High-resolution audio: everything you need to know
2014 is shaping up to be the year that high-resolution audio (HRA) takes off, with new products and services being launched to take high-res audio in to the mainstream.
The industry has been transformed by digital downloads from sites such as iTunes, marking a shift away from physical media like vinyl, tapes and CDs. Formats including MP3 and AAC make it easy to buy, listen and store our tunes.
With regards to sound quality, however, these formats just don't cut the mustard. The use of lossy compression means that data is lost in the encoding process, which means resolution is sacrificed for the sake of convenience and smaller file sizes.
This might be fine on the bus when you're listening to your iPod or smartphone, but serious music fans want better. This is where high-resolution audio – or HRA, as termed by the Consumer Electronics Association – steps in.
Astell & Kern, Sony and FiiO were among those to showcase high-resolution audio products at CES 2014, while several download sites now offer better-than-CD quality music files. HRA also has the support of major labels and musicians.
What does high-resolution audio actually mean? Where can you get it? What do you need to play it on? Don't worry – all your questions and more are answered on this page
What is high-resolution audio?
Before we address this, it’s worth pointing out that the definition of high-resolution audio isn’t set in stone. Unlike high-definition video, which has to meet certain criteria to earn the name, there’s no universal standard for high-res audio.
But it tends to refer to audio that has a higher sampling frequency and bit depth than CD, which is 16-bit/44.1kHz. High-resolution audio files usually use a sampling frequency or 96kHz or 192kHz at 24-bit, but you can also have 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz files too.
Sampling frequency means the number of times samples are taken per second when the analogue sound waves are converted into digital. The more bits there are meanwhile, the more accurately the signal can be measured in the first place, so 16-bit to 24-bit can see a noticeable leap in quality.
There are several high-resolution audio file formats to choose from, all of which support the above sampling rates and bit-depths. They include FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), both of which are compressed but in a way that (in theory) no information is lost.
Other formats include WAV, AIFF and DSD, the format used for Super Audio CDs. The relative merits of the formats can be argued but most crucial will be compatibility with your particular products and system.
FLAC tends to be the most popular, scoring points over WAV for better meta-data support, ensuring your tracks have artist and title information. There's a healthy debate on the whathifi.com forums on the subject of FLAC vs. WAV.
Of course, as well as downloading your music in these superior formats, you can - and should - also rip your existing music library in these higher-quality file formats.
What’s so good about high-res audio?
Obviously the main benefit of high-resolution audio files is their superior sound quality over compressed audio formats and CDs.
To illustrate how much better they are than MP3, for example, let’s compare the relative bitrates. The highest quality MP3 has a bitrate of 320kbps, whereas a 24-bit/192kHz file is transferred at a rate of 9216kbps and music CDs are transferred at 1411kbps.
24-bit/96k or 24-bit/192kHz files more closely replicate the sound quality that the musicians and engineers were working with in the studio.
With more information to play with, high-resolution audio tends to boast greater detail and texture, bringing listeners closer to the original performance than ever before.
Though, as always, there are some people that can't hear a difference. As with all the products we review, if you can't see or hear a difference, then save your money!
Where to buy and download high-res audio?
There are currently only a handful of UK download stores, but the number is likely to increase with several new services rumoured to be launching in 2014.
There are several US and European sites but not all of them let you purchase from the UK. Here are a few of the best:
Pioneering US high-resolution music store HDTracks is coming to the UK in 2014, with the high-res downloads store launching this side of the Atlantic in Q1, promising to go live in the UK "by the end of March or the first week of April".
The company says it has partnered with every major record label – including Sony Music Entertainment, Warner and Universal – to create the world's largest catalogue of high-res audio files.
HDTracks has also announced a deal with Liztic, a music management application that aims to deliver a seamles digital music experience across PC, Mac, Android and iOS.
Better known for its home entertainment systems, Naim has a nifty sideline in hi-res audio files, including music from its own Naim Label.
Its site offers music in 320kbps MP3s right up to 24-bit/192kHz WAV, FLAC and ALAC files. High-res albums cost between £9.99 and £16.99.
Linn’s website offers what it calls Studio Master downloads in 24-bit/192kHz FLAC and ALAC, as well as 24-bit/96kHz, 16-bit/44.1kHz and 320kbps MP3 formats. A Studio Master album costs £18, or £10 in CD quality.
Another hi-fi brand that turned its hand to hi-res downloads, B&W’s site boasts a range of studio-quality albums. You can also subscribe and access albums not available in the store. Files are available in 24-bit and cost £15.
Neil Young's long-awaited Pono high-res service looks finally set to launch, with news that a Kickstarter campaign will make the PonoPlayer available to buy. The PonoMusic service promises DRM-free high-res downloads from major and independent labels and there's a dedicated music management software application, too.
2L – Norwegian site offering up to 24-bit/96kHz and multichannel DSD
7Digital – Offers 24-bit FLAC downloads
Gimell – Studio Master 5.1 downloads in 24-bit/96kHz
HD Klassik – Classical music high-res downloads
Additionally, high-res audio champion Neil Young is set to launch his Pono download store and portable music player in 2014.
And earlier this year Sony, Warner and Universal announced that they will make their extensive music catalogues available to hi-res download services – all of which will be a real shot in the arm for fans of high-resolution audio in this country.
With all sites, make sure it's clear what file format and bitrate you are buying and let us know your experiences with using these and any other HRA websites in the comments below.
What do I need to play it?
From AV receivers and stereo amps to all-in-one music systems and streamers, a growing number of products on the market are handling high-resolution audio.
As yet, there remains a certain amount of variation when it comes to file handling and maximum bitrate support on different devices, so check the specifications match your requirements before you buy a new product.
Some systems allow you to play high-res files directly from USB storage devices or from a networked PC via Ethernet.
You can also play high-resolution audio stored on a PC by connecting it to a USB DAC like the Arcam irDAC (pictured, above), the Naim DAC-V1 or the T+A DAC 8, then feeding it to a power amp, powered speakers or headphones. You can even buy dedicated headphone amps with built-in DACs that handle high-res audio.
The ever-popular Sonos system supports WAV and AIFF files but only up to uncompressed CD quality, and has confirmed that high-res audio on Sonos is unlikely any time soon.
However, you will need a high resolution audio player, as not all music software is compatible. iTunes will play high-res files but not FLAC files, for example.
High-res audio isn’t just confined to the hi-fi market. Several of the latest smartphones play music in sparking 24-bit/192kHz quality, including the LG G2 and Samsung Galaxy Note 3, while the Onkyo HF Player app allows you to play high-res music on any compatible mobile phone.
Best high-res audio streamers
Best music streamer under £600
Tested at £500 – compare prices
"A price cut makes this Pioneer even more of a superstar"
Best music streamer under £1000
Tested at £699
"Looks good, easy to use, sounds great and has a list of uses longer than your arm"
Best music streamer under £2000
Tested at £1650
"An engaging and high-res happy performer – and a real star turn at the price"
Best music streamer £2000+
Tested at £2300 – compare prices
"This superb streamer sounds absolutely fantastic"
High-resolution music player reviews
We've given the new flagship Walkman, the Sony NWZ-ZX1, the exclusive review treatment, and it's set to be joined by the Sony Walkman F886 (pictured, above).
MORE: Sony NWZ-ZX1 review
A seriously talented performer from the portable audio experts (and the high-end brand of established manufacturer iRiver).
It's not without flaws – the storage capacity and sluggish interface – but the quality of the sound is good enough to make us forgive many of the AK100's flaws.
High-resolution audio products coming soon
Leading the renewed push for high-resolution audio is Sony, which recently announced a complete new range of HRA products.
It includes the £2000 HAP-Z1ES HDD audio player (above), which boasts a 1TB internal hard-drive and supports ALAC, AIFF, DSD, FLAC and WAV, all of which can be transferred onto the hard-drive.
It’s joined by the £800 HAP-S1, an all-in-one audio player with a 500GB hard-drive and built-in Wi-Fi for transferring music from a PC. If a high-res compatible USB DAC’s more your thing, then Sony’s got your back with the £500 UDA-1.
Astell & Kern
The company was tight-lipped about its hi-fi system with no further details about a release date or price available at CES 2014, but we do know more about its AK240 portable audio player - expected out in early Q1 2014.
We're told that A&K's AK240 will go on sale for around $2400 in the US, so we're expecting a UK price to be somewhere in that ball-park – roughly £1460.
Joining the Astell & Kern AK240 and the Sony NWZ-ZX1 on the show floor at CES 2014 was another portable high-resolution music player - the FiiO X5.
The FiiO X5 doubles up as a USB DAC when connected to a computer, but we're still waiting for confirmation of how much it will cost when it hits UK shelves.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Compatible products are coming thick and fast – keep your eyes on our news and reviews pages for all the latest gear.
Which companies are backing high-res audio?
Companies like Bowers and Wilkins, Naim, Linn and other high-end hi-fi brands have been banging the drum for high-resolution audio for some time, but with mass-market heavyweights such as Sony, LG and Samsung (Galaxy Note 3, pictured above) now behind it, we expect it to pick up some serious momentum as we move into 2014.
Indeed the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) recently expanded its support for HRA, pledging to promote it at the forthcoming CES in Las Vegas and corral support among consumers and retailers.
“The time is right for our organization to explore new avenues to help promote this exciting audio technology. Recent market trends and research indicates that consumers are poised to embrace high-resolution audio, creating tremendous new market opportunities,” said CEA President and CEO Gary Shapiro.
We'll keep this page updated with all the latest high-res developments, news and products, let us know your questions and opinions on HRA in the comments section below.