Which Hard Disk Makes High-Resolution Music Sound Best, or What Makes Audiophiles Tick?

Following up on yesterday’s article about expensive Ethernet cables used in audiophile audio systems, and related to a recent article about why high-resolution music is a marketing ploy, I toss out a question for audiophiles. If things such as cables make a difference, what about hard disks? Has anyone done testing on hard disks, to see which makes music sound better? Do SSDs sound better than spinning-platter hard disks?

What about system busses? They must have an effect too. They could introduce jitter, even when playing music on a computer. And RAM? Is there any audiophile-grade RAM to ensure the proper “tonal neutrality” and “strong dynamics” of the music you listen to?

The ridiculous claims made by audiophiles do more harm than good to the audio industry in general. They allow companies to produce hugely overpriced equipment, and sell it to credulous people, but they also influence the entire audio equipment market, making us low-end people think that we don’t know how to listen to music, with a fair amount of contempt at times.

Yes, there are audio elements that make a difference. No one can deny that speakers and headphones sound very different[1]; that’s no surprise, because they actually create sound (i.e., they convert electrical signals into air waves, which we, in turn, perceive as sound). DACs can make a difference: the cheap DAC in a $30 CD player will be bested by a standalone DAC, or one in a more expensive player, because they are responsible for converting digital signals to sound signals. And there are certainly valid reasons, other than sound, for purchasing a more expensive amplifier: it may have more features, more inputs and outputs, or may be esthetically pleasing.

But what about all the other elements of an audio system? There sure are lots of them, and, according to audiophiles, altering any of them should have an effect on sound.

Assuming that you listen to music on a computer – which is the most complex audio chain – here are the elements that come into play:

  • Power supply
  • Power cable
  • Computer (I won’t isolate all the elements inside a computer that should influence sound, if audiophile theories are accepted)
  • Sound card (if using an analog output)
  • Digital interconnect: USB / Toslink / Ethernet cable (if using a digital output)
  • DAC (digital-analog converter, if used)
  • Audio interconnects: cables from DAC to pre-amplifier to amplifier, or from computer to pre-amplifier or amplifier
  • Pre-amplifier (if used)
  • Amplifier
  • Speaker cables
  • Speakers
  • Headphone amplifier (if used)
  • Headphones (if used)
  • Listening environment (which has much more effect on sound than most people realize)

According to audiophiles, changing any one of those items should affect the resulting sound. And they claim to be able to hear the difference between, say, a power cable or an audio interconnect among that complex chain.

There are two ways of testing such things. One is a purely subjective test; you hook up a new item and decide whether it sounds better. This is clearly influenced by many factors, notably differences in volume, or simply a desire to reinforce beliefs that a new cable, for example, really does sound better. The second method is ABX testing, where listeners hear different items, but don’t know what they’re listening to. While the former method is almost entirely subjective, the latter is fairly objective. Dozens of ABX tests have shown that people simply can’t hear the difference between different components, showing that, in most cases, the difference in price does not translate to a difference in quality. There have been tests that show that coat hangers sound as good as expensive speaker cables, and that all amplifiers sound the same.

So when these ABX tests show such results, and challenge audiophiles and their expenditures, they come up with another explanation: that the concept of ABX tests is flawed. “The answer is that blind listening tests fundamentally distort the listening process and are worthless in determining the audibility of a certain phenomenon.” They have to defend their choices to spend a lot of money on audio equipment.

You would think that, if all these elements made such a difference, recording engineers would use them to ensure the best possible capture of music. But this isn’t the case. As I recently wrote, I found it interesting, when attending a classical recording session in a church, that no expensive cabling was used, just “miles of copper.”

I care about music; a lot. I care about sound; only if it is in service to the music. I don’t have cheap audio equipment, but my setups are around the high end of consumer audio pricing. Because that’s what it’s worth paying; when you pay more, the quality differences become miniscule. I have a full stereo in my office, with good speakers, and I use several different headphones. But it’s a shame to keep reading reviews of things like cables that are simply made up. If all these elements made a difference in sound, then it would be easy to tell them apart. The fact that one can’t tell the difference in blind testing shows that this is an industry built on feet of clay.


  1. Several months ago, I went to a hi-fi store to listen to a number of headphones. I listened to several Grado headphones, and there was a clear difference in clarity across different models; the more expensive ones sounded better. But that doesn’t mean that any headphones at the same price would sound good. I also tried out Bower & Wilkins’ P5 portable headphones, which were nearly as expensive as the best Grados I tested. I disliked their sound very much; it was too bassy for me. So there’s a lot of personal taste that goes into things like speakers and headphones; it may not be the most expensive that sound “best.”  ↩

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, and When They Copy and Paste Reviews

Following yesterday’s article about expensive digital cables and journalists who believe in magic, I thought I’d have a look at how What Hi-Fi? – the magazine for which said journalist pens his reviews – actually writes about cables.

Much of my work involves reviews: professionally, I review apps and music, but I also review books, films and theater productions here on my website. So I know a bit about what it takes to write a review, and the kind of content one needs to write. A review should present a product, and explain what is good (or not) about it, if possible by comparing it to other, similar products.

Apparently, hi-fi cable reviews don’t get that kind of treatment. Here’s one, for a £185, 0.5m digital cable:

Clearly this is a premium cable for premium systems — to connect a CD player to a DAC, perhaps.

But the Clearer Audio Optimus will win you around once you plug it in. It’s a terrific sounding cable, outgunning the opposition for bass depth, midrange drive, treble purity and soundstage openness.

Its chunky Super Suppressor collars make it stand out — so does the brilliance of its sound.

That’s it; that’s the extent of this magazine’s review of a cable that costs £185. You’d think they’d try a little harder, and at least make up some reason why it sounds better, rather than just write four sentences stuffed with fluff.

Two points here. First, for something that pricey, there’s no excuse for such a short review. Second, how much time can the journalist have spent testing this cable to only come up with 66 words, only half of which describe the cable?

Here’s another one, for a £1,000 analog cable (1 m):

Some people will never be able to get past the Indigo Plus’s hefty price. But, expensive though it is, used in the right set-up these interconnects are extraordinary.

Those with systems below the five grand mark shouldn’t even think about getting them. It only really starts to make sense with systems at around double that.

The original Indigo was dynamic, bold and musical in a way that eluded most rivals.

The ‘Plus’ is noticeably cleaner, unearthing even more subtle details. The differences aren’t of the night and day variety, but they are enough for the Plus to keep the Indigo at the cutting edge of high-end interconnects

Out of all that – a whopping 109 words – only half of the review talks about the cable, with just this to actually describe it (in comparison to an earlier model):

The ‘Plus’ is noticeably cleaner, unearthing even more subtle details.

Or how about this, for a £750 cable (1 m):

We know there are many readers who will never get past the price of these Atlas cables. Thankfully for Atlas, these cables are great performers in the context of an appropriate system.

We’re quite fond of the 15 percent rule, which says that you should spend that percentage of the total system cost on cable.

Start thinking of the Mavros in the context of a 20-grand-plus system and the price doesn’t seem so outlandish, particularly when you hear just how clearly this pairing out-performs cheaper, quality competition.

Neutral, detailed and smooth
As you would expect, the Mavros sound is very much in the Atlas mould: it’s neutral, detailed and smooth without blandness, except here it’s to a higher level than we’ve heard from the brand.

Listen to Beethoven’s 5th and the cables deliver a greater level of insight and stronger dynamics than most other cables we’ve tested.

It’ll come as much down to taste and careful system matching as anything else, but either way, at this end of the market, the Mavros makes a strong case for itself.

Now that’s a much longer review; but less than half of it talks about the cable. And there’s one glaring sentence that cannot escape the attention of classical music listeners:

Listen to Beethoven’s 5th and the cables deliver a greater level of insight and stronger dynamics than most other cables we’ve tested.

Which “Beethoven’s 5th?” When was it recorded? How? Was it recorded in analog or digital? If I search Amazon.com, I find 276 hits for “beethoven 5th symphony”, and that’s just on CD. Would any Beethoven’s 5th benefit from “a greater level of insight and stronger dynamics?”

But it gets better. The above review was for an audio interconnect; that’s the cable that you run from, say, a CD player to an amplifier. But look here, at a review for speaker cables from the same company: it’s exactly the same review! Word for word; it’s a copy and paste (though the header, Neutral, detailed and smooth, has been removed from the speaker cable review). Speaker cables and audio interconnects are two totally different kinds of cable, and it would surprise me that it is possible to say exactly the same thing about two different kinds of cable.

These people are charlatans.

Do Cables Make a Difference to Audio Playback?

I posted an article earlier today about a hi-fi journalist who believes in magic, thinking that there can be differences in digital cables between, say, computers and DACs.

Joe Cox, the editor of What Hi-Fi?, who follows [update: who used to follow me] me on Twitter, said this:

006.png

This made me think about an experience I had last week. I went to Cambridge to attend a recording session of the King’s College Choir, in the astounding King’s College Chapel. I spent an afternoon watching the session, talking with the executive producer, and with the recording engineers (from Abbey Road Studios). One thing that I found interesting was the cabling they used. The session was being recorded at 24/96, for release in 5.1, and there were about 24 microphones altogether. I asked if there was any fancy cabling, but the executive producer said, no, “just miles of copper.”

In other words, when recording engineers set up to record very subtle music – this was a choir in a chapel, and the sound is very complex – they don’t use anything other than cables which, most likely, are thick and robust enough to withstand rolling, unrolling and people walking on them. If even recording engineers don’t use fancy cables, then why should anyone think that expensive cables are necessary to play back music; let alone expensive digital cables?

No, just as high-resolution music is just a marketing ploy, so are expensive cables. Yes, there is a minimum that needs to be used. For analog, a cable that is too thin may have problems sending electricity from an amplifier to speakers. And with digital cables, there are standards to respect: USB 2, for example, is slower than USB 3, and some cheap USB cables may not be able to handle the faster speeds. The same is the case with Ethernet cables: there are different categories of cables (this is an ANSI standard), which guarantee specific data throughput, and the maximum length of cables.

So not only do cables almost never make a difference, if they did, you’d imagine that recording engineers would be using the best they could get. They don’t.

Of course, you could also use coat hangers

“Audiophile” Hi-Fi Journalist Defends Expensive Cables, Admits He Believes in Magic

On the What Hi-Fi? site – a well known UK audio equipment review site – journalist Andy Madden wrote today an interesting defense of expensive audio cables. But he essentially states that he believes in magic, and doesn’t care about any kind of realist analysis of the issue:

You can put whatever research you want in front of me, all the measurements in the world aren’t going to stop me from having the opinion that all digital cables do not sound the same. There, I said it.

This is a serious problem in audiophile journalism. People get so convinced that their beliefs are true, that they refuse to accept any possibility that they are wrong. Frankly, this is irresponsible for a journalist to approach any type of item or content that is reviewed with this sort of pre-conception.

This journalist believes in magic. Note that he expressly talks about digital cables. While there is a possibility that there can be tiny differences in analog cables, this is simply not possible with digital cables, whether they are USB, HDMI or Ethernet.

What Hi-Fi? has lost all credibility. This said, at least they actually published this article; many other sites and magazines have journalists whose attitudes are similar, but who are ashamed to admit it.

Also, read Do Cables Make a Difference to Audio Playback? where the editor of What Hi-Fi? responds to my comments, and I show that even the top recording engineers don’t use fancy cables. And Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music is a Marketing Ploy. And read about how What Hi-Fi? reviews cables; see how, in one case, they just posted the same review text for two different cables.

Dragon Dictate for OS X Keeps Getting Better: Read my Macworld Review

I’ve been dictating, and using speech recognition software, for more than 15 years. Over the years, I’ve watched as Nuance’s Dragon Dictate for OS X has improved. I reviewed Dragon Dictate 4 for Macworld, and found its accuracy to be noticeably better than with the previous version. And they’ve added a transcription feature that lets you transcribe recordings of any voice, not just your own.

But you should probably read the full review…

Richard Powers on Intelligent Life on Other Planets

From Richard Powers’ moving science fiction story Genie, available as a Kindle Single (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).

Let us assume that there is, indeed, sentient life in one or another part of remote space … What on earth are we going to talk about? Hello, are you there?, from us, followed by Yes, hello, from them–will take two hundred years at least … Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.

See also my review of Richard Powers’ novel Orfeo.

Update: As Laurent mentions below, this is a comment from The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas. Looking back at the story, I see it is cited as such. (I had highlighted it on my Kindle, and grabbed the quote from my Kindle page, without being able to see the context.) Great quote nevertheless.

How to Listen to Music in Stereo

I’ve always been surprised that most reviews of standalone speakers or iPod dock speakers don’t mention stereo separation. Those sorts of speakers only provide stereo sound if they are right in front of your head; even then, the speakers might not be far enough apart. The same is true with sound bars. They’re not very wide, and they don’t provide true stereo imaging. Even if you have two speakers, if they’re not far enough apart, then you don’t really hear stereo.

In an interesting article on Cnet, Steve Guttenberg asks Do you ever get to really hear stereo sound? He has a point. Most people either listen to devices, such as those I mention above, that don’t have good stereo separation, or they don’t have their speakers set up correctly to really hear stereo. Do you?

I listen to music in stereo, in both my office and in the living room. Here’s a picture from my office from when I recently bought new desktop speakers. These speakers are set up for “near-field listening,” where the speakers and my head are roughly the points of an equilateral triangle.

Miles midnight

Guttenberg says the speakers “should be at least 24 inches apart when you’re sitting a few feet away.” I think there must be more separation than that, and, in my setup, the speakers are about four feet apart. I could move them a bit closer together — perhaps a foot — and still get good separation, but not much more than that. However, if the speakers are too far apart, then the separation becomes too noticeable. It’s a tough balance.

But you also need the speakers to be at almost exactly the same distance from each ear; if not, you’ll hear one louder than the other, and it won’t sound like true stereo. This is not a problem if you have a listening setup with a single seat for a listener, but once you get into a room where more than one person will listen, either none of them will be in the center and hear stereo, or one person – the one in the center – will hear stereo and the others won’t.

Guttenberg also discusses the height of speakers. He says they should be “near the seated height of the listeners’ ears to produce the most accurate stereo imaging.” Actually, what is important is that the tweeters be at the height of the listeners’ ears; this is because high-frequency waves are very small, and they don’t spread out very much from tweeters. Low-frequency waves, coming from larger speakers, spread out much more, so their height makes less of a difference. And with subwoofers, you can place them almost anywhere in your listening room, because the waves at those frequencies are so long.

I also agree with Guttenberg that headphones are not very realistic. I enjoy listening to music on headphones, but I do understand that it’s not the way the music should really sound. The music is in your head, and the right and left channels are all the way to the right and left of the soundstage. Often, if a specific instrument is mostly one one channel[1], it will be too far from center on headphones, even if it sounds acceptable on speakers. For music to sound “right” on headphones, it would have to be mixed for that type of listening.

What about live music? If you’re attending a concert with unamplified instruments – say, an orchestra or string quartet – then you’re hearing the sound as it should be (though it’s not “stereo;” it’s true surround sound). But if you attend a concert with amplification, you’re listening to speakers. Unless you’re centered close to the stage, you’re not hearing stereo at all. If you’re far back in an arena, you’re hearing a blend of all the speakers, and are unlikely to notice any instruments that are more weighted to one channel or the other, for the same reason you may not be hearing music in stereo at home.

I very much appreciate mono recordings. In fact, since I’ve discovered the great mono mixes of the pre-stereo days, I’ve realized just how artificial stereo sounds. Perhaps, some day, someone will invent a holographic speaker, where you only need one speaker to hear music that surrounds you. If so, you won’t need to worry so much about speaker placement. But until then, if your speakers aren’t set up correctly, you’re not hearing the music the way it was mixed.

Take some time to try out your speakers in different setups: in different positions, with more or less space between them, and with different amounts of space in front of walls. If you have speakers next to your TV, try distancing them from the screen. Start by moving them a foot or two, then try moving them as much as possible. Find the right balance; you may find that your music sounds very different indeed.

Neil Young Is Confused

Okay, I swore to a friend that I wouldn’t keep harping on about Neil Young. I have nothing against the guy; he made some great music back in the day, even though I’m not especially a fan of his music.

But this 68-year old musician, who suffers from tinnitus, and most likely some hearing loss, thinks he can tell everyone that only he knows how music should sound. I’ve written about Pono – his new high-res music service and player – and pointed out how some of the numbers cited are bogus. I’ve also explained why high-resolution music is a marketing ploy.

But today I read an interview with Neil Young which suggests that the guy really is confused. Speaking with Spin magazine, Young discussed his forthcoming album, A Letter Home:

Well, A Letter Home is going to be very confusing to people because it is retro-tech. Retro-tech means recorded in a 1940s recording booth. A phone booth. It’s all acoustic with a harmonica inside a closed space, with one mic to vinyl. Directly to vinyl.

An interesting approach, and one that a few other musicians have used in recent years. But here’s where Young seems to lose his grip on reality:

You can make a lo-fi, analog record, direct to vinyl, transfer it to 192 [kHz], and you have a high res copy of a lo-fi vinyl record.

There’s a word for this, Mr. Young: bullshit. Neil Young is suggesting that by up sampling a poor-quality recording, you can somehow magically transform it into high-resolution audio. Nope; that’s not how it works. In fact, that’s what audiophiles – the ones who believe there is a difference between CD-quality audio and high-resolution audio – are worried about. There have been many cases when retailers claimed they were selling recordings in high resolutions, yet these were simply upsampled from CD quality, or even worse.

To understand what this means, let me give you an easy-to-understand analogy. Unless you’re sitting far from your TV, you can see the difference between DVDs and HD videos. Imagine upsampling the DVD video from the DVD quality – 480 or 576 lines, depending on whether the DVD is in NTSC or PAL format – to 1080p, or HD. The video won’t look like it’s in HD; it will still look like a DVD (albeit a bit better). But with audio, it won’t sound any better at all; it’s simply using more bits for the same music.

If Neil Young thinks that’s how high resolution music works, he truly is confused.

In Praise of the Mac mini

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently wondering when the next Mac mini will be released. It’s been a while: the last update was in October, 2012, nearly a year and a half ago. Since its introduction in January, 2005, the Mac mini has seen refreshes roughly once a year, give or take a month; this is the longest time this model has gone without an update.

overview_server.png The Mac mini is small, quiet, unobtrusive, and it’s a mini-sized powerhouse. It’s the first Mac that I’ve owned that is, essentially, invisible. Mine currently sits on my desk, behind my 27″ Thunderbolt display, and I neither see it nor hear it. It’s more than fast enough for my work, and it’s flexible, in spite of its diminutive footprint.

001.pngThe model I use is a late 2011 version; I’m out of date by one generation. But there’s nothing in the more recent Mac mini that would make a difference to me, except, perhaps, USB 3. I have a number of Thunderbolt hard drives, so I get plenty of speed with them, but it would be nice to have the option to use the faster-than-USB 2 connections with lower cost drives.

When I got the Mac mini, I tricked it out as much as I could, planning on keeping it as long as possible. I didn’t care as much about the price tag as I did about longevity. So I got the fastest processor available at the time, and I got a 256 GB SSD, along with a second internal 750 GB hard drive. I initially got the base 4 GB RAM, but upgraded it to the maximum 16 GB. There’s nothing I do on my Mac mini that stresses the computer, and only rarely do I tax it to the max. The only times its processors get a workout are when I convert music or video files; ripping a DVD with Handbrake takes a while, and it would be a bit quicker if I had a faster processor, but it’s not something I do often enough that it’s a bother.

I was just thinking the other day that, while I’d probably buy a new Mac mini if it were released soon, I really don’t need one. (I’d move the existing one to a different room and use it as a server.) As we’ve reached the stage where megahertz no longer matter, it’s hard to find something that this computer can’t handle. Naturally, if I did video editing, or used other apps that require a lot of CPU exertion, it would be different, but for 99% of Mac users, the mini is more than enough.

The Mac mini is also a very popular computer. It’s widely used in its server version, and it’s the computer of choice for people who set up dedicated computers to manage their media libraries. It’s versatile, small, and inexpensive, and while it’s not going to win any design awards, like the latest Mac Pro will, it chugs away in the background, doing everything I need. The Mac mini may be one of the best Macs Apple has ever made, because it just gets out of your way and lets you get to work.

Music, Not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy

High-resolution music has been in the news over the past few days. Neil Young’s Pono, recently announced, is a new music player designed to play high-resolution music files.[1] Pono will also have a music store; users will be able to buy high-resolution music files and sync them to the Pono Player, in a process that could be as seamless as using iTunes and an iPod.

High-resolution music files cost more than other digital downloads, and cost more than CDs as well. But are they worth the money? Can you hear the difference between a CD and a high-resolution music file?

The answer is most likely no. While there may be a small number of people who have the necessary audio equipment and good enough ears to hear this difference, those people are few and far between. Most people cannot even tell the difference between a high-bit rate MP3 or AAC file and a CD, let alone a high-resolution file.[2]

But digital music purveyors market high-resolution music in an attempt to make purchasers think that they are special, that they may, indeed, be one of the few people who can hear the difference between CDs and high-resolution audio files.

So what exactly is high-resolution music? Why couldn’t it sound better than CDs? And why doesn’t it? You can’t test the subjective experiences of listeners, so how much of that experience is just an expensive placebo effect?

Some Terminology

For any discussion of high-resolution music, it’s important to clear up some terminology. When you see high-resolution music files, you may see them described as, for example, 24/96. This means the music in the files is 24-bit, and 96 kHz. While high-resolution music comes in a number of different levels of quality[3], I’m going to focus here on the most common high-resolution files, which are 24/96.

Let’s begin by explaining the specifications for audio CDs. The Red Book standard[4] specifies not only how CDs are manufactured, but also how recorded music is formatted for them. Audio CDs contained two-channel linear PCM audio [5] at 16-bit and 44,100 Hz; this is commonly abbreviated as 16/44.1. There are two elements here: the bit depth, which is 16-bit, and the sample rate, which is 44,100 Hz.[6]

Bit depth affects the dynamic range of music as well as the signal-to-noise ratio. The dynamic range of music is the difference between the softest and loudest parts of the music. A good example of music with a very broad dynamic range is Mahler’s third symphony. Listen to the final movement, and you’ll hear some very soft sounds as well as an extremely loud sounds. Or listen to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven; it starts with a soft acoustic guitar and builds up to a fuzz-box crescendo.

The bit depth is essentially the number of variations a recording can choose from in a given slice of time. 16-bit audio allows for a range of 65,536 possible levels; 24-bit audio increases that to 16,777,216 levels. However, between the threshold of hearing and the threshold of pain, humans cannot distinguish enough of these volume differences for this to be noticeable.[7]

The second number in our pair is the sample rate: this is the number of “slices” of audio that are made per second, and are measured in Hz (Hertz). 44.1 kHz means that the music is sampled 44,100 times a second; 96 kHz means it is sampled 96,000 times a second. The sample rate primarily affects the range of frequencies that can be reproduced by a digital music file.

And the combination of the two determines the size of audio files. A CD can contain up to around 80 minutes, but if it were encoded at a different bit depth or sample rate, it would contain less music. A four-minute piece of music on a CD takes up 41.1 MB; at 256 kpbs (AAC or MP3), it takes up 7.5 MB. But jump to a 24/96 file and it is around 138 MB, though, using lossless compression, it can be shrunk by about 1/3 to 1/2 of its original size.

Is Bigger Better?

This is where the marketing comes in: bigger is always better. It could seem logical that higher numbers would result in better sounding music, but this isn’t the case. Let’s take the bit depth. 24-bit music, according to the marketing department, sounds better than 16-bit music. Yet 16 bits are more than enough to cover what human beings can hear.[8] Too broad a dynamic range can be harmful; if you set the volume to hear the quiet parts of the music, the loud sections could burst your speakers, and hurt your ears.

And that sample rate? Interestingly, CDs use a sample rate, as we saw above, of 44,100 Hz; not a random number at all. This number was chosen because the highest frequency that humans can hear is around 20,000 Hz. According to the Nyquist theorum[9], the sample rate of music must be at least twice the maximum frequency that humans can hear. Since it’s best to leave a little bit of wiggle room, audio engineers took 20,000 Hz, multiplied it by two, and then added bit of padding, just in case.[10] Most of us don’t even hear up to 20,000 Hz: and, as we age, our hearing deteriorates. I can’t hear above around 12,000 Hz; you can test your hearing here.

Yet high-resolution audio files at 96 kHz can reproduce sounds up to around 48,000 Hz. Dogs can hear sounds that high; but not humans. In fact, it’s very likely that your stereo system cannot reproduce sounds at such levels. Most standard stereo equipment reproduces sounds from 20 to 20,000 Hz. So for ultrasonic sounds to be reproduced, every element of the audio chain needs to be able to reproduce these sounds. If your amplifier can go up to 40,000 Hz, but your speakers or headphones cannot, no amount of voodoo or magic can make high frequencies audible.

While it is certainly possible to have stereo equipment that can reproduce ultrasonic frequencies, you’ll never hear them. Yet, very high sample rate music files can actually cause distortion. As an article on xiph.org[11] says, “If the same transducer reproduces ultrasonics along with audible content, any nonlinearity will shift some of the ultrasonic content down into the audible range as an uncontrolled spray of intermodulation distortion products covering the entire audible spectrum.” There are a lot of $10 words in a sentence, but what they mean is that very high sample rates — in this case, 24/192 — can actually make music sound worse; harmonic distortion can occur when the ultrasonics intrude on audible frequencies.

On top of that, hardly anyone can distinguish music at high sample rates from CDs. A number of blind studies have proven this, time and time again.[12]

“Music as It Was Intended to Be Heard”

One of the biggest marketing arguments for high-resolution music files is that “this is how music was intended to be heard.” Pono Music says, “[Musicians] want their music heard and experienced the way they brought it to life with great care and commitment, in the studio.”[13] This is how the music was recorded; this is how engineers heard it when they edited the music. Therefore, this must be better.

Two elements separate the recording studio – or, more correctly, the engineer’s control room – and home listening spaces. First, control rooms have high-quality monitors (speakers) which are neutral, and which are designed to provide the best possible audio fidelity. Second, control rooms are completely soundproof rooms with no parallel surfaces and completely absorbent walls. Again, they are designed to have no obstacles to reproducing the music as it was recorded. But you won’t have that at home, unless you have a very expensive listening room (and there are some people who go to this expense).

Some websites sell high-resolution files under the moniker “studio masters.” And, in fact, these files are studio masters; what engineers used in the studio. But that doesn’t mean that these are files that we should use when listening to music, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’ll sound the same on home audio systems.

There is a very simple reason why engineers use high bit depths and sample rates when recording music. Digital music involves a lot of calculations; when you make changes to music, with equalization, speed changes, etc., you are multiplying and dividing numbers. When mixing and mastering an album, an engineer performs thousands of operations to alter sound. Each one of these calculations — to simplify — leads to numbers being rounded off. The bigger the numbers, the less of a chance there is for rounding errors to affect the music. But this doesn’t mean that we, as listeners, need the same types of files. We don’t manipulate these files; we may change volume, or even use some subtle EQ, but that’s it. Nevertheless, many vocal audiophiles will provide a number of reasons why they need to listen to music files that contain sounds that they simply cannot hear.

However, if someone really wants to provide “music as it was intended to be heard,” they’d do a lot better to look at the mastering process that’s been destroying music in recent decades. Colloquially known as “the loudness wars,” music producers, prodded by record labels, use dynamic compression to increase the overall volume of music, making it sound horrendous. Since, in general, louder sounds better, or brighter, when you compare two songs, producers have been cranking up the volume to make their songs stand out. But string together an albums worth of overly loud tracks, and it’s fatiguing. But it’s a war of attrition, and our ears are the losers. No high-resolution files will make this music sound better, ever.[14]

Also, mastering is often done by someone other than the recording engineer, and someone who may not have been involved in the recording process. So is this music truly the way the artists and engineers intended you to hear it?

Listen Better

As I said in the title of this article: music, not sound. There is a small minority of music listeners who are obsessed by the idea of obtaining “perfect” sound. They go to great lengths, and great expense, to try and reproduce the sound that one hears in a concert hall. By focusing on sound quality alone, it can be easy to neglect the music. Such people may get frustrated if the music doesn’t sound good enough, and find it hard to become immersed in great music.

I’m a music fan. What I want most of all, is good music. Some of my best listening experiences have come on tinny record players or booming car stereos. If the music is good, then the sound quality is less important. This said, without getting obsessive, there are a number of ways you can make your music sound better without maxing out your credit card.

For portable listening, start by getting rid of those white earbuds in a bundled with your iPod or iPhone. Get better earbuds, or get proper headphones. With headphones, you get what you pay for, up to a few hundred dollars. After that price point, it gets a bit iffy.

If you listen to music on your computer, get rid of those little desktop speakers and hook up a real stereo. I strongly recommend getting a good DAC — a digital-analog converter — because the sound card in your computer is probably not great. (Though no DAC will help if your amplifier and speakers are poor.) I have a DAC between my Mac and my amplifier; I find that it does make a difference, providing a more detailed soundstage.

And if you’re listening to digital music — you’re reading this article, so I assume you are — make sure it is at sufficiently high bit rates. Apple’s iTunes Store sells music at 256 kbps, which, for nearly everyone, is indistinguishable from uncompressed music. If you use MP3 files, go for 320 kbps; it should sound just as good as CDs as well.

But unless you’re willing to spend as much money on your stereo system as you do on your car, and set up an acoustically-controlled room, there is simply no way that high-resolution files will make any difference to the music you listen to. Lots of people try and convince you that there is a difference, but most of these people simply want to take your money. And you have to ask yourself: of the ones who aren’t asking for your money, how many are desperately seeking validation for the very large sums of money they’ve spent on something modern science tells us they cannot hear.


  1. http://www.kirkville.com/whats-the-point-of-pono-and-why-are-ponos-numbers-bogus/  ↩
  2. I consider high bitrates to be at least 256 kpbs for AAC or 320 kpbs (or VBR V–0) for MP3 files. Check whether you can hear the difference: http://www.kirkville.com/can-you-really-tell-the-difference-between-music-at-different-bit-rates/  ↩
  3. The most common high-resolution music files are 24/48, 24/88.2, and 24/96. Pono will offer files up to 24/192, and some companies sell files up to 24/384.  ↩
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_Disc_Digital_Audio  ↩
  5. Linear pulse-code modulation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulse-code_modulation.  ↩
  6. One must not confuse bit depth and bit rate, which is used to describe how much data is in a music file per second. For example, 256 kbps means that there are 256,000 bits of data per second of music.  ↩
  7. See Is Bits Really Bits?. And, how about a test? Check whether you can hear the difference between music at 16 bits, and the same music downsampled to only 8 bits: The 16-bit v/s 8-bit Blind Listening Test. I got 7 out of 10 when I did the test; that’s better than random.  ↩
  8. Dynamic range is quite complicated. See this article for more detailed information than you probably want.  ↩
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyquist_frequency  ↩
  10. There are also some other technical reasons why that specific sample rate was chosen. “Professional video recorders were originally used to prepare CD master tapes because they were the only recorders capable of handling the high bandwidth requirements of digital audio signals. Because 16-bit digital audio signals (and error correction) were encoded as a video signal, the sampling frequency had to relate to television standards’ line and field rate, storing a few samples per scan line. […] With three samples per line, 490 x 30 x 3 = 44.1 kHz, it is just right. […] Therefore, 44.1 kHz became the universal sampling frequency for CD master tapes. Because sampling-frequency conversion was difficult, and 44.1 kHz was appropriate, the same sampling frequency was used for finished disks.” Principles of Digital Audio, Sixth Edition, Ken C. Pohlmann. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)  ↩
  11. https://people.xiph.org/xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html  ↩
  12. See, for example, The Emperor’s New Sample Rate.  ↩
  13. http://www.ponomusic.com/#faq Or Try for yourself.  ↩
  14. See The Future of Music and, for a more technical explanation, ‘Dynamic Range’ & The Loudness War. And The Dynamic Range Database is a list of more than 50,000 albums, showing their relative loudness.  ↩