of coordinates called binary code.
When we listen to music recorded on a CD, a digital-analog converter can recognize the code and reproduce the sound with a similar bit depth. When Sony & Philips came up with this idea, they had to figure out what could provide a good listening experience, while also being practical to use.
They had to consider how the quality of the recorded music would be determined. The recording quality is determined by sampling rates and bitrate. The sampling frequency shows how many of the coordinates are captured per second. And the bitrate determines the height and energy of the coordinate. So low to high pitches and the dynamic range from quiet to loud.
They chose the sampling rates of 44.1 kHz each captured at a bitrate of 16-bits. This 16-bit 44.1 kHz structure describes the capacity and capability of the CD.
44.1 kHz sample rate gives us a range of reproducible frequencies of around 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz which is almost the capability of human hearing.
This means the CD is a great format that reproduces a wide range of sounds most humans can hear, but its physical qualities are still not ideal and the music can still not be streamed or downloaded.
But problems regularly lead to great inventions and this case is no. The next step in this sound evolution is the age of digitally compressed audio files. Despite bringing initially poorer sound quality to the table, it almost completely replaced the use of CDs. This solution provides smaller audio file sizes and has no physical size.
But they do allow data rate at streaming services between 120-300 kbps, and the downloadable formats are around 250 kbps.
At present, music is normally recorded onto computer drives using software such as Protocols, Ableton, and Logic. The music is then converted into digital audio and stored on a drive to be edited in the software. MP3 and AAC are an early developed file type that compresses data to achieve smaller file sizes. This is convenient for storing large music libraries on devices with minimum storage space available and requires no physical space. while compromising on sound quality. At present this compression is also used on most streaming services such as Spotify and Apple music.
What’s the difference?
What is the difference between digitally compressed audio files and hi-res audio formats? And most importantly, are we missing out on anything with digital audio files?
The most common high-resolution file formats are:
The quality of these file types can range from 16-bit 44.1 kHz CD-quality audio up to the highest high-resolution audio quality. This higher sampling rate means that the music was recorded and stored and can be reproduced in greater detail. Exactly as it was intended and created by the artists. The lows and highs are all there without compromise. So now we can enjoy studio-quality music in our homes or on our commute without the loss of audio quality.
The CD had already exhausted the concept of recording and storing audio within the range of human hearing, so it is fair to ask, why we would need more.
This is where the idea of greater detail and the emotional response and feelings come into place. We might not be able to describe exactly what we hear. But we use words like real, touching, or unbelievable to describe the difference between regular digitally compressed audio files, like MP3, and a hi-res super audio format.
These feelings are caused by the greater detail, higher quality and sound waves that go beyond the capability of traditional CD quality.
It can be compared to the difference between looking at the actual Mona Lisa painting in Paris. Standing a few feet from touching her face, seeing the brush strokes and details of the change in colors inch by inch. Or looking at a small size black and white photo of her, printed in the margins of an old art history book on a boring Monday afternoon.
Surely, the first one is more emotionally charged. This is why high-res music files are a great asset in the hands of filmmakers.
If we can experience the true liveliness and the intended character of the music while watching a sad or scary scene in a movie, it will have a huge impact on how we are going to think about the piece.
Music is already a very important tool in this industry, but lively, characteristic, emotionally effective lossless audio takes the result a step further.
So today, with these new file formats, super audio is not only a privilege of audio studios’ libraries. Now thanks to the use of portable quality audio players having high-quality DAC chips and also very large expandable storage, hi-res audio is available to everyone.
But the availability is not enough for enjoying audio files in the high-res audio formats. We also need the right equipment. Speakers or headphones must also reproduce high-resolution music files at the same quality as they were originally intended.
WAV and AIFF are raw uncompressed formats which are not commonly used for general listening due to their very large file sizes.
FLAC, ALAC, and DSD are the most commonly used formats for hi-res audio. They have fewer compression formats making the file sizes much smaller. They can also store metadata, which is all the information about that piece of music.
Hi-res audio has a minimum bit depth of 24-bits and a sample rate of up to 192 kHz. In comparison, remember the bit depth of a CD is 16-bits and the sample rate is 44.1 kHz. This means greater detail because of the higher sampling. Since the audio has been recorded at a much higher sample rate, it requires more storage as the data is much larger. The higher bit rate provides more decibels of dynamic range which means the 24-bit recording has a dynamic range of 144 compared to the 96 DB of a 16-bit CD recording.
Does High-res Audio Sound Better?
It definitely does. The difference between hi-res audio and a CD or MP3 is the quality and depth of the details in the sound.
High-res audio has a bit rate of 9,216 kbps which is nearly seven times higher than that of a CD which is only 1,411 kbps and almost 29 times higher than that of MP3 which is 320 kbps.
Bit rate has a direct impact on sound quality. A lower bit rate would translate into a softer base response or weaker sounding drum symbols. High res-audio gives the opposite effect because the high-res is compressed in such a way that no audio is lost. Compared to MP3 files, no information is lost through compression. Hi-res audio takes up a fair amount of space on the drive whilst still delivering high-quality sound.
Popular streaming services such as Spotify songs typically use a bit rate of 160 which is less than MP3s. They also provide “very high” streaming quality (up to 320 kbit/sec) though it is not close to what hi-res services offer.
Where can I download high-resolution audio?
High-resolution audio can be downloaded from several companies that cater to audiophiles and music lovers by offering the latest and the most beloved high-resolution hits. To name a few well-known examples:
- HDtracks – “HDtracks files include 44kHz / 24-bit all the way up to 352Khz / 24-bit. This extends the samples per second and dynamic range for a more accurate representation of the music because the formats sold in the store are the same as the multi-track recordings. This represents exactly how the artists, mixing and mastering engineers intend the music to sound before being downgraded for CDs and even further for mp3’s and streaming.”
- Qobuz – Available in France, UK, US, Netherlands, Italy, Spain. They offer 24-bit music streaming and 24-bit digital downloads.
- Super Hirez – They provide super-high-res DSD file formats for download in the US and Canada “DSD is a 1-bit sigma/delta recording system running at a very high sample rate. Where a CD is sampling at 44 thousand times a second, the effective sample rate with DSD is 2.8 million. It is a significant step closer to the infinite sample rate of real analog recording. When you listen to a pure DSD recording it is a very analog feeling. It gives us back what we lost when we went to digital in the early 80s. The feel you get when listening is like listening to analog tape. What you hear feels more believable.”
- Amazon Music HD – with more than double the bitrate of standard streaming services: they offer High Definition (HD) up to 850 kbps 16-bit / 44.1 kHz and the highest quality lossless audio (Hi-res audio) up to 3730 kbps 24 bit / 192 kHz, more than 10 times the bitrate of standard streaming services.
- Tidal – They provide Over 60 million tracks in the originally intended audio quality.
Are There High-res Equipment Requirements?
Do I need special equipment to listen to high-resolution audio? The device you use to play high-resolution music must have a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that is capable of processing high-resolution files.
Most computers, blue-ray players, and phones are capable. However, while most computers do have DACs that can process hi-resolution audio files, not all of them do a good job of it. And even when they do, the headphone output may be poor, yielding unimpressive results.
If you want the full experience, dedicated hi-res music players like those made by Sony, Fiio, and Pioneer are designed to specifically deliver a great hi-res audio experience, right out of the box.
Also, the headphones or speakers that you need must be certified to output sound at frequencies up to 40 kHz. Be on the lookout for products certified with the hi-res audio logo. In fact, headphones might be the most affordable way to experience high-res sound as there are some affordable open back headphones that are capable enough to deliver the experience.
Will I notice the difference of High-Resolution Audio?
Not everyone will notice the difference between the regular digitally compressed audio and the high-res audio.
Each set of ears is unique and there is no guarantee that you will be able to hear more detail from a high-res audio file, regardless of how your bitrate is or how expensive your speakers are.
Some factors contribute to what information our ears send our brains to process, but what if you had a history of ear infections as a child? Maybe you have low-frequency hearing loss from that. What if you’re a drummer and you haven’t worn earplugs for the past ten years? You may have a high-frequency noise-induced hearing loss.
So not everyone will hear the differences. But most people can hear a significant difference and enjoy it as well.
High-resolution audio is the next evolution of digital music. Just as television technology leaps every few years with the addition of more pixels that deliver increasingly greater detail in the image. So too has digital audio evolved from its roots in the mid-1980s with the launch of the compact disc.
Much has changed in how we listen to music. Many of us now collect our music online as downloads or enjoy live streams from internet-based music services.
Initially, sound quality gave up some ground to the convenience of cloud-based media and digital music libraries stored on our computers and smartphones. Now, with the advances in computer memory and processing power, and today’s faster internet speeds, music labels, audio equipment manufacturers, and their supporting retailers can deliver hi-res audio. The convenience of digital music with wide-bandwidth audio frequency range and improved dynamics exceed far beyond CD sound quality. It’s a difference that can be heard.