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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). 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. 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:
Lossless audio is merely audio which hasn’t undergone a lossy compression process, 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).
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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)