What Is High-Resolution Audio?
High Resolution Audio has been the talk of the town as of late, but what do you need to know to get that perfect sound?
What is High-Res audio?
High-Resolution Audio, or High-Res Audio, as you can probably guess, is audio signal that’s delivered at a higher quality than the CDs, MP3s and streaming services.
CDs, for example, are only standardised at 44.1kHz/16bit while the most commonly used High-Res Audio specifications are 24bit/96kHz and 24bit/192kHz, providing a noticeable improvement in sound quality.
Downloaded music sold as high res is mastered as 24 bits in sampling rates up to 192kHz. The ‘up to’ in that sentence is important because 192kHz material is still generally very rare. Even studio masters of many albums are not produced at this level as the processing required and the size of the files just aren’t going to be an option for most people! Albums mastered at 24/44.1, 24/88.2 and 24/96 are rather more common. Studios commonly work with these sampling rates so that the files are smaller and much more practical to download and stream via a wireless network. They might be compact but they still carry many times the information that a 16/44.1kHz sized CD file can.
The downloads themselves are available in a variety of formats. The most common format for downloads is FLAC. The open source nature of the format and the useful saving in space over a true uncompressed format starts to make a very big difference when you are dealing with albums that can be over a gigabyte in size. More recently, a number of sites have begun to offer downloads in the ALAC Apple Lossless format. This is useful for people using iTunes as their playback software.
The third format we think you’ve probably seen before: the WAV file, Windows uncompressed digital format. You’ll find no compression here! Although they’re generally larger than FLAC or ALAC files so you can be sure that you’re getting the file EXACTLY as it was intended. The obvious downside is that the extra space required does start to add up once you build yourself a nice collection. As WAV is also an older format, it does not support the tagging system that FLAC and ALAC does meaning you’ll have to put more effort into keeping your music collection organised.
So why has it not been readily available until now?
Ever since music has become readily available, fans have been itching to listen to tracks in as high a quality as possible. Essentially, technical limitations and cost have been holding us back from audio nirvana the entire time. The battle between being faithful to representing the sounds themselves while using viable technology at a reasonable price.
To meet cost and storage restraints artists and producers alike have typically been forced to down-sample the quality of their music, lowering the quality that us listeners ultimately end up hearing.
While this is more practical for everyday usage and storage, the end result doesn’t quite sound as good as its original recording.
So why are we advocates of high resolution audio that we simply can't benefit from?
Don’t worry, we’re not simply dismissing the faithful old CD. CD quality is still great. The problem for us is that while some material sounds incredible, quite a lot of it doesn’t! Much has been written about recent problems with the mastering and recording of music with reductions in the amount of dynamic range in some albums making them sound terrible on a good hifi system. We feel that our ATF upsampling and adjustable filters can alleviate some of these issues but obviously good quality recordings to start with will always come out on top.
Therefore beyond the measurements and arguments over human hearing, we feel that high res music has a role to play. As well as the technical benefits of 24 bit mastering which you can choose to believe is useful or not, they are generally recorded and mastered with far greater care and attention than many mainstream releases. For example, The 2nd Law by Muse. This is available on CD and as a 24/96kHz high res version and it is fair to say that the difference between the two versions is not small. This is in no small part because the high res version has completely different mastering and vastly greater dynamic range that gives the album a scale and depth that simply isn’t present on the CD mix recorded with radio broadcast and MP3 conversion in mind. Is this cheating? It may well be but we know which version we would rather listen to!
Great sign me up! where can I get my hands on some high-res audio?
More and more online stores are popping up left right and centre. Here are a few websites to get you started:
So shall I start binning my CDs and replacing my collection with High-Res?
Hold your horses! We aren’t saying that every High-Res album is perfect and that CD quality should now be a distant memory. However audio close to matching what the artist intended? That’s certainly something to get excited about!
So I've added High-Res audio to my collection. How do I make the most of it?
High-Res Audio can be listened to using dedicated network music players (Insert shameless plug to our streamers here). These can stream High-Res Audio music files over your home network from UPnP servers or NAS drives. You can also play directly from connected USB hard-drives.
Listening to High-Res Audio on your Hi-Fi from your computer requires the use of USB through USB Class 1 or Class 2.
With Class 1 USB it is possible to transmit audio data at rates of up to 24bit/96kHz, while USB Audio Class 2 is a much more recent introduction and allows for transmission of higher sample rates of 24bit/192kHz.
You can also use a range of DACs (Insert another shameless plug to our award winning DACs here) to bypass your soundcard and listen through your headphones.
Phew! So that’s it for now. Are you already listening to High-Res audio? Make sure you watch our video on High-Res audio below and let us know what you think in the comments below.