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Feature: High-resolution audio [U]

updated 01:58 am EDT, Sun March 30, 2014

High-resolution audio looks set to make an impact in 2014

If you think that high-resolution audio includes music ripped from typical CDs in lossless formats including FLAC and ALAC, you'd be wrong. The term refers to music that has a higher sampling frequency and bit depth than standard CD recordings, which are mastered at a bit depth of 16-bits and with a sampling frequency of 44.1kHz. FLAC and ALAC, however, do support music recorded at resolutions equivalent to those used in studio recordings, which is better than CD-quality. In recent times, a growing number of sites have started offering music in studio quality giving listeners the opportunity to listen to music literally as the artist intended.

While FLAC and ALAC ripped from typical 16-bit CD's easily beat out 256kbps AAC files and 320kbps MP3 recordings for fidelity, they still do not have the fidelity of most studio recordings that are typically captured with a bit depth of 24-bits and a sampling frequency of 96kHz or 192kHz. 24-bit FLAC and ALAC files. Although 'lossless' formats still compress music files, that in their uncompressed form would be double the file size, they still preserve the fidelity of the original recording. As such, audiophiles are happy to 'settle' for 24-bit, 96kHz FLAC or ALAC files, as even though they take up more hard disk space that AAC (MP4) and MP3 files, they preserve the fidelity of the original recordings. Uncompressed 24-bit, 96kHz digital file formats include AIFF, WAV, and DSD.



One company that has jumped in early to capitalize on the growing interest in the digital distribution of high-resolution audio is Sony, which has introduced a new range of high-resolution audio gear, including the new Android-powered NWZ-ZX1 High-Resolution Audio Walkman that we recently had the opportunity to go hands on with. It supports FLAC and ALAC files at 16- and 24-bits with sampling frequency rates of 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz and 192KHz, making it one of the few portable devices able to offer listeners an unadulterated listening experience. However, having an optimal recording and playback device isn't the whole story; you will also need headphones capable of supporting the frequency ranges produced by high-resolution audio players, which Sony is also producing to support its new range of high-resolution audio products.



We recently attended a Sony launch event for its new high-resolution audio range and where Sony audio guru and Chief Sound Engineer Koji Nageno was on hand to explain the benefits of high-resolution audio. Nageno is primarily responsible for the design and development of Sony's headphones, including the highly regarded MDR product range, which has recently been expanded to support high-resolution audio. While, on average, humans can hear frequencies from 20-20,000Hz, high-resolution audio formats can support frequency ranges between 5Hz-40,000Hz. Although, clearly out of the hearing range of most people, Nageno argues that it has been shown that even if humans can't hear all the frequency ranges of high-resolution audio, they can still feel much of them affecting the overall listening experience. Furthermore, 70 percent of Sony customers surveyed expect better than CD quality on Internet and mobile devices.



Sony, of course, missed out on the digital music revolution, at least from a hardware perspective, as Apple went on to dominate the personal music player market in the 2000's with its massively popular dual iPod and iTunes strategy. For the first few years, iTunes digital sales consisted of 128kbps AAC files before 256kbps AAC files were introduced in 2009. Although near CD-quality, 256kbps files are considered 'lossy' and of a reduced resolution compared to CDs, though for most people, they produce a sound quality that is more than adequate. The fact that so many iPhone and iPod owners persist with Apple's ear buds is proof enough of this, when the purchase of a decent set of ear buds or headphones will improve even this experience considerably. (I will concede, however, that Apple's EarPods are much improved.)



The main reason digital audio file formats have favored 'lossy' formats like AAC and MP3 is because of their much reduced file sizes. A typical high-resolution audio file for one song can be large as 150MB, whereas a 320kbps MP3 file is just 10MB in size by comparison. However, as bandwidth has now increased considerably for many people around the globe, interest in high-resolution audio has been rekindled. The explosion in popularity of the mid- to high-end headphone market in recent years shows that there is an appetite among many consumers for a better listening experience. Both LG, Sony and Samsung have moved towards supporting 'lossless' formats like FLAC and ALAC in their next-generation smartphones in an attempt to win over new customers interested in getting the best listening experience on the go. Apple's iPhone 5s also supports ALAC, AIFF and WAV.



While there is a lot of debate about the benefits of high-resolution audio over CDs and even FLAC and ALAC rips of CDs in terms of the improvement to the listening experience, in my experience there can be marked differences between listening to CDs and MP4s and MP3s. I have found the difference between listening to a CD and a lossless format can be negligible; however, I can appreciate the benefits of listening to a 24-bit, 96kHz high-resolution recording against listening to a 16-bit version of the same recording on CD. This has been made most obvious to me when making my own recordings in GarageBand or Logic in 24-bit, 96kHz and then listening to these exported in AIFF, ALAC as well as AAC. The expansiveness and resolution of the original recordings is certainly lost in 256kbps AAC, but is entirely preserved in uncompressed 24-bit AIFF and almost entirely preserved in uncompressed 16-bit AIFF exports.



The best way of capturing the differences in (at least) theoretical fidelity is to compare the respective file sizes produced of one of my songs when exported from GarageBand. An uncompressed 24-bit AIFF file came out at 57.1MB, while the uncompressed 16-bit version came out at 38.1MB. The 256kbps AAC version came out at 7.5MB. While it sounds fine in isolation, when compared to the uncompressed 24-bit file, it is well off the pace, sound much lowed in fidelity with the sound stage much flatter and more confined. Compared to the 256kbps transfer rate of an iTunes Plus AAC recording, a 16-bit CD recording transfers data at a rate of 1411kbps. An uncompressed 24-bit AIFF recording transfers data at a rate of 9216kbps, preserving all the sonic details of the original recording.



Clearly, for purists, having the all the gear that supports high-resolution audio files is the only option provided you have the budget to match. While one well-known headphone brand pushes the slogan that its products allow you to hear the music the way the artist intended, only devices and gear that supports high-resolution audio will truly give you that capability. Does it make a difference? Absolutely. My experience recording and exporting music in GarageBand and Logic leaves me in no doubt that you will get a studio quality listening experience listening to music in high-resolution formats. It is better than CD-quality and preserves the fidelity of studio recordings. It will be interesting to see how big this new market will get over the coming years, any there is no doubt that it is set to grow. I doubt that it will become the norm for some time, if ever, but it is certainly appealing for the many music lovers out there and well worth investigating further.

Update: Appleinsider is reporting that Apple may introduce 24-bit downloads later this year as part of a wider revamp of the iTunes Store.

By Sanjiv Sathiah



By Electronista Staff
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Comments

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    The truth is: Nobody cares. Not even sound engineers really care anymore.

    There have been high-resolution audio formats around for decades (SACD, DVD-A), and this Sony advertisement, er "audio feature", is just their last attempt to retain relevance after all other efforts have failed.

  1. msuper69

    Professional Poster

    Joined: 01-16-00

    My 62 year old ears can't tell the difference so I don't care. :)

  1. efithian

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 04-21-04

    I have found that a decent set of EarPods increases the quality significantly, even with the highly compressed audio out there, and transferred from CD's. I use the Ultimate Ears 4 Pro Custom In-Ear Monitors, which are molded to your ear canal to eliminate outside sounds. I use these everywhere; in the gym, on airplanes, at home when the wife thinks the sound is too loud. I have a few SACD and DVD-A discs which I will try with these earphones. I am not certain I could hear the difference using the 24-bit 192kHz recordings, since my 75 yo ears are limited to 15kHz.

  1. Eight_Quarter_Bit

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 11-17-10

    The debate around high-resolution audio files (24 bit / 192 kHz) for personal listening should mostly be a non-issue. While there is benefit in using them while recording and mastering (it lowers the noise floor, mostly, so you have more room to layer and tweak tracks without having to worry about noise creeping in with accumulated effects) it can actually /decrease/ the quality in personal listening, due to distortion caused by ultrasonics.

    Now, that's not to say there isn't a benefit of using lossless formats, mostly because you have an "archival" master that can serve as a good source for future-proofing when converting to later formats and you don't have to worry about what crappy, old, poorly written lossy encoder was used. However, the idea that 24/192 is inherently superior to a properly produced lossy format is bunk, as far as the fidelity of the end product is concerned.

    By all means, get a lossless version for archival purposes, but if you're after a quality listening experience, do not feel you are losing something by converting a copy to a high-bitrate lossy format.

    For those who wish to know about the crazy science and engineering behind all the above statements, here's an excellent article on the matter:

    http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

  1. tehwoz

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 12-19-13

    It's funny that this article tries to portray hires audio as something new. The hi-res audiophile market is dominated by hi-res SACD which is both forward and backward compatible: i.e. you can play all your existing CDs on a SACD player, and you can play your hybrid SACDs in the car or wherever. The latest SACD players not only play your CDs and SACDs, but also allow you to use the really high quality audiophile inbuilt DAC as an external DAC to your computer for your downloads, so it covers everything.

    There are almost 10000 SACDs out now ... which is vastly more than what is available with downloads.
    I don't think the hi-res download market will never be more than a niche within a niche, mostly because any money you spend on downloads is sunk and thrown away ... can't resell downloads ... whereas many SACDs become collectors items and sell for $100s of dollars.

  1. tehwoz

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 12-19-13

    Hi-rez audio from an iPhone or iPad is a waste of time ... that's a market interested in portability - not quality. Mostly, it will end up being played back through some tiny little box that has a USB connector on it, and stereo separation of 50cm. lol. Most audiophiles know that hi-res is the cream on the cake ... it requires a quality playback device with a quality DAC (e..g, standalone SACD player with pure DSD or external USB DAC), a quality amp, and nice big speakers with proper stereo separation ... PROPA kit. Hi-rez really makes a difference .. but you need the proper kit to do it. And most people today are just interested in streaming ... which is about 1/10th the data rate of CD.

  1. zunipus

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 02-14-07

    "The fact that so many iPhone and iPod owners persist with Apple's ear buds is proof enough of this..."

    So you've never used a pair of Apple EarPods. Not ear buds. *EarPods*. They sound as good or better than Sony's best ear buds. They're included with every Apple iPhone, iPod Touch. In fact, Apple no longer offers the ear buds you're talking about.

  1. danviento

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 12-28-05

    For all of those who are concerned about size limitations and say low-res streaming is preferred, may I submit to you the up-and-coming 4k video streaming services as an example of demand for high-res streaming?

    People ARE going to go out and buy 'the kit' to get this kind of quality and pay for content, so why not the same for music? If you have the bandwidth, I would think we can get his res audio streams going just fine.

    My personal desire would be to have your high res audio library at home (i have a desktop that is always on) and use your mobile device to either stream to a receiver or stream directly to the mobile device while on the home network.

    Why not give people the ability to take fewer, higher quality songs with them? With my smaller-sized iPhone, I'm already used to picking and choosing which songs can go with me (hello smart playlists). If I want to have a few hours of quality music as opposed to a few days of lossy, I don't see why it should be too much to expect to have that kind of choice or control.

  1. Truthsayer

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-06-13

    @zunipus, did you miss the part in the article which states "(I will concede, however, that Apple's EarPods are much improved.)

  1. Truthsayer

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 06-06-13

    @zunipus. Apple has not stopped selling it's older earphones. They still come with the iPhone 4s and the iPod Classic, which Apple continues to sell. Not to mention the millions of people who continue to use them with their older devices - not everyone upgrades to the latest and greatest you know.

  1. tehwoz

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 12-19-13

    Just don't see people being willing to pay more for hi-res downloads ... when they can buy hi-res SACDs for the same price (and play them in any CD player) ... and you've got something cool and collectible ... not just a boring download file that has zero value.

  1. bitshifter

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 03-25-11

    I am very much for this. Sure there is plenty of hype and misinformation. Everything must be in context and you must be aware of the entire recording and playback chain. But, I'm happy to see a move toward stemming the race to the bottom in sound quality. After getting on the Spotify bandwagon a while back, it wasn't long before I found myself wincing at the sound quality occasionally and so started my move back to using lossless files. And yes, I can absolutely tell the difference. I am enjoying listening to music again.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Originally Posted by zunipusView Post

    "The fact that so many iPhone and iPod owners persist with Apple's ear buds is proof enough of this..."

    So you've never used a pair of Apple EarPods. Not ear buds. *EarPods*. They sound as good or better than Sony's best ear buds. They're included with every Apple iPhone, iPod Touch. In fact, Apple no longer offers the ear buds you're talking about.



    The EarPods are much improved over the previous two (three?) designs Apple shipped. MUCH improved. And I enjoy them immensely and use them fairly frequently.

    They are not, however, high-end, by any stretch of the term.

  1. hayesk

    Professional Poster

    Joined: 09-17-99

    The fact is, and I mean fact, the human ear can not hear the difference between 16/44.1kHZ at 24/192kHz audio. This isn't a case where someone has better hearing than another, there's a biological limit in the structure of the human ear. It is explained very well here:

    http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

    24/192kHz are to give headroom when editing. For listening, 16/44.1 is just fine. If you disagree, feel free to point me to double-blind tests proving otherwise.

    In the meantime, save your money. Buy CDs and rip them, or buy regular 16/44.1 lossless audio.

  1. hayesk

    Professional Poster

    Joined: 09-17-99

    " I have found the difference between listening to a CD and a lossless format can be negligible"

    Can be? No, it is non-existent. Lossless means exactly that. No loss.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Originally Posted by hayeskView Post

    The fact is, and I mean fact, the human ear can not hear the difference between 16/44.1kHZ at 24/192kHz audio. This isn't a case where someone has better hearing than another, there's a biological limit in the structure of the human ear.



    This is simply not true. There is definitely an audible difference between 16-bit and 24-bit resolution.

    At least, there was ten or twelve years ago when I reliably picked out our own 24-bit recording in a double-blind test at university. Unfortunately, our sample size wasn't large enough to be statistically relevant due to the usual cramming, but it was enough to convince me. :)

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