High-Resolution Audio: About to Go Mainstream, or Just a Pipe-Dream?

Two articles, approaching the same question, that of the future of high-resolution audio, came across my radar this week. They arrived at opposite conclusions. This often happens in the tech industry, and it’s interesting to examine them and see why the two authors disagree.

First, let me define some terms. High resolution audio is any digital audio files that are of a resolution higher than that of CDs. The CD is defined as containing audio at 16-bit, 44,100 Hz. The sample rate – that’s the 44,100 HZ, or 44.1 KHz – is the number of samples per second. Think of this as the way film has a number of frames per second; the 24 frames per second of a movie are enough to trick a viewer into thinking that the picture is moving, and not a series of stills. With audio, it’s a bit more complicated, but the sample rate needs to be twice the maximum frequency of the audio. You’ve probably seen that most audio equipment maxes out at 20,000 HZ; so 44,100 is a bit more than twice that. The bit depth – that’s the 16 bits – is the number of bits of data in each sample, and defines how much detail is in each sample.

High-resolution audio is any audio file that exceeds either of these limits. So this could be a 24-bit, 44.1 KHz file, or a 16-bit, 96 KHz file, though in most cases, the bit depth is higher than 16.

High resolution audio files are available from a number of venders, and it can range from 24/44.1 to as high as 24/192. To listen to these files, you need a digital-analog converter (DAC) that can handle these resolutions. You don’t need any special amp or speakers, though if your speakers, like most, don’t go much higher than 20 KHz, they won’t play back the high end of the music. In fact, your ears certainly won’t go that high; mine go to about 13 KHz.

So, why do two authors come up with contradictory conclusions? Macworld’s Jon Seff, writing for TechHive, points out that it’s easy to see the difference between SD and HD video, but says, ” I fail to see a future in which the masses invest the time and money necessary to take audio to the same level as video in people’s minds. [...] sometimes good enough is, well, good enough.”

Seff points out that music is an area where “people have gotten used to convenience over sound quality,” and this is clearly the case. Since it’s very, very difficult to hear the difference between standard audio files and compressed files (at, say, 256 kbps), hearing the difference between a CD and a high-resolution file is unlikely. There’s certainly a placebo effect involved; when someone pays twice as much for a hi-res file as a CD, they’ll be likely to want the music to sound better.

The second article is by Andrew Everard, Gramophone magazine’s hi-fi writer. For Everard, “We’ve been peering nervously over the edge for too many years: now’s the time for the audio industry to take its next great leap.” He tests audio equipment, and it’s possible that his ears are more sensitive than Seff’s, or than mine. But I’d like to see him do a blind test with some CD-quality files and hi-res files.

I’ve got a bunch of hi-res files, and a DAC, and I’m hard pressed to hear the difference. It’s hard to do a blind test, and that’s the only way you can tell. If you know what you’re listening to, then it’s not a test; it’s a test of the placebo effect, perhaps, but nothing more.

I think Jon Seff has the right answer. We listen to music in a variety of settings, and only in a perfect environment would it be possible to truly appreciate high-resolution audio. The number of people who have a perfectly configured listening room – and the funds to outfit it – are few and far between. Music can certainly sound better with better equipment; when I upgraded some of my hi-fi equipment last year, especially speakers, I was impressed by the difference. But there’s a law of diminishing returns, and the few people who spend thousands of dollars on cables and wires should seriously consider their investments.

This is an issue that can’t have a firm answer. As long as people are prepared to spend more money on audio equipment and media, the market will happily serve them. But whether or not it’s worth spending what these files cost, and what is needed for equipment to correctly play them back, well, that’s up in the air. If you can’t do a blind test, don’t believe what you read.

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9 replies
  1. Scott Atkinson says:

    I’m hugely frustrated in this area: you can either buy lossy files, which are *probably* good enough but maybe, just maybe you can hear a difference, or you can spend silly amounts of money to buy hi-res files. What you can’t easily, routinely, cheaply buy is cd quality files.

    I can go to the record store 60 miles from my home and buy Blue Note and Verve CD reissues of jazz albums from the 50s and 60s for anywhere from $5.99 to $9.99, which strikes me as about the right price. It’s insane to have to spend $17.98 for, say, a Wayne Shorter album from 1968 that’s allegedly high resolution.

    I keep thinking I can hear a slight difference between CD quality files and lossy 320 mp3 files or 256 AAC files – though that may have much more to do with streaming them out of my Macbook to a dirt cheap USB dac – so for my own irrational satisfaction would like to be able to get CD quality. I would think that record companies would, at this late date, see a reasonable business model in supplying full quality files. CD sales can’t get much worse, and hi-res is always going to be a niche product. Hell, CD quality’s probably a niche product at this point.

    Scott A.
    Watertown NY

    • kirk says:

      Yes, while you can buy FLAC or Apple Lossless files – CD quality files – from some vendors, there aren’t that many. Independent labels sell them, in many cases, but you won’t find the majors selling that type of file.

      • Scott Atkinson says:

        I’m at the point in life where I really don’t want to own any more stuff, but would still like to buy new music.Yet the economics keep beating me – I wanted to buy John Lee Hooker’s “Serve You Right To Suffer” and Muddy Waters’ “Folk Singer” this week and in both cases it was cheaper to buy the disc from Amazon than the iTunes equivalent, even with shipping. (I have Amazon Prime.) Plus, Amazon provided auto-rips of both albums. So I a.) spent less, b.) ultimately get something I can make into a better quality set of files and c.) don’t sacrifice the convenience of “now.” Only thing is, I have two more CDs.

        I just don’t understand why I couldn’t have given Amazon or Apple or someone the same amount of money, skipped the physical product (which I would think would make the seller happy) and ended up with what I want.

  2. Shaun Hutchinson says:

    Great comments I feel the same I’m buying CD’s for the same reason, after getting rid of them 4 years ago!
    For me Apple lossless is perfect, good balance of space vs sound quality, if you are going to rip your CD’s just do it once properly, I can always shrink for iPod shuffle etc.
    I have been lucky to hear and play music on some of the best club systems in Miami New York & London. When you play lossless files on systems like this is sounds so much better than 320 mp3.
    On a more practical note I do most of my listening on headphones (I’ve got 2 kids the days of a HIFI room are over! I can honestly tell the difference between a 320 mp3 and a lossless file, it’s crisper and fuller to my ears, if I buy a new techno track as AIFF from Beatport it sounds incredible lossless – FAT BASS!
    I’ve also got now quite a few 24 bit files that I convert with XLD for my iPhone – Heavy Weather & Black Market sound unbelievable even for albums made nearly 40 years ago. I got a few recent ECM records via HD tracks they sound beautiful in 24bit. However when I play them via My HIFI you can’t tell a huge difference, it’s the headphones that are the litmus test for me.
    Also I like to do things properly by ripping to lossless I’ve done the job properly, once. space is getting cheaper why not?
    Off to listen to a 24 bit version of the new Boards Of Canada album – perfect. ♫♬♫♬♫♬

  3. Des Dougan says:


    In your article are you conflating the digital sample rate and the audio frequency (e.g. the 13 KHz that you’re able to hear)? Or is there a direct correlation between sample rate and analog frequency? I used to be very into hi-fi but that was a long time ago and very pre-digital, so this is a genuine question.

  4. Shaun Hutchinson says:

    Kirk what Bluetooth headphones did you buy, the new Bose ones? I’d like some myself. Thanks Shaun


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