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Technological progress has brought new high-resolution video formats such as 4K into our lives, so there should be no reason why we wouldn’t enjoy high-resolution audio. However, it is not all so simple and this topic has been rising different kinds of discussions ever since it appeared.
The problem with modern audio files is their size. An original soundtrack that is recorded in a professional music studio is made in the highest possible and available resolution but the recording is extremely large, which makes it impossible for storing on small portable devices with limited memory that we are using every day. In spite of the fact that our devices even use external memory, which is getting larger and larger every day, it is still impossible to store many high-resolution files on a single device and this is the main reason why these files are being constantly compressed.
This compression is useful and practical because an enormous number of files can be stored on a single device but the thing that suffers the most is the audio quality. In order to reduce the file’s size, you have to compress it and change its format into the one that occupies less space. However, file compression affects sound quality a lot because all the details that the original file has, disappear in the process.
Implementing high-res audio files in everyday use was one of the reasons for starting new studies. Many people claimed that a human ear can’t really hear the difference between the ordinary compressed and high-resolution soundtrack so some scientists decided to prove that wrong. In theory, people really can’t hear the difference between sounds if the frequency is below 20 Hz or above 20 kHz. However, we do believe that if people can’t hear the difference, they can feel it. This theory is mostly based on our personal experience and we do believe that most of you will agree with us. As this feeling is very important when it comes to listening to music, we are going to introduce you to high-resolution audio because we believe that every person deserves to enjoy it every day, not only in concerts.
What is High-Resolution Audio?
As you could realize from the introduction, the audio files stored on our portable devices (smartphones, players, etc.) aren’t the true synonym for sound quality. On the other hand, we can say that the files stored on CDs are considered quality files. They aren’t too large and they still manage to preserve most of the fine details from the original music tracks.
When analog-to-digital encoding systems encode analog audio to digital, it is possible to specify two factors that we can use to determine digital recording quality and these are bit depth and sampling frequency. Sampling frequency shows us how many times per second the signal samples are taken during the sound conversion process and it is measured in bits. On the other hand, bit depth determines how accurate the sound is. The higher the numbers, the better the sound quality and the wider the frequency range.
If we know that a CD uses 16bit/44.1kHz encoding and that high-resolution sound is defined in comparison to CD encoding, we conclude that high-resolution audio must have higher sampling frequency and bit depth. In fact, one of the accepted definitions of high-resolution sound says that high-res audio is actually the lossless audio capable of delivering full sound range from those recordings that had been previously mastered from the music sources with better audio quality than the CD quality.
Subsequently, we come to the fact that high-resolution audio is every audio with one of the two following encodings: 24bit/96kHz or 24bit/192kHz. Although it does seem a bit impossible for a human ear to hear all the details in these kinds of audio files, they do feel different and transfer a different kind of emotion to the listener. The main cause is the amount of information that high-res audio contains in comparison to any compressed file and this information is what actually makes the difference.
What Kinds of Audio File Formats Exist?
Audio can be delivered in different formats and not all of them are supported by our devices. Also, you have to bear in mind that in order to play high-res files you need a device that supports the specific high-res audio file format. Because of this, we are going to say a few words about different audio file formats, so that you can know if your device supports it.
This is one of the most common audio file formats that all of us are familiar with. It is very popular because of its small size and because of the possibility of storing a great number of MP3 files on a single portable device. However, MP3 files are compressed, which means that some of the sound quality and detail is lost in the process.
CD-quality file formats
WAV (Waveform Audio File Format) and AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) are actually uncompressed formats that allow copying most of the audio data on a disc/CD. They use 16bit/44.1kHz encoding and they offer extremely good sound quality. However, their main downsides are huge file size and lousy metadata support.
FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec and, as you can conclude based on the name itself, this audio format is the high-res lossless format, which means it contains all the information and all the details that the original studio master file contains. It also means that its sound quality equals the original file sound quality.
FLAC usually uses 24bit/96kHz or 24bit/192kHz encoding although it can also be found in 24bit/44.1kHz or 24bit/48kHz. Sadly, it is extremely large and most devices won’t support it.
ALAC stands for Apple Lossless Audio Codec and it is Apple’s lossless format. It works in the same way as FLAC but it is additionally compatible with iTunes.
Note: Some companies that offer you to download Studio Master audio files offer them in both versions – FLAC and ALAC.
Direct Stream Digital (DSD) is the Super Audio CD format that is quite different from the previously mentioned formats. It uses a single bit and a greater sampling frequency, which results in an extremely high audio quality. It comes in two versions – 2.8mHz and 5.6mHz but some newer versions have recently been developed. Its great disadvantage is the fact that it uses an enormous amount of memory and it is not supported by most of the devices.
What Should You Do in Order to Play High-Res File?
As we have mentioned before, high-resolution audio can’t be played as easily as other audio formats can. The technology hasn’t still advanced enough to enable us to listen to high-res audio anywhere we want. You need special devices that actually support high-res formats and can actually deliver all the information that makes this audio so great and natural.
When it comes to smartphones, we can say that Samsung is the leading innovator in this area as its newer smartphone models like Galaxy S9, 9+ or Note 9, can actually deliver the high-res sound. Some of Sony’s models like Xperia XZ3 can do the same.
Samsung also did some great job making the tablets that support these formats.
If you want to listen to some quality music on your computer, be aware that you will have to download a special software that enables you to play high-res music (Channel D’s Pure Music or Amarra for MacBooks and JRiver Media Center for PCs).
You can also use DACs (digital-to-analog converter) to listen to audio files stored on any of your devices but in order to do that you will need to buy speakers or headphones that support high-resolution audio.
Advantages and Disadvantages of High-Resolution Audio
It’s pretty obvious that high-resolution audio is a bit more complicated than we have thought. We can’t deny the fact that high-res songs are more pleasant for listening but the truth is that you have to put a lot of effort and money in order to play them.
As these files can reach up to tens of megabytes in size, you will need to spend more money on large external memories and hard drives. Although they are becoming cheaper over time, the high-res headphones, high-res speakers, and converters don’t, so additional expenses are simply inevitable.
Hello, my name is James Longman.
I’m a writer and editor at AudioReputation. I disassembled my first portable AM/FM radio when I was only 8. At the age of 11, I burned the circuit board on my old boombox cassette player. I’m not going to explain how but it was reckless and stupid.
Since then, I have become much more careful around radios, boomboxes, and other audio devices (at least, I like to think so) but I have never lost the passion for audio equipment. Throughout 20 years of my professional career, I’ve been working for various audio equipment manufacturers and even started building speakers on my own in my little workshop.
I love the work we do here at AudioReputation. Testing, comparing, and evaluating all kinds of audio devices (speakers, soundbars, headphones, home theater systems, etc.) is something I truly enjoy. I try to be unbiased and give you my honest opinion on every piece of equipment I test. Still, you should take my reviews with a pinch of salt and always be just a little bit skeptical. The fact that I liked some speaker or soundbar doesn’t mean that you are going to love it. If you have the opportunity, you should test it/hear it before buying it.