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Generally speaking, audiophiles and their money are easily parted — but genuine audiophiles are actually quite discerning with the equipment they choose to buy.

They won’t drop $200 on some Beats by Dre headphones (which look gaudy, are overpriced, and sound utterly mediocre What Are Celebrity-Endorsed Headphones And Why You Should Avoid Them What Are Celebrity-Endorsed Headphones And Why You Should Avoid Them Celebrity endorsements are nothing new. There is one type of product, however, that's become notorious for its epidemic of endorsements; headphones. Read More ). Instead, they’re likely to spend more but on the things that matter, dropping thousands of dollars on ultra-high-end headphones and/or speakers.

But would they spend $400 on an MPR player just because its feature-list boasts something called “High-Resolution Audio”? Good question.

What Is High-Resolution Audio?

From the get-go, I want to stress something really important: High-Resolution Audio is not lossless audio.

When a CD is ripped and converted to MP3 (or any lossy format), it is compressed How Does File Compression Work? How Does File Compression Work? File compression is at the core of how the modern web works, one could argue, because it allows us to share files that would otherwise take too long to transfer. But how does it work? Read More . The advantage of this is you can store a five-minute song in 4 MB (it would be around 50 MB in Compact Disk Digital Audio, or CD-DA, format).

But there’s a downside: in the process, you lose some of the richness of that original source audio. Audio data is lost in that compression process. This video visualizes this process beautifully:

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Lossless audio is merely audio which hasn’t undergone a lossy compression process How Audio Compression Works, and Can You Really Tell the Difference? How Audio Compression Works, and Can You Really Tell the Difference? In this article, we'll take a look at how music compression works, and whether it has any real effect on how your music actually sounds. Read More , and therefore has retained all of the original audio data. When you rip a CD to a lossless format like FLAC, the audio is effectively identical to the original CD-DA audio since nothing has been lost — hence, lossless.

High-Resolution Audio, on the other hand, is supposedly better than CD-DA. Yes, you heard that right. Better. What makes it better? Well, for starters, it has radically different audio bit depths and sampling rates.

Until recently, there was no standard criteria for High-Resolution Audio, but that changed in June 2014 when Warner, Universal Music Group, and Sony agreed upon an accepted definition. Before that, the only certainty was that it would feature sampling rates higher than 44.1 KHz and greater than 16-bit depths (the maximum threshold for CD-DA).

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As of now, there are four different standards for High-Resolution Audio depending on the source of the audio. Generally, though, High Resolution Audio has a 192 KHz sampling rate and a 24-bit depth.

The end result is audio that’s supposed to be near-perfect in quality and sounds closer to what was recorded in the recording studio than any other medium. Supposedly, High-Resolution Audio faithfully recreates the studio master tracks in a way that CDs cannot.

Note: While High-Resolution Audio is often saved in lossless formats (e.g. FLAC), a lossless audio file not necessarily High-Resolution Audio.

What Do the Critics Say?

Ask around and you’ll hear some interesting responses. Some people say that the benefits of High-Resolution Audio are negligible, while others have accused it of being close to a scam.

In a blog post, the Xiph.org Foundation wrote:

“192kHz digital music files offer no benefits. They’re not quite neutral either; practical fidelity is slightly worse. The ultrasonics are a liability during playback.”

They were even more damning when it came to the subject of 24-bit, 192 KHz audio, describing it as “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, a business model based on willful ignorance and scamming people”.

hires-cords

Indeed, there’s little evidence that High-Resolution Audio is perceptibly better than CD audio. Quite the contrary, the evidence appears to suggest otherwise.

A 2007 paper by Brad E. Mayer and David R. Moran described a double-blind trial where audio engineers, “dedicated audiophiles”, and audio-recording university students were played CD-quality audio and self-described High-Resolution Audio.

The result? No perceptible difference between CD-quality audio and High-Resolution Audio. That said, there are still thousands of audiophiles who swear by it and are willing to pay a premium for it.

What’s Needed to Play It?

If you want to listen to High-Resolution Audio, you’re going to need to buy some truly expensive equipment. There’s just no way around it.

Probably the most well-known High-Resolution Audio player is the PonoMusic PonoPlayer, which was launched by Neil Young in 2014.

hires-pono

Pono Music Portable Music Player, Black Pono Music Portable Music Player, Black plays high-resolution music files and other formats better than any portable device. Buy Now At Amazon $339.99

The Android-powered PonoPlayer costs $399 and comes with 64 GB of storage. That sounds like a lot, but remember, High-Resolution Audio files are big. One thing that the PonoPlayer has going for it is its quirky and endearing design, which looks more like a Fisher Price children’s toy than a top-shelf piece of audiophile gear.

Some critics — like ArsTechnica — have derided the PonoPlayer as “snake oil” while others — like Leo Laporte — have given it glowing reviews, hailing it as a significant step up from existing standards of audio equipment.

Then there’s the more budget-friendly FiiO X1 Music Player, which can be had for as little as $100. Although it looks the part, and it boasts some pretty impressive reviews, you can tell some corners have been cut in order for it to hit that price point. For instance, it doesn’t actually have any integrated storage. You have to buy a MicroSD card separately.

hires-fiio

FiiO X1 High Resolution Digital Lossless Media Player (Silver) FiiO X1 High Resolution Digital Lossless Media Player (Silver) Professional quality Texas Instrument PCM5142 DAC and Intersil ISL28291 OP amp Buy Now At Amazon $75.00

Sony has also dipped its feet in the High-Resolution Audio player world with the Sony Walkman NWZA17SLV. Available on Amazon for $300, it sits right between the PonoPlayer and the FiiO X1.

hires-walkman

Sony Walkman NWZA17SLV 64 GB Hi-Res Digital Music Player (Silver) Sony Walkman NWZA17SLV 64 GB Hi-Res Digital Music Player (Silver) 64GB1 Hi-Res Walkman Portable Music Player, Supports Hi-Res audio playback of: WAV, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, and more, Up to 50 hours MP3 playback and 30-hours Hi-Res playback, Stream music wirelessly with Bluetooth & NFC connections Buy Now At Amazon $298.00

Not only does it support a smorgasbord of lossless formats, it also comes with 64 GB of storage, Bluetooth support, and an enduring 50-hour battery life.

Finding High-Resolution Songs

Let’s say you buy into it. Once you’ve got your High-Resolution Audio player, where can you get songs to play on it? As of now, your best option is to check out the PonoMusic download service.

hires-songs

Their catalog selection rivals most other sites, but you do pay a premium considering many albums here will cost you about $16. Although not all of their music is currently available in High-Resolution format, they’ve promised to issue upgrades to previously-purchased songs when they become available.

Will You Get One?

It’s worth noting that the value of a medium is often subjective. For example, some users find that vinyl is superior to digital 4 Reasons Why Vinyl Is Better Than Digital 4 Reasons Why Vinyl Is Better Than Digital Greetings, peasants! What, still listening to MP3s? Look, as someone who knows more about music than you, I think it's my duty to tell you there's a better way. It's called vinyl. Read More while others disagree vehemently Forget Vinyl: 4 Reasons Digital Is Superior Forget Vinyl: 4 Reasons Digital Is Superior Vinyl is overrated. Fact. Digital is clearly superior for many reasons, some of which we lay out below for your reading pleasure. Feel free to disagree, even if doing so makes you a massive hipster. Read More .

High-Resolution Audio isn’t without its detractors, but it’s also got a rabid base of adherents, all of whom are willing to pay a premium for this supposedly better-quality music.

Are you one of them? Do you listen to High-Resolution music? Are you thinking of getting a player? Or are you skeptical about the whole thing? Tell me about it in the comments below.

Image Credits: blue lines equalizer by anigoweb via Shutterstock, hand on mixer in the recording studio (via Shutterstock)Array of multicolored high end RCA style audio cords inserted into pre-amplifier jacks (via Shutterstock)

  1. tomaszewskipaul55@yahoo.com
    May 22, 2016 at 9:41 pm

    This is starting to go the way megapixels did for camera's five to six years ago. We finally realized that at a certain point, we couldn't tell the difference between a picture at 25 megapixels and the same picture at 40 megapixels. At some point we will not be able to hear the difference at any bitrate.

  2. Andrew Hills
    February 21, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Although i now purchase 24bit 96KHz files through Qobuz I'm sure i can detect a difference but after much reading i believe its more about the transfer and the recording that these files are taken/converted from.I have only ever bought Two very high res recordings "Dark Knight" from the Batman movie and Metallica Black album (the Metallica is known to be a top class recording but they actually sounded worse than the lower res version with the equipment i have, i don't bother with anything above 24/96 now (with an annual sub with Quobuz the 24/96 is not much more or the same price as 16/44.

  3. Luiz C. Vieira
    October 20, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    We all have a pair of 'hearing devices', both with slightly different perceptions, and these are our only sound input devices. They are limited, different from one person to another, and there are also ear physiology and sound perception which give the input data some post treatment. Reading about the many sound systems and their differences will not change peoples inability to listen to and enjoy - or neglect - music and sound tracks. After all, we are mainly talking about music and sound tracks, right? Not sound patterns that are used to identify what is the best noise figure or lowest THD. Yes, I was raised amongst analog audio, I read RMS, PMPO, IHF but I also deal with digital audio. In fact, higher sampling rates and data depth will create bigger files and much more data from the same audio piece.

    But will audiophiles actually listen to them? If so, they may also suffer from listening to so too many noise everywhere it must give them headaches. I'm not skeptical about technology neither about peoples' inability to listen, I just agree with the fact that whatever is added to sound systems that goes beyond human hearing limits is a waste. Same applies to hi-res image systems: if one cannot see, why bother? My thoughts.

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 26, 2015 at 12:52 pm

      Interesting. Thanks for your comment!

  4. james.McWilliams1
    October 20, 2015 at 7:58 am

    Some cheap Hi Res options: My old Blackberry Playbook and Neutron music player sounds good through my Epoz Atimate powered speakers. My Blackberry Passport plays 24 bit 192 kHz files. My Raspberry Pi with Runeaudio streams Hi Res files from my Pc and handles up to 96 kHz but stutters a bit on 192 due, I think, to wifi bandwidth.

    As for sound quality relative to 16 bit 44 kHz the jury is out. I think the quality of the original recording may be more important.

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 26, 2015 at 12:51 pm

      Although I'm not convinced by High Res audio, I appreciate the hints. You can get Playbooks pretty cheap on eBay now, which is cool.

  5. likefun butnot
    October 19, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    I own a substantial library of SACD and DVD-Audio content, which I've converted to .FLAC using an old PS3. SACD hardware and discs are exotic but far and away the easiest way to get high resolution audio. SACD content is generally created from remastered studio tapes, a clean source. SACD and DVD-Audio content also can have more than stereo audio mixes, which can be interesting for some sorts of music and muddy and awful for others.

    In file trading communities, another option for obtaining high resolution recordings of LPs involves using professional grade recording hardware to make high resolution samples from vinyl. In that case, the turntable, tonearm and needle will influence the recorded output as much as the quality of the source disc. I can honestly say that I can't hear the difference between that sort of high res recording and something that came off a CD, but in many cases, the recordings in question were never issued on CD in the first place.

    • Matthew Hughes
      October 26, 2015 at 12:52 pm

      Good to know. Cheers!

    • JD
      November 23, 2015 at 6:01 pm

      Truth! Agree Likefun

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