What do you want to hear when you listen to music? Do you want to hear a lower-fidelity version of what the artists, engineers, and producers heard in the studio? Or would you prefer to hear exactly what they heard in the studio?
Of course, you’d prefer the latter. But you’re probably getting the former — unless, that is, you’re listening to high-resolution audio downloads. If you’re listening to CDs, MP3s, or even vinyl records, what you’re hearing is not a precise copy of the original digital recording or analog tape. It’s downconverted. If it’s on CD, the digital resolution has been reduced. If it’s on vinyl, the audio has been remastered, and the record you’re listening to is actually a third-generation mechanical copy.
Sure, it might sound ok. But it’s not the best fidelity you can get. Hi res audio files are. What are those? Glad you asked.
What is high-resolution (hi res) audio?
Basically, high-resolution audio has more information and thus better fidelity. It’s like comparing a 1-megapixel image from a digital camera with an 8-megapixel image. Just as you see more detail in a high-resolution image, you hear more detail in high-resolution audio.
That’s why professionals use hi res digital audio in the studio. Unfortunately, they then have to reduce the resolution to get it onto CDs.
On a CD, each audio sample is stored using 16 digital bits, which means a CD can produce 65,536 different volume gradations. That may seem like a lot, until you calculate that the 24-bit high-resolution downloads can produce 16,777,216 volume gradations! That’s more detail, more depth, more subtlety. It’s also less noise: With CDs, the noise is –96 dB below the highest sound level. With high-resolution downloads, it’s –144 dB below.
Digital audio on CDs is sampled at 44.1 kHz, or 44,100 times per second. This gives CD a frequency response of about 20 kHz. Many hi res downloads are sampled at 96 or 192 kHz, yielding frequency responses of slightly less than 48 kHz and 96 kHz, respectively. Some audiophiles feel that even though you can’t hear sounds at those high frequencies, you can in some way sense them. Some audiophiles think that higher sampling rates sound better because the filters used to pre-condition the audio signal for digital recording are at much higher frequencies so their negative effects can’t be heard. Indeed, both contentions have their merits.
How do I get hi res audio?
It’s simple. We here at HRAC have created a thorough listing of approved hi res download websites in our Get Music channel for you to explore and choose from.
How do I play hi res audio?
The first thing you need to play hi res audio is software that can handle it. One of the most respected download sites, HDtracks, recommends Media Monkey, a free music playback app that you can download right here.
Next, you’ll need a 24/96 or, even better, 24/192 digital-to-analog converter (or DAC). Your computer might have one of these built into its sound card, but computer sound cards aren’t known for high fidelity. Best bet is to use an external USB DAC. These are made by countless companies, and sold by numerous online audio merchants and any brick-and-mortar high-end audio or professional audio dealer. You can spend from less than $100 to more than $10,000. Just make sure the DAC is at least 24/96. You can also get USB DACs with headphone amps built in.
You can connect the USB DAC to your audio system just the way you’d connect a CD player. The better your system, the more improvement you’ll hear with hi res audio.
Want to learn more? Check back right here on HRAC daily for everything hi res audio!