Is hi-res audio really worth shelling out extra for?

Best to just nod right now. Picture: Lions Gate Films

Some of the biggest names in music, including veteran rock legend Neil Young, are behind a growing market for high resolution audio, and as well as great sound, a whole lot of cash is at stake.

There are two sides to it: the devices used to play it, and the speakers, with music-lovers – audiophiles – arguing it’s all about reproducing sound exactly the way it’s intended, the audio version of a hi-def screen.

Young is one of those leading the charge. Mid last year, his Kickstarter campaign raised some $6 million to see the Pono Player released worldwide. Together with the Pono Music Store, they deliver audio many times the resolution of CDs, and well beyond the limited offerings of popular streaming sites.

The files are also much bigger, clocking in at around 200MB for a single ultra hi-res file. They’re also much more expensive, and that’s driving a wedge between those who believe in hi-res audio, and the knockers who say it’s a gimmick.

Here’s what critics of Neil Young’s hi-res Pono player have to say:

    “…can (Neil Young) hear the difference? He’s 69 years old, and has spent his life standing in front of deafening amplifiers.”
    Gizmodo, January 2015
    “…pricy digital overkill, an oversized ‘bit bucket’ that contains sounds only dogs or dolphins can truly enjoy.”
    AP, June 2015
    “No amount of testing made 192kHz/24-bit FLAC audio sound noticeably better than high-quality MP3s.”
    Ars Tecnica, February 2015

Harsh? Maybe, but singer/songwriter James Taylor added his voice to the believer side.

Earlier this year Taylor earned his first Billboard No 1 album spot since his debut on the list 45 years ago with Before This World.

He told Billboard new technology made it easier to make an album and music of “higher and higher quality”.

The ironic flipside was fans were listening to it “through terrible speakers” – mobile phones, laptop speakers and cheap headphones.

Taylor said he’s tried Young’s Pono player and added his name to the list of those who want hi-res audio to have a viable future, but as it stands, there’s a huge weight of opinion against those trying to sell the concept. The main argument is the human ear simply tops out at a certain point and can’t discern the difference between average and high-quality music.

This month, rumours surfaced of another big player sniffing around the hi-res audio market. Apple, according to MacRumours “has been developing Hi-Res Audio streaming up to 96kHz/24bit in 2016”.

“The Lightning terminal with iOS 9 is compatible up to 192kHz/24Bit, but we do not have information on the sampling frequency of Apple Music download music.”

That might just look like a bunch of numbers. There’s plenty of hi-res audio critics who say that’s exactly all it is.

So before we get into that, and whether you should be prepared to shell out any extra for the hi-res experience, here’s a basic rundown on the difference – perceived or otherwise – between streaming music, CDs and hi-res audio.

Bits

The bit depth is a measurement of how many times the original waveform is measured. A 16-bit recording measures it roughly 65,500 times, whereas a 24-bit recording measures it more than 16 million times.

When transferred to a digital file, bitrate is how much data is recorded to reproduce each second of audio. Here’s the bitrate comparision Young offered recently:

Most streaming tracks sit at 256 bits per second. The highest quality tracks available for HD players squeeze 9216 bits in per second.

One thing that extra bit depth allows is cranking audio up with much less distortion.

A 16-bit recording can be wound out to 96dB, roughly 5dB more than you need to cause permanent damage to your ear. A 24-bit recording can range up to 144dB, just beyond the level of your average jet engine.

The bonus of having that extra 24-bit range is mostly pointless, but it does allow the recording to soak up “noise” which may eat away at the decibel range.

Without getting too technical, “noise” can come from a variety of sources, from the hardware used to play the audio, to signal processing interference as the file is created.

You can lose up to 20dB in just filtering out noise from a file (or covering it up with other noise, as is often the case), so if you want to push your luck with your hearing, you’re always guaranteed a shot with a 24-bit recording.

Nipper loves hi-res. Picture: His Masters Voice

Sampling


Fact – human ears can’t hear frequencies just above 20kHz. If you wanted to record something at 20kHz, you’d sample the analogue sound at 20,000 times per second in order to convert it to digital.

But one theory states that you actually have to sample sound at twice the frequency of that you wish to reproduce, hence the CD industry (well, Sony) settled on 44.1kHz – 44,100 times per second.

Well beyond enough for humans, right? This is where it gets a bit rubbery, because master copies of music – and DVD audio – are sampled at 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz.

That extra resolution allows engineers and the like more control when they’re trying to filter unwanted noise out of tracks, without distorting the actual music.

Music on a master copy is as, Neil Young says, “what the artists created, the way they heard and felt it”.

CDs and MP3s use “lossy compression” to bring them down to 44.1kHz from masters. Young’s biggest criticism is that the encoding, decoding and “magic sauce… screw with the sound and make it an intellectual property”.

The most popular format is FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), mainly because it can also store artist and title information. Apple, being Apple, has its own version, ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec).

But what does it all mean?

So can you hear it, or not? That’s a curly one.

At this stage the vast majority of onlookers say hi-res audio is simply a handy way for the music industry to get you to buy all the same music again, plus a new player and better speakers.

If you’re happy with the streaming quality you get now, they’re absolutely correct. But switch to hi-res and you’ll also absolutely hear a huge pick-up in quality. Sol Republic’s CEO Kevin Lee has been an audiophile all his life – his dad invented Monster audio cables, and Kevin himself built the first Beats headphones.

Sol Republic’s new Shadow wireless set.

Yes, he has a product to sell – Sol Republic’s new Shadow wireless headphones. But he spent years and millions working out how to get them to support wireless transmission of uncompressed audio.

“There is no limit, because your ear is analogue,” Lee told BI on a recent trip to Australia. “So there’s an infinite amount of resolution there. Your ear can hear at a higher resolution than what sophisticated instruments can measure; that’s been my experience.”

If you’re confident CD sound is as good as you’ll ever physically be able to hear, you’re very unlikely to note any difference in stepping up to hi-res, unless you simply want to play your music louder. You also now have Tidal as a streaming service to switch to, so no more ripping CDs.

And even a hi-res audio file can sound crappy. For starters, if it’s originally engineered poorly, you’ll know it far worse than you would have listening to a streaming quality version of your favourite track.

On the flipside, invest in a speaker or headphones that support hi-res audio and play streaming music through it, and you could equally be in a world of pain.

“The trick is, here’s the thing – it’s easy to make a headphone sound good with quality-of-recording audio files,” Lee says. “But if you’re an audiophile, you’ve probably experienced a really high quality audio system with a good quality of recording.

“Then you put a regular everyday song on it at or a compressed song and it will make your stereo sound really bad.

“In fact, you might even notice that it sounded worse on your high end stereo than if you listened to it through a normal pair of speakers. That’s because a high-end audio system is so revealing.”

So once you go hi-res, there’s no going back. Taylor agrees:

“Over the right system, I can definitely hear it. But if you’re going to be playing it over a three-inch TV speaker, why bother?”

So why the hate?


There’s no doubt price is a factor amongst the sceptics who say the concept of hi-res audio is based on “junk science”.

In compact form, the players and speakers aren’t cheap. Young’s Pono hit the market at $400, but the sharpest intakes of breath were reserved for Sony’s $1200 Walkman which appeared at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

Headphones aren’t cheap either. You’re unlikely to find anything that begins to do uncompressed audio any justice for under $200.

And then there’s the tracks themselves. Albums at Pono Music World for the most part sit somewhere between $18-$24. Popular HD store HDtracks will charge around the same rate but offer a rotating list of “specials” for around $8-$12.

Compare that to monthly $9-$14 unlimited streaming options from the likes of Rdio, Spotify and Apple Music.

Jay Z’s Tidal service tries to address poor streaming quality by offering 44kHz/16bit sampling. That’s CD quality (not technically hi-res), but it also charges around double the monthly subscription price of regular streaming sites.

That’s also the lowest sampling rate HDtracks offers. The most popular rate there is 96kHz/24bit and audiophiles start getting excited when their favourite album gets a 192kHz/24bit release.

And if you’ve got a Pono Player in Australia and have been frustrated by the geoblocking of the Pono Music Store to just the US and Europe, it’s now open to Aussies. And that’s where you’ll find a lot of the 192kHz/24bit goodness.

The Age of Entitlement

The angst over people paying more for hi-res music, players and speakers is more a product of these disposable, information-wants-to-be-free times of streaming, piracy and sharing. (And certainly don’t discount the fact a certain generation or two are now seen to be living in the “Age of Entitlement”.)

It wasn’t that long ago you weren’t allowed to touch dad’s $4000 workdesk sized stereo and amp setup in the living room, let alone his vinyl collection.

By that standard, you’d get Sony’s outrageous $1200 Walkman (now around $700), a top of the range Sonos speaker set-up, and $400 to splash on headphones. And while it might not be as cool, the sound would smoke your dad’s vintage Kenwood.

And it wasn’t that long ago you’d be happy to line up around the block to pay $30 for Metallica’s “Black” CD on the morning it was released. Most people over the age of 30 have an entire wall of $20-$30 CDs.

Today, just $600 puts Young’s Pono player and Sol Republic’s new Shadow wireless headset in your pocket, along with 20 hi-res albums.

Again, can you hear the difference in hi-res audio? Sadly, you’re probably never going to get a straight answer.

The science is that human ears can’t hear 192kHz and you can’t argue that point. But that absolutely doesn’t mean the music that’s crammed into the range you can hear can’t be made to sound crisper, deeper and more free of distortion.

Young recently had a feature added in a Pono software update that lets you compare a song at different bitrates:

If you’ve experienced it, it’s pretty hard to argue with, although some confirmation bias might account for any “difference” you hear between 44.1kHz/16bit and 192kHz/24bit. (But in my experience, slip a hi-res album on at a party and nine times out of 10, someone will turn around and mention something about the sound. I can’t deny that.)

It seems the real problem for the sceptics is simply that audiophiles are just happy to pay a whole lot less for at least the same quality music they used to pay for, in return for a whole lot more than what streaming fans get, even if their ears can’t hear beyond CD-quality rates. So maybe just let them be happy.

There’s an entire technology industry that relies on people eternally seeking a little bit extra.

Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that most people thought hi-def TV didn’t exist… until it did.

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