Hi-Res Audio: everything you need to know about the lossless music codec.August 9, 2019
“When you take the number of people on the hunt for fantastic televisions, audiophiles on the lookout for Hi-Res Audio seem rare by comparison.
However, that could be about to change, with developments in the world of hi-res audio like Sony’s new LDAC technology and music-streaming websites like Tidal, making quality audio more attractive than ever.
Here’s why, and how, Hi-Res Audio could be the upgrade that makes perfect sense for superior sonics across all your devices, including your phone.
What is Hi-Res Audio?
Hi-Res Audio (HRA) is lossless audio capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better-than-CD quality music sources, a sound that closely replicates the quality that the musicians and engineers were working with in the studio at the time of recording.
Despite HRA recently gaining popularity, it isn’t new. It has actually been around for over a decade and has a growing number of dedicated fans willing to fork out a bit more cash for the privilege of listening to Hi-Fi quality tunes both at home and on the go. The difference is that it’s becoming more accessible than ever.
Despite sounding pretty amazing, it’s not hard to understand the slow update of HRA – after all, the music files are a fair bit larger than MP3 or iTunes’ AAC so they take longer to download and can gobble storage on mobile devices like penguins tucking into a fish supper.
Compared with iTunes and Amazon MP3 files too, HRA tracks are more expensive to buy and most popular digital music vendors don’t even sell Hi-Res Audio tunes (yet).
There’s also the fact that to listen to HRA you need the right hardware and software, with most playback devices including mobile phones, portable music players and laptops not equipped as standard to get the full benefit.
Even the world’s most dominant multi-room music provider Sonos resolutely refuses to embrace Hi-Res Audio – because it says it’s not mainstream enough – but others including the likes of Bose do.
But the barriers are starting to crumble. Fuelled by increasingly more affordable storage, better-quality playback hardware and faster, more affordable broadband and 4G downloading, HRA is arguably no longer prohibitively too expensive, nor are its files too large to download and store when compared with MP3.
Of course, it’s important to choose your equipment carefully and to understand what it is that makes HRA different.
Oh, and if you’re put off by the nay-sayers who claim humans can’t hear anything beyond 20kHz just take the opportunity to listen to some HRA tracks and see – or hear – for yourself what a difference it makes.
WHICH FILES ARE HI-RES AUDIO?
As Hi-Res Audio is an umbrella term for lossless audio, there are a number of file formats that can be used to house a song.
Here’s a list of the main ones:
- ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) are studio-quality lossless digital-audio formats of similar size and take up less room on a computer than AIFF and WAV files. ALAC is compatible with iTunes and other players, and is the recommended lossless format for iTunes.
- APE is a free and very efficient lossless codec from Monkey’s Audio.
- DSD (Direct Stream Digital) The high-resolution codec that originated with SACD (Super Audio CD) and commonly used for classical recordings.
- MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). A new lossless codec of about one-third the size of FLAC. It applies a digital fingerprint to guarantee a file was sourced from the original master recording. MQA files are backward-compatible with FLAC decoders but require MQA decoders to unlock their full benefit.
- WAV is an uncompressed studio-quality file, compatible with different players including iTunes, Windows Media Player and Winamp.
What difference does Hi-Res Audio really make?
Let’s look at some numbers: the highest quality MP3 track has a bitrate of 320kbps, CDs are transferred at 1,411kbps and a 24-bit/192kHz file is transferred at a rate of 9,216kbps – the latter being the level now considered HRA.
The increased bit depth of HRA improves the dynamic range, basically giving you a greater breadth of things to actually hear from the recording.
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.
How can I stream/download Hi-Res Audio?
There are more options for streaming and downloading HRA than ever, and while these subscriptions and files will cost more than standard audio, the difference in quality is astounding.
Tidal is a superb music streaming service, ideal for anyone with a penchant for audio – but if you’re after Hi-Res Audio, you’ll need to subscribe to Tidal’s ‘Hi-Fi tier’, to get access to Tidal Masters.
It costs $19.99 (£19.99 / AU$23.99) per month to get access to around 30,000 Hi-Res tracks as well as HD videos. Right now, it’s only possible to stream at this quality on desktop or on your Android or iOS device.
Qobuz is both a music streaming service and download store. Originally launched in France, it’s now available in the UK, offering high-res Audio music streams in 16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC.
The Qobuz hi-res subscription will set you back $24.99 / £19.99 per month, alternatively you could opt for a $9.99 / £9.99 320kbps service, although here it really fails to match the breadth of Spotify.
One of the early pioneers of Hi-Res Audio downloads is US-based HDtracks. The content selection is broad, thanks to major label support from Sony Music Entertainment, Warner and Universal, and covers classic releases, such as the remastered Led Zeppelin collection, as well as more contemporary pop and esoteric classical recordings.
There’s also a selection of downloads in Binaural+, CEO David Chesky’s 3D surround audio format. Formats include Apple friendly ALAC and AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format), as well as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and WAV (Waveform Audio File Format).
Resolution varies depending on original source material. Michael Jackson’s BAD is a 24-bit 96kHz download, while Prokofiev’s Chout (also known as The Buffoon) is 24-bit 192kHz.
If you find HD Track’s catalogue a little limited, try 7Digital instead – it has more current releases as well as a substantial back catalogue of studio-quality tracks and albums.
Although it features an entire section dedicated to Hi-Res Audio, 7Digital only offers FLAC files – so, Apple users may want to look elsewhere.
What equipment do I need to play Hi-Res Audio?
Choosing the right file type/streaming service for you really depends on how you listen to your music. For example, an Apple Mac can play most HRA files in iTunes but it won’t accept FLAC.
For this you need audio player software like VLC, which is free to download and, according to Home Theatre Review, it’s “capable of 24/96 and 24/192 native Hi-Res output”.
If you’re looking for something less ‘bare-bones’, check out Audivarna Plus, which costs $74 (about £55 / AU$100) and comes with Tidal, Qobuz, and other Hi-res streaming services integrated.
Using a PC? Check out JRiver Media Center, which costs around $60 (£45 / AU$80) and works on Windows, Linus, and Mac OS.
If you’re taking your music on the go, you’ll need a Hi-Res supporting smartphone or portable music player. The Samsung Galaxy S9, S9 Plus and Note 9 all support HRA, as well as Dolby Atmos.
iPhones unfortunately don’t support Hi-Res Audio out of the box, but you can get around this by downloading a Hi-Res Audio app like Onkyo Music and using an external DAC (digital-to-analogue converter).”