What is High-Resolution Audio?
The term high-resolution audio – or hi-res audio, for short – refers to music files that
have a higher sampling frequency and ‘bit depth’ than the standard used by CD.
This ensures that the music you hear is closer in quality to the original studio recordings, and audiophiles argue that it brings greater texture, dynamics, and detail to your favorite tunes.
How does it make a difference?
As a rule, the greater the number of bits and the higher the sample rate, the better the sound quality. Hi-res audio files are 24-bit and typically use a sampling frequency of 96kHz or 192kHz. They also have a bitrate of 9,216 kilobits per second (Kbps), which refers to the amount of data that’s transferred every second. What’s more, hi-res audio is a lossless format, so the sound it produces is as pure as you could ever hope to get.
Is it better than MP3?
Goodness, yes. MP3 is a lossy compression format, which means chunks of seemingly superfluous data are discarded during the encoding process. This sacrifices some audio quality because it removes a good portion of a music track’s subtleties. You only have to compare the bitrates of MP3 and hi-res audio files to see how stark this difference is. MP3 files have bitrates that typically range from 96Kbps to 320Kbps. Hi-res audio, as we’ve said, has a whopping 9,216Kbps.
Why have we stuck with MP3 for so long, then?
Purely for convenience. MP3 files are small compared with their CD and hi-res audio equivalents, which made them ideal when portable music players didn’t have much storage space and internet speeds were sluggish. People simply wanted to fit as many MP3 files as they could on their devices and not spend ages downloading them. As a
compromise, we simply put up with listening to the lower-quality sound.
So what’s changed?
Fast broadband has sparked a demand for quality once again, and many music lovers no longer accept that MP3s retain everything the human ear can hear while discarding the rest. We want to enjoy a CD-quality sound and beyond while retaining portability.
Thankfully, hi-res audio lets us have our cake and eat it.
But weren’t we told that CD is as good as it gets?
Yes, and many people still argue that the sound from CD is the best you can hear.
To get technical again, CDs transfer data at 1,411Kbps and use a sampling rate of 44.1kHz with 16-bit depth. This sampling rate dates back to its use by Sony in 1979, and it was selected following a debate among manufacturers, including Philips. They came to the conclusion that there was no point in going beyond this quality because we wouldn’t be able to hear the frequencies and dynamics reproduced.
How do I listen to hi-res audio?
There are several online stores that sell hi-res audio downloads. One of the best is 7digital (www.7digital.com), which has a section labeled Hi-Res/FLAC that’s full of music at reasonable prices. You can also visit HDtracks (hdtracks.co.uk), iTrax (www.itrax.com), Bleep (www.bleep.com) and Bandcamp (www.bandcamp.com).
The latter is particularly good for discovering new music.
Can I listen on my phone?
Some smartphones can handle tunes at 24-bit/192kHz quality, including the Sony Xperia Z5, the Samsung Galaxy S7 and even the iPhone 7 (although you’ll need to download an iOS app such as Onkyo HF Player or VLC for Mobile for iOS).
Don’t skimp on the speakers or headphones if you want the best quality from any setup, either. Sony makes an extensive range of hi-res audio products, which you can see at https://www.sony.com/electronics/hi-res-audio
WHICH FILE FORMATS SUPPORT HI-RES AUDIO?
Many products now carry the Hi-Res Audio logo, even though there’s no agreed standard for the format yet. That hasn’t stopped record labels coming up with a formal definition,
however, which describes hi-res audio as “lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better than CD-quality
music sources”. These are the most typical formats
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