Hi-Res audio is here to stay for some reason! But what is it? Is it important? Is it worth the upgrade? Can the average person tell the difference? Was it ever meant to be a consumer format in the first place?
The answers to these questions are quite simple. Let’s get into it.
What is it?
“Hi-Res Audio” is a set of standards describing recording and playback of audio at resolutions higher than CD-quality. But here’s the thing: This is stupid.
The human ear at its pinnacle can hear sounds between frequencies of 20hz and 20,000hz. Standard 16-bit 44.1khz CD-audio can reproduce, with 100 percent perfect accuracy, sounds between 20hz and 22,000hz.
Hi-Res Audio makes those two numbers before the words “CD-audio” up there higher, but it doesn’t matter. Mostly, it just makes audio files bigger, while recording and playing back audio that your ears literally can’t hear. Some people think that this additional audio information somehow improves music.
But it doesn’t. It’s psychological.
Some people also think that lossless files are better than decent MP3’s or AAC files. They aren’t. As long as you’re listening to a reasonably well-compressed MP3 or AAC file (Around 256kbps of bit-rate, which is what all the major music streaming services use) then you’re getting the full experience of the music as it was produced.
It’s that simple. Hi-Res Audio is almost always stupid. Let me explain the few cases where it isn’t!
Do I need Hi-Res Audio gear?
It might surprise you to read this after the invective above, but the answer is “maybe.” Hi-Res gear was originally created for the production world, where tons of different recordings, samples, and effects are jammed together by computers to make the music we hear on a CD or in an MP3. Over time, combining all those many bits of audio can add noise and distortion to the music, and hi-res helps to eliminate that problem.
So, are you an audio-creation professional? Then you might want hi-res gear.
The hi-res audio standard requires gear to be produced at a level that exceeds the needs of reproducing accurate CD-audio, so it can be a good indicator of the quality of a pair of headphones, or a player. If your headphones can play back hi-res audio well, then they can also perfectly play the only sound frequencies you actually need. So, hi-res is automatically a badge of a baseline of audio quality.
It should by no means be the only influencer on your purchase, however.
There are many many many perfect pieces of non hi-res gear. And they usually cost less.
Should I buy hi-res music files?
Spotify is great. iTunes is great. CD’s are great. Google Music is great.
You don’t need hi-res audio files. All they do is take up more space.
I will repeat that.
All they do is take up more space.
Don’t buy them. Don’t do it. You’ll save lots of money. And your ears will never know.
So what should I get?
Your headphones, speakers, amp, and DAC all make way more of an impact than hi-res audio ever could, because you literally can’t hear the difference hi-res provides. Don’t worry about it when you’re purchasing things. Audio gear that reproduces frequencies between 20hz and 20,000hz is all you need. Period. End of story.
I can’t say this enough.
Also, if anyone ever tells you that vinyl or a tube amp sounds objectively better than CD/Digital audio, they are straight up lying to you. Analog audio reproduction, with the exception of a few forgotten tape formats, cannot accurately reproduce the range of human hearing the way digital techniques can. This is provable by scientists. And has been proven. Countless times.
It’s totally fine to enjoy the way analog formats sound, but they are not objectively better. Neither is hi-res audio. The CD-audio standard is the peak. Unless we somehow magically obtain different ears and brains.
Hi-Res Audio is largely stupid and unnecessary, unless you’re doing production work. And even then, it’s only helpful for solving processing issues. You’ll never hear the difference. The hi-res badge can be an indicator of gear quality, but plenty of nice gear exists that doesn’t have the badge.
Save your money. Save your bandwidth. Save your hard drive space. Don’t bombard your ears with sound they can’t hear. It’s ridiculous.
The time you spend chasing some imperceptible hi-res improvement is time you could spend enjoying music.