How the Audio Industry is Deceiving Consumers with High-Resolution Audio

Hi resI’ve been writing about music and audio for more than fifteen years, and I’ve always been of the opinion that music is more important than sound; that what matters is what we listen to, rather trying to only listen to music that sounds perfect (or nearly so).[1]

If you read about audio equipment in the hi-fi press, you’ll see that much of the audio equipment mentioned in these magazines is more expensive than most people would ever spend on a stereo setup. There are cables that cost more than my car, and speakers that can cost as much as a small home.[2]

A few months ago, I came to a realization. I don’t recall which article I read that pointed this out, but this type of audio is not just high-end, but it truly is luxury hardware. It’s the Jaguar and Porsche of audio. The amplifiers, speakers, and cables you see in these audiophile magazines are not targeted at the average listener, but those who have a great deal of disposable income. This is fine; there’s nothing wrong with people spending their money on what is often hand-made hardware from small, dedicated companies. But it’s only something that a tiny percentage of people can afford, or even appreciate. Audiophiles will scoff at people like me; in a recent forum discussion, I was told that, by purchasing a Yamaha amplifier, I was buying a "lifestyle" brand. I hadn’t been aware that this is an insult: it’s the audiophile equivalent of "philistine."

If you consider high-resolution music, which is widely discussed as being essential to make music "sound like the artist intended," you may, at first, think of this as progress; a better quality format, going beyond the pokey LP, the limited CD, and the underperforming MP3 file. But it’s not. Most people cannot hear the difference between a CD (or even a good-quality digital download) and a high-resolution audio file. And, even if they can, they need expensive, nay, luxury equipment to appreciate it.[3]

And here’s where the problem lies. The audio industry has lost so many consumers at the low end – it used to be that most people had a stereo system in their homes; now they are satisfied with Bluetooth speakers – that it is trying to convince everyone, not just luxury hi-fi fans, that quality of the music they listen to sucks. There are economic reasons for this, of course. If they can convince some people that their audio files aren’t good enough, then they can perhaps get them to buy more expensive hi-fi equipment. In recent years, the mid-range hi-fi market – those "lifestyle" brands – has collapsed, and these companies only really survive because they sell lots of other products. So there’s not a lot of choice between Bluetooth speakers – or the Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, etc. – and higher-end audio equipment.[4]

The audio equipment industry is in free-fall. It is clinging to the only market that is keeping it alive: the luxury hi-fi market. And the industry, as a whole, is trying to normalize the idea that the music people listen to is of poor quality, and only better digital files will sound good enough. And, by the way, you need to take out a loan for a stereo that’s good enough to play those files. A few years ago, a DAC (digital-analog converter) would play files at up to 96kHz, which was the standard for early high-resolution audio files. But that standard wasn’t good enough for some, so you started seeing files at 192kHz, which meant you needed a new, better DAC. And now it’s hitting 384kHz, which means… well, you know.

I’m sure that someone will comment below that they can hear the difference between high-res audio files and digital downloads, or even CD files, on low-priced audio equipment. I’m sure there are some people with golden ears, or, as a friend once said, "magical bat’s ears," that can hear the high frequencies that are beyond the threshold of human hearing. I am happy for them. But plenty of blind tests have shown that the vast majority of people can’t hear any difference, and, considering that the high-end luxury market is, for the most part, make up of middle-aged (or older) men, whose hearing is certainly not optimal, I dispute such claims.[5]

(By the way, how many people who have taken these blind tests and found that the high-resolution files sound better were using speakers that didn’t go up to the magical bat’s ears frequency range? Because if you want to listen to high-res music "as the artist intended," then you may need new speakers.)

I don’t contest that there are some people who can hear better, and if they can afford high-end, luxury hi-fi hardware, more power to them. But the problem is that the audio industry is performing a top-down push to try to convince everyone that standard musical formats are not good enough. And the only reason for this is to make more money; it’s not to help people enjoy music more.[6]

To be fair, the hi-fi and music industries do not work together in lock-step; the hi-fi industry is mostly reacting to what the music industry is selling.[7] The increase in resolution of music files has been a reaction to the popularity – albeit limited to a niche – of high-resolution music. As purveyors of these files saw they could make more money, they upped the ante; why not make several grades of high-resolution files, for the various levels of golden ears, and convince people that even the "basic" high-resolution files aren’t good enough.

Lies and Statistics

But the hi-fi industry has welcomed high-resolution audio, not only to sell DACs, or speakers that reach higher frequencies, but also to sell music streamers that support various resolutions, and to even claim that upsampling makes music sound better.[8] And many brands – "lifestyle" brands, at least – tout their products’ ability to play back high-resolution audio files, sticking a Hi-Res Audio sticker on them, and playing up their ability to play music in these resolutions. For example, Sony has a High-Resolution Audio section of their website where they highlight the different elements that can play these files, with the ubiquitous label at the corner of each graphic.

Both manufacturers and retailers use deceptive graphics to try to explain the difference between standard (CD quality) audio and high-resolution audio. This type of graphic, presented on the Cambridge Audio website, is relatively common:

Stair step

It shows what seems to be a very smooth curve from an analog source, then two stair-stepped curves, one with very large stairs for an MP3 (though it doesn’t say which bit rate, so that’s deception number one), and smaller stairs for a 24/192 high-resolution file (pretty much the highest resolution you’ll find these days).

The problem is this: neither of the stair-steps represent the actual audio "curve" that is played back. The mathematics behind this is complicated, but each of the digital versions still plays a curve; just as you can plot a vector graphic with just a few points and an equation, the same is true for audio playback. If you remember your high school math classes, you may have used a graphical calculator to create graphs from very simple equations.

Another deceptive way of using numbers is this graphic, seen on lots of websites, and here from a retailer’s site:

Bit rate

It compares the bit rates of various formats, as if to say that bigger is better. At an absolute level, this is true, but there is some trickery. Take the MP3 at the top. At 256 kbps, this is the lowest bit rate. But this doesn’t take into account that the audio data in this file is compressed; even if you ignore any psychoacoustic compression (i.e., data removed because it cannot be heard), the file would still be smaller just by dint of its non-lossy compression, such as when you compress a graphic file to a ZIP archive. Not all the compression is due to that space saving, but much of it is.

Look at the second line; CD, 1,411 kbps. This is the uncompressed data stream on a CD. But they could have included a lossless FLAC file in between the MP3 and CD, which would come to around 400 – 700 kbps (on average). Would that be of lower quality than the CD? No, because it uses lossless compression.

And what about the high-res file, at 24-bit, 96kHZ? Well, I have a number of files in that resolution, and I just looked at a few at random; they are all around 2,700 kbps to 3,100 kbps. And these aren’t quiet files (the louder a file, the more bits it uses, more or less). One is the Rolling Stones’ Brown Sugar, which is 3,100 kbps. So this graphic is both deceptive at the top and a lie at the bottom.

If there really was an audible difference between standard (CD quality) and high-resolution audio, manufacturers and retailers wouldn’t have to lie about it.[9]

Making Music Sound Better

There are many ways that audio can be improved, and not all of them cost as much as a Bentley. You could start by learning to position your speakers correctly; eliminating elements in a listening room that diminish audio quality; fight for better mastering of recordings, notably less compression;[10] and, for many people, simply buying better speakers is a great way to get better sound. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on speakers, but going up a notch or two will make a difference. In fact, speakers are probably the hi-fi element that offers the most bang per buck if you want to upgrade your audio system.[11]

Just as today’s entry-level computer blows away the supercomputers of yore, I’d bet that any mid-range "lifestyle" brand amplifier and speakers sounds better than audiophile-quality equipment of, say, twenty years ago, because of the progress that has been made in electronic technology. While there certainly was a difference in the sound of, say, the first Radio Shack stereo I owned and a friend’s Sansui amplifier back in the 1970s, that qualitative difference has been shaved by progress.

Let’s not fall for the audio industry’s claim that the music we listen to doesn’t sound good. It’s a ploy to get us to spend more money on downloads and audio equipment. Enjoy your music; don’t stress about the sound. Perfect sound is a chimera; you’ll never reproduce it in your home.

Thanks to Chris Connaker of Computer Audiophile for his comments or early drafts of this article.


  1. No audio reproduced in a home environment will ever sound as good as music performed in a live concert hall, or in a studio.  ↩
  2. The most egregious example I have seen recently in Stereophile is a $40,000 turntable.  ↩
  3. It’s worth noting that there is no agreed-upon definition of high-resolution music. In general, it’s considered to be anything better than 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, which is CD quality. But does that mean that 24-bit, 44.1 kHz is high resolution? Or 16-bit, 48 kHz?  ↩
  4. Yes, I know there are lots of other alternatives. But they just don’t sell that well any more. Think of the people you know, who aren’t music fans: how many of them have a full stereo in their home? How many even have a home theater system?  ↩
  5. Feel free to dispute this. Feel free to question the placebo effect, or confirmation bias, which is your brain telling you that those expensive cables weren’t a waste of money. Or the observer’s paradox.  ↩
  6. Just look at all the ink being spilled over MQA, a proprietary high-resolution audio format that has been the subject of much controversy. Here’s one example of an article discussing this format.  ↩
  7. I use the term the "music industry" quite loosely here. The major labels were slow to adopt high-resolution music, which first gained a foothold with smaller labels, or specialty labels that licensed masters from major labels. They still don’t do too much with high-resolution music, but are more than happy to sell it – or have other sell it – at twice the price of normal downloads, if not more.  ↩
  8. Upsampling is the process of resampling audio to a higher resolution. For example, one DAC or amplifier may upsample all audio to 24-bit, 384kHz. One streamer claims that upsampling can "take some of the edge, glare, and harshness off of digital material coming from Internet Radio and streamed sources." Unfortunately, the idea that you can make audio sound better just by increasing its bit depth or sampling rate is dubious.  ↩
  9. The best example of this deception is in the "Pono Music Quality Spectrum graphic that Neil Young’s failed company published. (You can see it here in a slightly altered version.) Not only is the scale incorrect, and ignores the fact that MP3 files are compressed, as I mentioned above, it attributes the same amount of musical information to the higher sample rates. At best, they offer a tiny amount of music, in frequency ranges that are way beyond human hearing. The bulk of the sound we here from musical instruments covers a relatively small range of frequencies. And the first diagram that Pono circulated is simply laughable. It’s worth noting that Neil Young, who was touting this device and high-resolution audio, is an old man with admittedly poor hearing, and notably has very bad tinnitus.  ↩
  10. This is dynamic range compression that makes music louder, not the compression that makes audio files smaller.  ↩
  11. Some people claim that all amplifiers sound the same. Even if this is not true, it is undeniable that amplifiers, for example, even at the low end, are of a quality in terms of clarity and distortion that is exemplary, and that the differences simply cannot be heard.  ↩

29 thoughts on “How the Audio Industry is Deceiving Consumers with High-Resolution Audio

  1. Regardless of the relative merits of MP3, CD and Hi-Res audio, the biggest factor affecting subjective sound quality is mastering, and specifically compression. Some contemporary CDs are so “loud” as to be virtually unlistenable. CDs mastered in the mid to late 80s when the format was still in its infancy are generally far nicer to listen to than more recent recordings, despite huge improvements in the underlying technology. CD offers significantly higher dynamic range and none of the mechanical limitations of vinyl (RIAA equalisation, variable linear velocity, variable groove / stylus geometry, inner-groove distortion), and yet music is still mastered to sound “good” on a crappy 3″ Bluetooth speaker. Beyond classical and jazz there is little attempt to make recorded music sound as realistic as possible. A $200k audiophile system playing 24/192 will make little difference when the source has been mastered with a sub-3dB dynamic range.

    Compare this Phil Collins recording which has half-decent dynamic range:

    with this truly awful recording from Abu Lahab:

    When the drums kick in at around 3:40 on the Collins track they have a visceral impact and actually sound like drums. The percussion on the Lahab track is little more than noise.

    • It’s true, and people point this out constantly, but getting mastering engineers and producers to master music so it sounds good isn’t that easy. Part of the problem is that they master so it sounds good on mediocre devices, much as they used to master LPs so they sounded good enough on small radios or car stereos. It’s hard to master something for all types of listening, but it’s undeniable that with popular music, better mastering would make a lot more of a difference than most other “improvements.” This said, in classical and jazz, that difference isn’t present.

  2. Regardless of the relative merits of MP3, CD and Hi-Res audio, the biggest factor affecting subjective sound quality is mastering, and specifically compression. Some contemporary CDs are so “loud” as to be virtually unlistenable. CDs mastered in the mid to late 80s when the format was still in its infancy are generally far nicer to listen to than more recent recordings, despite huge improvements in the underlying technology. CD offers significantly higher dynamic range and none of the mechanical limitations of vinyl (RIAA equalisation, variable linear velocity, variable groove / stylus geometry, inner-groove distortion), and yet music is still mastered to sound “good” on a crappy 3″ Bluetooth speaker. Beyond classical and jazz there is little attempt to make recorded music sound as realistic as possible. A $200k audiophile system playing 24/192 will make little difference when the source has been mastered with a sub-3dB dynamic range.

    Compare this Phil Collins recording which has half-decent dynamic range:

    with this truly awful recording from Abu Lahab:

    When the drums kick in at around 3:40 on the Collins track they have a visceral impact and actually sound like drums. The percussion on the Lahab track is little more than noise.

    • It’s true, and people point this out constantly, but getting mastering engineers and producers to master music so it sounds good isn’t that easy. Part of the problem is that they master so it sounds good on mediocre devices, much as they used to master LPs so they sounded good enough on small radios or car stereos. It’s hard to master something for all types of listening, but it’s undeniable that with popular music, better mastering would make a lot more of a difference than most other “improvements.” This said, in classical and jazz, that difference isn’t present.

  3. I agree. On all you’ve said. I was, and remain, satisfied by the BitPerfect app for my iMac and the cautious explanation of how it helps, or at least might help, one’s enjoyment of my extensive, but predominantly classical music collection.

    I must stress that I have no financial or any interest at all in the company; but if you are interested in the “logic” behind it, this is the Link: http://bitperfectsound.blogspot.co.uk/p/manual.html

    I have the Bose Sound System on my iMac.

  4. I agree. On all you’ve said. I was, and remain, satisfied by the BitPerfect app for my iMac and the cautious explanation of how it helps, or at least might help, one’s enjoyment of my extensive, but predominantly classical music collection.

    I must stress that I have no financial or any interest at all in the company; but if you are interested in the “logic” behind it, this is the Link: http://bitperfectsound.blogspot.co.uk/p/manual.html

    I have the Bose Sound System on my iMac.

  5. I’ve appreciated this and other articles you’ve crafted to explore this topic. I bought an HDTracks version of Al Jarreau’s last album and was blown away by the sound. Then I discovered that it wouldn’t upload to iTunes Match so I copied it to a downsampled version, intending to listen to the hi rez version on my desktop “best headphones” system. Discovered I was unintentionally listening to the AAC version from time to time with no less enjoyment. Side by side listening “test” led me to think I could barely detect a difference in cymbals and treble trumpet notes – maybe. Clearly, the “blown away” impact came from the audio sculpting and mastering, not from the file format.

  6. I’ve appreciated this and other articles you’ve crafted to explore this topic. I bought an HDTracks version of Al Jarreau’s last album and was blown away by the sound. Then I discovered that it wouldn’t upload to iTunes Match so I copied it to a downsampled version, intending to listen to the hi rez version on my desktop “best headphones” system. Discovered I was unintentionally listening to the AAC version from time to time with no less enjoyment. Side by side listening “test” led me to think I could barely detect a difference in cymbals and treble trumpet notes – maybe. Clearly, the “blown away” impact came from the audio sculpting and mastering, not from the file format.

  7. “But plenty of blind tests have shown that the vast majority of people can’t hear any difference …”

    To the best of my knowledge, there are no scientifically controlled double blind tests showing that anyone has the ability to consistently hear the difference between a high-res recording of music and the exact same recording played back at CD quality.

    Of course those touting high-res audio will come back and state that double blind tests are somehow “too stressful” and thus invalid.

  8. “But plenty of blind tests have shown that the vast majority of people can’t hear any difference …”

    To the best of my knowledge, there are no scientifically controlled double blind tests showing that anyone has the ability to consistently hear the difference between a high-res recording of music and the exact same recording played back at CD quality.

    Of course those touting high-res audio will come back and state that double blind tests are somehow “too stressful” and thus invalid.

  9. Kirk has cut through a great deal of the BS associated with the “audiophile” world in many of his articles over the years. This one is a keeper and is going in my reference files to be re-read. The man he quotes for reference (Mr. Connaker) is another brilliant man whose website and personal commentaries have help educate countless music lovers trying to improve the sound quality of their music listening. (Me included)

  10. Kirk has cut through a great deal of the BS associated with the “audiophile” world in many of his articles over the years. This one is a keeper and is going in my reference files to be re-read. The man he quotes for reference (Mr. Connaker) is another brilliant man whose website and personal commentaries have help educate countless music lovers trying to improve the sound quality of their music listening. (Me included)

  11. Nevertheless, I can hear audible differences with high res recordings. My system (all mcintosh) is finally able to be fed the music “food” it was built to spit out.

  12. Nevertheless, I can hear audible differences with high res recordings. My system (all mcintosh) is finally able to be fed the music “food” it was built to spit out.

    • You can not physically hear those audio ranges. You are fooling yourself and wasting money, but more power to you

  13. I can definitely tell the difference from mp3 to ogg. Telling from ogg to FLAC is harder. I can tell from the terrible built in headphone jack on my laptop to my reasonably priced but upgraded DAC. So, I bought the 500 Dollar Yamaha because it sounded better than the 2000 Dollar pioneer. I bought a nicer DAC, and even a class a headphone amp, but I didn’t break the bank. I care, but not the price of a car worth. A nice set of 100 Dollar studio headphones, the same for a better DAC and another 60 for a decent class a amp is good enough. My laptop by itself is not.

  14. I can definitely tell the difference from mp3 to ogg. Telling from ogg to FLAC is harder. I can tell from the terrible built in headphone jack on my laptop to my reasonably priced but upgraded DAC. So, I bought the 500 Dollar Yamaha because it sounded better than the 2000 Dollar pioneer. I bought a nicer DAC, and even a class a headphone amp, but I didn’t break the bank. I care, but not the price of a car worth. A nice set of 100 Dollar studio headphones, the same for a better DAC and another 60 for a decent class a amp is good enough. My laptop by itself is not.

  15. I couldn’t agree more with your article…a few years back, I downloaded some free 2L sample clips at 352.8/24 and 192/24, and heard no difference.

    That said, I just did something stupid and the exact opposite of what I believed in…I bought a new DAC that is capable of playing 1.536MHz/24 bit and DSD1024. I doubt if there is any music currently available at such insane “resolution”.

    In my defense, sometimes life’s just too painful that one needs a little “injection” (and perhaps an escape from painful truths) every now and then. At a mere 1,500 dollars, this successor to a Stereophile Class A DAC is not an overly expensive “dose”.

    Cheers

  16. I couldn’t agree more with your article…a few years back, I downloaded some free 2L sample clips at 352.8/24 and 192/24, and heard no difference.

    That said, I just did something stupid and the exact opposite of what I believed in…I bought a new DAC that is capable of playing 1.536MHz/24 bit and DSD1024. I doubt if there is any music currently available at such insane “resolution”.

    In my defense, sometimes life’s just too painful that one needs a little “injection” (and perhaps an escape from painful truths) every now and then. At a mere 1,500 dollars, this successor to a Stereophile Class A DAC is not an overly expensive “dose”.

    Cheers

  17. I think you are fooling yourself if think that there is no difference between a low rez digital file and say a well-mastered LP played through a decent deck and cartridge. I’ve AB tested CDs against the vinyl equivalents for several friends and there is an undeniable difference. Do the tests before you deicde. I believe most people are sacrificing sound quality for convenience. I too used to do the same. But once you hear glorious pure music through decent speakers (mind you, not necessarily luxury speakers) you’ll be pissed you’ve been dumbing down the music experience.

    The source is the most important part of the signal chain. If you start with crap you’re inherently limiting the quality. And you’ll hear it if you AB test.

  18. I think you are fooling yourself if think that there is no difference between a low rez digital file and say a well-mastered LP played through a decent deck and cartridge. I’ve AB tested CDs against the vinyl equivalents for several friends and there is an undeniable difference. Do the tests before you deicde. I believe most people are sacrificing sound quality for convenience. I too used to do the same. But once you hear glorious pure music through decent speakers (mind you, not necessarily luxury speakers) you’ll be pissed you’ve been dumbing down the music experience.

    The source is the most important part of the signal chain. If you start with crap you’re inherently limiting the quality. And you’ll hear it if you AB test.

  19. I recognise that I’m about a year behind the other comments here. I totally agree that it’s mastering, not ‘file size’ that makes the difference. I can’t tell the difference between the same recording at 256 AAC or above.

    However I do have some HDTracks files (The original Star Wars trilogy LP releases) at 192/24. These do sound different (better) to the CD releases I previously owned. But I realised it’s the mastering of these, not the file size.

    My point is that we know good quality mastering is our goal. But that this isn’t commercially viable for most listeners as the article suggests. So maybe High Res audio (and equipment) has a place not because it in itself sounds better, but it creates a commercial opportunity for mastering to be properly done by engineers to be sold at the higher prices.

    I’d be happy to pay higher digital prices for High Res music if in fact I was buying better mastering. I’ve made my peace now with High Res music but will choose wisely.

  20. I recognise that I’m about a year behind the other comments here. I totally agree that it’s mastering, not ‘file size’ that makes the difference. I can’t tell the difference between the same recording at 256 AAC or above.

    However I do have some HDTracks files (The original Star Wars trilogy LP releases) at 192/24. These do sound different (better) to the CD releases I previously owned. But I realised it’s the mastering of these, not the file size.

    My point is that we know good quality mastering is our goal. But that this isn’t commercially viable for most listeners as the article suggests. So maybe High Res audio (and equipment) has a place not because it in itself sounds better, but it creates a commercial opportunity for mastering to be properly done by engineers to be sold at the higher prices.

    I’d be happy to pay higher digital prices for High Res music if in fact I was buying better mastering. I’ve made my peace now with High Res music but will choose wisely.

  21. I’d rather listen to Beethoven’s at 96 kbps than any heavy metal at High Res. I know that’s not what has been discussed, but even though… (sorry for my English)

  22. I’d rather listen to Beethoven’s at 96 kbps than any heavy metal at High Res. I know that’s not what has been discussed, but even though… (sorry for my English)

  23. Anyone saying they can hear beyond 20kHz is a fool. What you are hearing is mastering. I guess the saying A fool and their money soon part holds true.

  24. I am routinely vilified on music and audio forums for saying exactly what you have. The whole high-res audio thing is a scam.

    I understand why the makes of stereo equipment and the record companies are pushing it…they desperately need to seel this new snake oil to stay afloat…but that doesn’t mean it’s not snake oil.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.