- Author Andrew Everard
- Published July 15, 2014
Why high-resolution music is awesome
Stop kidding yourself that your MP3-based music is good enough. It’s not. It’s fragmented and lightweight. It’s like spending half the film in the loo, only eating the bread of the sandwich, only reading every other page of the book. Andrew Everard explains just what high-res audio is and why we are all missing out…
Imagine everything in your life was made at the beginning of the 1980s, but still on sale today: you’d be talking on a mobile phone weighing the better part of a kilo and good for just an hour of use between charges; discovering computing with a Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer hooked up to your massive CRT TV and programmed using a cassette recorder; arranging your diary to make sure you were at home to catch each episode of your favourite serial; and working out on a map how to get home in time for the programme to start.
No cable or satellite TV, no video recorders, no navigation systems, no tablets, no smartphones. Oh – and no internet.
You’d also be listening to music on CDs, a technology only just about good enough when it was launched back in 1982 – hardly surprising, given that it was based in systems first shown five years before that.
Ah, hang on – many people are still listening to music on CDs. Or, even worse, on systems offering lower sound quality than was deemed good enough back in the early 1980s.
After all, the most popular format for most mobile music is MP3, which takes CD tracks, removes a lot of its data to compress the files carrying audio, packing more music into faster downloads and smaller storage. Yes, it uses clever coding to cover its tracks but quality is lost.
In other words, it’s 30-year-old technology, made worse.
We’re better than 1983, aren’t we?
There is life beyond MP3: not only can the latest hi-fi systems play music at full uncompressed CD quality – which really is so much better than listening to thin, lifeless MP3 files – but they can also handle music in ‘better than CD’ formats.
And even better, you can play these new files, which are similar to the ones used in the recording studio, on all kinds of devices, from hi-fi systems to the latest smartphones, including the LG G2 and G3.
Quick science bit: CD audio data is made up from 44,100 samples per second, each of 16-bit resolution. Multiply that by two channels (for stereo), and a CD tracks comprises 1,411,200 pieces of information per second, or 1411kb/s. MP3 files reduce that severely: high-quality MP3 is 320kbps (320,000 pieces of information per second), or about 23% of the data used by CD, while the more common 192kbps MP3 format has just 13% of the data of CD.
By contrast, high-resolution audio files use a lot more points of information to ‘describe’ each second of music, increasing the sampling frequency (in kHz) and the bit-depth (the number of points of information in each sample). The most common formats are 24-bit/96kHz, giving about 4.6m piece of information per second, and 24-bit/192kHz, which doubles that data-rate.
What does all that actually mean!?
Simple. Mastering engineers can include more detail, greater dynamics (the range from soft to loud) and a wider frequency range, taking in the stuff you don’t hear so much as sense, adding to the richness of the sound.
Of course, more kilobits per second means bigger files for each track, so to keep things in control, high-resolution files are often stored as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). Unlike MP3 that actually throws information away to keep the file size down, FLAC is lossless, like a ZIP file on your computer, so when it’s ‘unpacked’ during playback, you get exactly the same information as on the original music files.
This high-resolution music isn’t yet as available as the ubiquitous compressed MP3s but a number of sites worldwide now offer everything from the latest classical and jazz releases to material such as the current Daft Punk album and Michael Jackson retrospective Xscape. And classic albums are being re-released in high-resolution from the original master tapes, such as the recent Led Zeppelin releases.
In the US the likes of HDtracks dominate the market, while in Europe we have French site Qobuz and Germany’s HighResAudio, with strong suggestions that some or all of these sites will be opening up UK operations. Plus there are plenty of smaller audiophile sites such as Linn Records, the Naim Label and Norwegian company 2L, with some offering not just hi-res sampler tracks to try, but also files at everything from MP3 to 24-bit/192kHz FLAC, so you can listen for yourself and compare the quality.
Relaxing at home, or on the move with your smartphone – wherever you are, you can enjoy your favourite artists as never before, in quality never imagined when the first digital audio players, with their 12cm silver discs, first appeared.
You love your HDTV and your high-resolution smartphone or tablet screen – why not hi-res your music to match?
One of the easiest way to listen to high-res audio is get hold of an LG G2 or G3 smartphone – then get downloading. Find out more about the handsets here >>>