The next time you shop for headphones, a wireless speaker, or a sound bar, you'll probably notice a bright yellow Hi-Res Audio logo on the packaging. It's a big selling point these days.
In fact, the music-streaming service Tidal recently rolled out high-res audio to its customers, and Rhapsody and Pandora have promised to follow suit. According to audio-equipment manufacturers—and the music legend Neil Young—the format represents a significant leap forward in audio quality, one that practically puts you in the recording room with the musicians.
But support for hi-res audio is by no means universal. Some experts—including Consumer Reports' testers—question whether it's truly worth the added expense of new equipment and new music files.
Here's what you need to know about hi-res audio.
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The Benefits of Hi-Res Audio
Over the years we've grown accustomed to the inferior sound quality of some digital-audio formats. In the push for convenience and the ability to store thousands of songs on a single device, says Marc Finer, senior director of the marketing organization Digital Entertainment Group, we've sacrificed the rich details found on vinyl records and CDs.
"We had to compress the file to make it small enough to download," Finer says. "That compromised many of the key characteristics of the sound."
The streaming-music boom has only made matters worse, compressing files even further.
But not all compression is the same. The "lossy" compression used for MP3 and AAC (Apple iTunes) files strips out bits of audio data, which often leads to a dip in sound quality. The "lossless" compression used for hi-res files, on the other hand, preserves all the information in the master recording.
"Now consumers can have both—all the convenience of digital along with the fidelity of the original recording," Finer says.
Tidal's MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) files, for instance, are roughly the same size as a CD-quality file. For now, though, you can stream them using only a computer-desktop application, according to the company, so they're not quite as mobile as your smartphone.
According to Consumer Reports' testers, though, the differences between hi-res audio and CD, high-quality MP3, and high-quality AAC files are less distinct to the ear than one might expect, even on the very high-end audio system in our labs. "If you notice any differences at all, they will only be in the very fine details of audio and only if you are paying close attention," says Maurice Wynn, our resident audio expert. "We also found that the differences were less noticeable when listening through headphones.”
The truth is that a lot of the audio information in hi-res files falls outside the range of human hearing. That's one reason Mark Waldrep, a longtime music recording and mastering engineer and founder of the AIX Media Group, has been highly critical of the ways in which the music industry has defined, characterized, and promoted hi-res audio.
He's opposed to the industry practice of creating hi-res files from analog recordings, for example. If you look at a spectrograph—a visual representation of the spectrum of audio frequencies—in hi-res files featuring such bands as Led Zeppelin or the Beatles, Waldrep explains, “the frequency response and dynamic range above a certain point is all black or all zeros."
"In other words," he says, "you’re getting a big digital file that gives you nothing more than the analog tape. And why pay for all that?”
For most songs currently sold as hi-res, the industry is selling consumers a bill of goods, Waldrep claims. “It’s nonsense," he says. "It’s the snake-oil thing that comes around so much in the audio industry.”
How to Listen to Hi-Res Files
Even Finer admits that hi-res audio has its limitations. "It’s not necessarily for everyone," he says. "But it is for the millions of fans who strive to hear music as close to the original experience as possible."
To do that, you must invest in quality playback equipment, quality content, and a quality music provider, he argues. "If those three elements aren’t in place, your ability to perceive the differences will vary.”
Over the past year, the list of playback equipment vying to provide that quality has grown significantly. A hi-res-audio player will set you back anywhere from $170 for the second-generation FiiO X3 with EM3 to $3,500 for Astell&Kern's premium portable AK380. (The Neil Young-championed Pono Player is $330.)
The LG V20 smartphone—one of the first with hi-res playback features—costs $670.
The headphone market includes the new Audio-Technica ATH-DSR9BT model, $550, and the Sony wireless MDR-1000X ($300). And there's a broad selection of hi-res-compatible wireless speakers from Onkyom Pioneer, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio.
"Keep in mind," Wynn says, "that hi-res does not necessarily mean high sound quality. In fact, in our testing we have yet to find a high-res-audio headphone or wireless speaker that matches the sound quality of the best non-hi-res products."
And of course none of this hi-res equipment is worth the cost unless you purchase new music files, too. At the moment, Finer says, there are nearly 20,000 hi-res audio recordings available. You can find them at such sites as HDtracks and Acoustic Sounds Super-HiRez. Downloading a full album costs $15 to $25. Individual songs sell for $1 to $2 compared with 75 cents to $1.50 for a standard single.
Before you start creating a new music library, though, you should know that the files can be 10 times larger than an MP3 file. So you may well need to pay for extra cloud storage or a smartphone like the V20 that lets you swap out your device's memory card for a larger one.
If you want to stream hi-res music, Tidal's $20-per-month, top-tier service offers thousands of selections.
Is Hi-Res for You?
For collectors and audiophiles—those who revel in owning "the real thing"—hi-res music files may be well worth the price. In fact, you don't have to invest in hi-res equipment to play them. If you use a noncompatible device, Finer says, the playback will default to accommodate the player's limitations. "You'll be able to hear that music," he explains. "just not in high resolution."
But if you want to try to hear the difference those hi-res files make, you have to invest time and money in a very high-quality audio system, like the one in our labs. Before you go that route, though, visit a store and listen for yourself. That's the only way to know whether you will truly appreciate what hi-res has to offer.
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