High-Resolution Audio: About to Go Mainstream, or Just a Pipe-Dream?

Two articles, approaching the same question, that of the future of high-resolution audio, came across my radar this week. They arrived at opposite conclusions. This often happens in the tech industry, and it’s interesting to examine them and see why the two authors disagree.

First, let me define some terms. High resolution audio is any digital audio files that are of a resolution higher than that of CDs. The CD is defined as containing audio at 16-bit, 44,100 Hz. The sample rate – that’s the 44,100 HZ, or 44.1 KHz – is the number of samples per second. Think of this as the way film has a number of frames per second; the 24 frames per second of a movie are enough to trick a viewer into thinking that the picture is moving, and not a series of stills. With audio, it’s a bit more complicated, but the sample rate needs to be twice the maximum frequency of the audio. You’ve probably seen that most audio equipment maxes out at 20,000 HZ; so 44,100 is a bit more than twice that. The bit depth – that’s the 16 bits – is the number of bits of data in each sample, and defines how much detail is in each sample.

High-resolution audio is any audio file that exceeds either of these limits. So this could be a 24-bit, 44.1 KHz file, or a 16-bit, 96 KHz file, though in most cases, the bit depth is higher than 16.

High resolution audio files are available from a number of venders, and it can range from 24/44.1 to as high as 24/192. To listen to these files, you need a digital-analog converter (DAC) that can handle these resolutions. You don’t need any special amp or speakers, though if your speakers, like most, don’t go much higher than 20 KHz, they won’t play back the high end of the music. In fact, your ears certainly won’t go that high; mine go to about 13 KHz.

So, why do two authors come up with contradictory conclusions? Macworld’s Jon Seff, writing for TechHive, points out that it’s easy to see the difference between SD and HD video, but says, ” I fail to see a future in which the masses invest the time and money necessary to take audio to the same level as video in people’s minds. […] sometimes good enough is, well, good enough.”

Seff points out that music is an area where “people have gotten used to convenience over sound quality,” and this is clearly the case. Since it’s very, very difficult to hear the difference between standard audio files and compressed files (at, say, 256 kbps), hearing the difference between a CD and a high-resolution file is unlikely. There’s certainly a placebo effect involved; when someone pays twice as much for a hi-res file as a CD, they’ll be likely to want the music to sound better.

The second article is by Andrew Everard, Gramophone magazine’s hi-fi writer. For Everard, “We’ve been peering nervously over the edge for too many years: now’s the time for the audio industry to take its next great leap.” He tests audio equipment, and it’s possible that his ears are more sensitive than Seff’s, or than mine. But I’d like to see him do a blind test with some CD-quality files and hi-res files.

I’ve got a bunch of hi-res files, and a DAC, and I’m hard pressed to hear the difference. It’s hard to do a blind test, and that’s the only way you can tell. If you know what you’re listening to, then it’s not a test; it’s a test of the placebo effect, perhaps, but nothing more.

I think Jon Seff has the right answer. We listen to music in a variety of settings, and only in a perfect environment would it be possible to truly appreciate high-resolution audio. The number of people who have a perfectly configured listening room – and the funds to outfit it – are few and far between. Music can certainly sound better with better equipment; when I upgraded some of my hi-fi equipment last year, especially speakers, I was impressed by the difference. But there’s a law of diminishing returns, and the few people who spend thousands of dollars on cables and wires should seriously consider their investments.

This is an issue that can’t have a firm answer. As long as people are prepared to spend more money on audio equipment and media, the market will happily serve them. But whether or not it’s worth spending what these files cost, and what is needed for equipment to correctly play them back, well, that’s up in the air. If you can’t do a blind test, don’t believe what you read.