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High-Resolution Audio - Is There Really A Difference?

The beauty and emotion of music exists between the notes. The notes are really just a road map for your heart. That may sound a little touchy-feely and New Agey, but it is essentially the truth. The space and air around a note, a performer or you the listener is what takes us to the places only music is capable of taking us. Technology is music's best friend, and has been since the dawn of history, but the last twenty years have seen a technology boom that is almost unrivaled. This boom has changed the very essence of the musical experience and forced us to raise the question - is high-resolution audio a thing and is it really worth it?

The answer is plain and simple: yes. It's really a matter of understanding that until digital came along, pretty much all music was high-resolution (okay, the cassette tape and AM radio are serious exceptions, but the greater point is music resolution was not an issue until the digital revolution). We are still waiting for the technology to reach a steady-state twenty years later. 

The news in 2018 that Pono had died a quiet death didn’t come as a surprise. The concept of Pono was spot-on but music technology is changing so rapidly the execution almost immediately fell far behind the state of the art – and what the market would bear. Founded by rock legend Neil Young (and others) in December 2011, Pono filed for dissolution on December 16, 2017 with an outstanding debt of $2.5 million.

Fans of high-resolution audio (HRA) who were early adopters of Pono’s hi-res player held out high hopes  the company would find a way to compete in an ever-changing and increasingly competitive market, but alas, it could not.

High-resolution audio (HRA) is bringing about the well-deserved demise of low-resolution audio. There is a quiet revolution happening as music consumers are awakening from their unfortunate mp3-induced low-res stupor. In the few short years since Pono’s demise it has become clear that high-resolution digital audio is indeed here to stay but the delivery is still a bit of the Wild West.

Yes There Is Such A Thing As HRA And It Does Sound Better

We’re not going to get into the nuts and bolts of the technology but here’s a quick definition of what exactly high-resolution audio is:

Using CD Audio (CD-A) as the baseline, high-resolution audio is any audio format with a higher resolution than CD, specifically a sample rate higher than 44.1kHz and a linear bit depth higher than 16 bits. As the technology exists today, this means sample rates of 48kHz, 88kHz, 96kHz or 192kHz and a bit depth of 24.

 FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV and DSD are the formats capable of storing high-resolution audio.

If the Big Labels Cared About Sound Quality Their Releases Would Sound Great In Every Format

So said a popular Internet tech blog a few years ago. There is absolute truth that many record labels provide masters that vary in quality depending on the intended release format. For example, there has always been master quality manipulation to justify the extra cost of a SACD over a CD, so a certain amount of cynicism from the music buying public is understandable but the simple truth is an mp3 from a great master file cannot compete with a 96k/24bit file cut from the same master.

While the need for high-resolution varies from consumer to consumer, the science is clear that the higher the resolution throughout the signal chain (from mastering to your speakers) the more detail, clarity and emotion you will get from your music. While it may seem overly subjective to use the word emotion we’re dealing with an ethereal subject matter (music) and there really is no other way to describe it.

High Resolution Audio Is A Thing And It’s Worth It*

Now that expensive and limited storage (the main reason for the invention of the mp3 in the first place) has been replaced by amazing leaps in technology and price we can have convenience and high quality: If you want the most you can get out of your music but still like the convenience of streaming or digital storage go right ahead and enjoy.

* You may not need or care about HRA in your own life right now, but take comfort in knowing that as your pursuit of that perfect musical experience evolves there are music formats, players and speakers available to you that will give you every subtle nuance and emotion the artists and engineers of your favorite music worked to provide you.

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