Update, May 2021: Apple has just announced the arrival of lossless and high-resolution audio on Apple Music. In addition, there will be “spatial audio,” which is a term for audio recorded – or remastered – using Dolby Atmos, which is today’s equivalent of 5.1 audio (sort of). This makes it a good time to revisit what high-resolution audio means, and who can benefit from it. tl;dr: most people don’t care, won’t hear the difference, and don’t even have the gear to play it back correctly.
I’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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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. 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. 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:
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:
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.
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; 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.
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.
- No audio reproduced in a home environment will ever sound as good as music performed in a live concert hall, or in a studio. ↩
- The most egregious example I have seen recently in Stereophile is a $40,000 turntable. ↩
- 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? ↩
- 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? ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- This is dynamic range compression that makes music louder, not the compression that makes audio files smaller. ↩
- 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. ↩