There’s no denying the hi-res audio boom that’s occurred over the past few years, and just as consumers have upped their interest in getting their ears around better quality music, so manufacturers have supported this need with kit that’s capable of playing it.
To help make the buying decision easier for consumers, the Japan Audio Society (JAS) and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) developed a standard for high-res audio in late 2014, and in the process, developed the Hi-Res Audio logo you’ll have seen on all manner of audio products. This is able to be used, under license, by any kit that supports the standard as agreed by this alliance.
And this now includes headphones. But are hi-res headphones just a gimmick or is something to be said for buying the badge? It's not quite as obvious as you might think...
What are hi-res headphones?
Firstly, there is at least a specification for hi-res earphones. In order to carry the Hi-Res Audio logo on their packaging, headphones need to produce an upper frequency of at least 40kHz.
Interestingly, that’s way above the limits of human hearing, which sits around 20kHz (or lower, depending on your age), but that doesn’t mean the sound information sitting outside of this range is useless to us. If headphones are capable of playing back the full harmonic structure of a note, it will help to ensure that the part we can hear is as fully formed as it can be, rather than being clipped in any way.
Ask the manufacturers and they will tell you that headphones without the logo may experience a frequency roll-off when your music pushes the outer limits of the 20Hz-20kHz range. They either don’t reproduce extreme frequencies particularly well, or they can’t handle them at all.
Hi-Res Audio headphones claim to handle the full spectrum of hi-res audio without breaking a sweat to ensure no sonic detail is lost. And ultimately, your music sounds better. That's the theory, at least.
Of course you're only going to get this frequency range from hi-res music, so if your collection doesn’t stretch past CDs or streaming, it's unlikely you'd benefit from this specific spec.
Do hi-res headphones sound better?
That’s the tricky part - just because a pair of headphones are emblazoned with the Hi-Res Audio logo, doesn’t mean they’ll sound better than a pair that don’t.
It’s just a technical specification (and ultimately, clever marketing ploy - headphones have been capable of this bandwidth long before the Hi-Res Audio logo), and has no concern over balance, timing, dynamics, detail or anything else that makes a pair of headphones great.
So are hi-res headphones going to sound better than 'normal' headphones? As ever, the proof can only be in the listening.
What hi-res headphones are available?
But if you do want to buy into the branding, most of the big-name manufacturers do now have headphones carrying the Hi-Res Audio logo. These include Audio-Technica, Onkyo, Philips, RHA, Sennheiser and Sony. Even HTC is shipping Hi-Res Audio certified headphones with the excellent HTC 10 smartphone.
It’s worth remembering though, that just because a product doesn’t have the logo, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t reach the standard. Manufacturers have to pay to use the logo and so it’s worth looking at the headphone spec if you want to be sure.
Even better, keep your eye on our headphone reviews, where we’ll tell you which in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones are really worth your money - Hi-Res Audio logo or not.