Hi-Res audio is supposed to be the be all and end all in digital music.
But what does the little gold and black ‘Hi-Res Audio’ logo mean.
Is Hi-Res Audio really such a big deal? Should you pay attention to it? How is it different to other digital music files? And what do you need to listen to it?
What is Hi-Res?
In actual fact, Hi-Res is about audio codecs (coding or decoding of digital data stream of audio).
We are basically talking about the algorithms used to turn a recording into the files we actually play on our phones and digital media players. They’re generally much smaller than the stereo master files that would be produced at the music studio end. Otherwise each of our albums would take up a couple of gigabytes, rather than a few hundred megabytes.
Probably the most famous of these algorithms are MP3 and AAC (iTunes).
These low data cost codecs such as AAC (iTunes) and Ogg Vorbis (Spotify) are great to stream music while you sit on the bus as you listen to your iPod or Smartphone. But anybody slightly serious about music wouldn’t be satisfied with the quality and the fact that these files are compressed with a lot of data that is lost during the encoding process.
Music lovers believe that more information boast greater detail and texture. It brings listeners closer to the original performance. This can only be a good thing, especially now that more and more companies like FiiO, Topping, Aune, Chord and others offer portable High-Res playing devices. Some of them surprisingly affordable.
But what does Hi-Res mean? In 2014 an agreement on what defines ‘hi-res audio’ was made.
They came up with this definition: “Lossless audio can reproduce the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better-than-CD-quality music sources.”
It’s important to point out that unlike high-definition video, which has to meet certain criteria to earn the name, there’s no universal standard for hi-res audio. It basically is a catch-all term for any audio format that exceeds CD quality.
To quantify things a little bit: CD quality offers a bit depth of 16-bit and a sampling rate of 44.1KHz. Hi-Res Audio on the other hand is generally available in 24-bit, 96KHz format. Sampling frequency refers to the number of times samples are taken per second when the analogue sound waves are converted into digital. The more bits there are, the more accurately the signal can be measured in the first place. The difference between 16 and 24 bit sampling is a big step up and a study recently confirmed that people can tell the difference. (We’re getting ideas for a blind test here)
Hi-Res in layman’s terms
What HiFi makes the following comparison, that I think is very descriptive:
‘The best way of describing it is to imagine looking at a beautiful countryside scene on a sunny day through a smeared window. That’s the MP3 version.
Clean the windows and you have the CD with much greater detail and clarity. But open the window and you’ve got the Hi-Res version, where the eye can pick out pinpoint detail that you didn’t realize was missing with the windows shut.
Once you’re equipped with some decent Hi-Res gear the thing most likely to spoil the party will be poorly recorded or mastered music. Like a great black cloud blocking out the sunshine.
Play your favorite tracks however and expect to be taken to unprecedented levels of enjoyment and make emotional connections you never imagined possible.’
Hi-Res Audio formats
The most popular lossless audio formats include FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV and DSD.
FLAC is probably the most popular lossless format out of all of these. FLAC was introduced in 2001 and is an open format, so there are no costs or controls associated with it, making it very popular. The size of the music files is still reduced dramatically but in a way where theoretically no information is lost.
ALAC is Apple’s version of a lossless format used in iTunes. It is an open format despite being an Apple product. It is very similar to FLAC apart from the fact that in true Apple fashion, Apple products can only play ALAC files.
DSD is the true audiophile digital format, created by Philips and Sony for use in Super Audio CDs (SACD’s). Despite boasting some pretty impressive sampling rates, DSD is still rather limited in availability to the masses.
AIFF and WAV have been around for a long time. The downside of these formats is that they are very large and the files simply take up a lot of space.
One would think that DSD ( and with it SACDs) would be the pick of the bunch. But it’s taking it’s sweet time to become the mainstream option. With AIFF and WAV taking up so much space and offering inferior metadata support to FLAC; ALAC or FLAC sort of become the obvious choice for a lot of people. Since these formats can easily be converted, it doesn’t matter too much which one you pick.
TIDAL Masters and MQA
While there are other online spots for downloading your Hi-Res files like HD Tracks and Accoustic Sounds, record labels specializing in hi-Res recordings (Bluecoast records and Channel classics for examples) and Hi-fi brands turning their hand on Hi-Res downloads, it’s probably TIDAL Masters that makes the biggest play of its high quality audio offering.
We mentioned earlier file size as a big downside of Hi-Res Audio; Enter MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) files that fall a little short of 24-bit, but still fulfil the whole ‘better than CD-quality’ brief .
The beauty of MQA is that MQA files deliver this higher quality audio without requiring a monster internet connection or hefty data allowance. This makes it possible to stream Hi-Res Audio from your iPhone or Android Smartphone (see further). No need to explain why many see it as the next big audio format for the streaming generation. We’ve written a blog about MQA in the past, so we refer you there for more information on MQA.
A word of caution around Hi-Res
So, with our Hi-Res files and downloads sorted (or let’s say as sorted as it gets). What else is needed to play Hi-Res files?
First of all we have this to say. Just because a product doesn’t have the Hi-Res logo doesn’t mean it doesn’t reach the standard. Manufacturers have to pay to use the logo. So it’s worth looking at specs if you want to be sure.
On the flip side of that, all of these Hi-Res logo products needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. The Hi-Res logo is nothing more than just a technical specification (and ultimately, clever marketing ploy. Headphones for instance have been capable of this bandwidth long before the Hi-Res Audio logo). It doesn’t say anything about the balance, timing, dynamics, detail or anything else that makes a pair of headphones great, just as an example. .
But back to our Hi-Res devices.
What do you need to play Hi-Res?
It’s not as simple as just getting the Hi-Res files downloaded and played through your laptop. Every single device that deals with Hi-Res needs to be able to handle it. After all, the file has the information. But that information is worth nothing if your player is not capable of sonically replicating that info. Which devices you will need depends a lot on how you want to listen.
Hi-Res on the go
If you take your music on the go, you’ll need a Hi-Res supporting smartphone, iPhone or portable music player. There are a number of ways to get there, but this is the most straight forward way in our book.
Android devices already supported on TIDAL, but you can now also stream MQA encoded music (TIDAL Masters) to your iPhone. (This is very new!). Add the Audioquest Dragonfly and you’re off. You need the Dragonfly DAC because while Tidal’s app on your phone performs the first ‘unfold’, you also need a connected DAC that is beyond mediocre to handle that greater-than-24/96…music. Makes sense?
Even headphones go after the Hi-Res logo. They need to produce an upper frequency of at least 40kHz to be allowed to carry the label. This includes certain headphones from most headphone brands like Beyerdynamic, as well as Audio Technica and Shure.
As for portable music players, many of you are probably familiar with the FiiO portable music player range that’ll handle 24-bit 192KHz FLAC and ALAC files, among others, showing that you don’t need to spend an awful lot of money to get on-board the Hi-Res wagon.
Aune is a brand that is also affordable and mainly known in audiophile circles.
Chord Poly enables the award-winning Mojo headphone amp/DAC as a fully-fledged high-resolution wireless network music player, streamer and SD card playback device. It offers wireless playback and control from smartphones.
Hi-Res at home
From AV receivers and stereo amps to streamers, a growing number of products on the market handle high-resolution audio. This includes plenty of products from Rapallo brands (The new Pioneer UDP-LX500 Blu-ray player or the ARCAM CDS50 for CD/SACD playback anybody? Or what about the Cambridge Audio CXN (V2) network streamer? The ELAC Discovery music server? Or …). There remains a certain amount of variation when it comes to file handling and maximum bitrate support on different devices. So check the specifications match your requirements before you buy a new product.
As for multi-room audio in Hi-Res, there is life beyond Bluesound and its hefty price tag: the new RIVA Stadium tabletop and RIVA Concert compact portable Smart speakers are the most recent updates of the bestselling RIVA speaker brand.