The problem with hi-res audio is how you might be listening to it

The problem with hi-res audio is how you might be listening to it
(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

The hi-res audio state of play has never looked so positive. It wasn’t that long ago that we could spell out several problems with high-resolution audio, from its unclear definition and lack of mainstream awareness to its expensive and inaccessible nature. 

Now, however, its definition is widely accepted to be ‘higher than CD quality’ (CD quality being tied to definitions of ‘lossless’), with it predominantly available in 24-bit form. The term ‘hi-res’ is now being bandied about by some of the biggest tech companies in the world. And music streaming services Apple Music and Amazon Music are offering playback of hundreds of thousands of albums in varying hi-res quality for the basic monthly fee, with the availability of hi-res no longer limited to the odd niche, higher-priced service or websites offering not insignificantly-priced music downloads. 

While some hi-fi hardware was primed for hi-res even before the music really took off (thanks to the futureproofed specification of the DACs inside them), now more and more audio kit supports hi-res as standard, too. Heck, your iPhone can now too.

And yet there’s still a problem with hi-res, and it concerns hardware.

The gaping hole in hardware compatibility

The way in which the world predominantly consumes music these days – through Bluetooth headphones – is incompatible with hi-res audio. Wireless headphones used as such are all out because of the current limitations around Bluetooth, and the fact that the ceiling of Bluetooth transmission quality rules out wireless headphones supporting lossless, let alone hi-res, audio is perhaps the biggest hurdle high-quality music consumption is yet to clear. Wireless headphones performance has certainly improved due to general hardware improvements and advancing Bluetooth codecs getting further away from ‘lossy’ transmission (thank you, Sony LDAC and Qualcomm aptX HD), but hi-res audio and Bluetooth still don’t exactly see eye to eye. Push that ceiling higher to truly lossless 24-bit, or find an alternative way to wirelessly transmit higher-quality music on the go (as Apple might well be doing), and the hi-res world opens up exponentially.

Even if you’re wired all the way, there are still some incompatibilities to be aware of that could catch you out. With music streaming services, which is most likely how hi-res audio will reach the masses, there are currently a number of ways in which hi-res streams are packaged and offered to the consumer that can lead to a bit of confusion. For example, Amazon Music uses the FLAC format, Apple Music uses its own ALAC one, and Tidal uses MQA technology. While FLAC is open and therefore widely natively supported by devices (save Apple ones), Apple and ALAC are restricted to use with Apple creations, while MQA technology requires specific MQA-licensed product compatibility for optimal playback. Wouldn’t it just be easier if everything played nice, eh? For now, it’s something to think about when choosing your path to hi-res heaven.

Not all compatible kit does hi-res justice

Not every bit of audio kit supports hi-res audio, and that does include some of the most popular consumer electronics products in the world. Importantly, Sonos has now hopped aboard after infamous abstinence, with its support currently spanning Qobuz, Amazon Music and most of its hardware. And Apple’s HomePod Mini is another recent adopter. But the Amazon Echos (save for the flagship Echo Studio) aren’t ready for the ride, and technically neither are the Apple AirPods Max in wired listening mode (which works only by re-digitising audio signals). 

That we can’t name loads more incompatible products shows just how much the audio industry now backs hi-res, though. But – sorry – there is a problem in that blessing: a lot of hi-res-supporting kit is, from a hardware point of view, simply not good enough to truly take advantage of it. Just because something can play hi-res audio and might wear a badge to say as much doesn’t mean it’s qualified to do it justice.

We’ve seen this snag with Dolby Atmos, with some, let’s say cheaper, products certified and branded as Dolby Atmos compatible that offer a very diluted experience of what the technology can offer. We had similar reservations when the first (and for a while, only non-phone) device compatible with Sony 360 Reality Audio was the Amazon Echo Studio. Amazon has a fantastic portfolio of smart speakers in the Echo that offers features and value in spades, but is a modestly sized wireless speaker with 5cm drivers really the best advert to show off the sonic potential of such a technology?

We’re all for consumers warming up to the better audio quality now available to them – it’s great news throughout the music chain, from artist to consumer – but inherently you need equipment transparent enough to allow you to enjoy the step up in quality and – to use the familiar phrase – hear the differences. Listening to a hi-res Tidal Master through even the best-reviewed £30 wired headphones, or an Apple Hi-Res Lossless file through a HomePod Mini, is a bit like watching a 4K Blu-ray on a 32-inch telly, or listening to £10k’s worth of source and amp equipment through a pair of budget speakers, or – worse – tasting a four-figure bottle of wine via a bolognese sauce. It’s inharmonious and a bit of a waste. It’ll be hard to distinguish between the hi-res stream and the technically much more basic 320kbps stream that way, and even if you can hear a difference, you won’t be taking advantage of the level of quality on offer. Similarly, while almost every budget of hi-fi streamer includes hi-res support to some degree, one around the few-hundred-pounds mark would not justify playing hi-res over CD-quality music. 

These are extreme examples and easier cases to make, of course, but you get the picture. We’re not trying to put curious people off getting into hi-res or even lossless quality; we’re trying to encourage those interested in it to invest in decent gear that will make the transition worthwhile.

But thankfully, lots do...

Speaking of decent gear, thankfully it’s not hard to come by these days, nor does it require organ donation to buy (although as you’ve no doubt seen coming, reaping the benefits of hi-res quality does mean parting with considerably more money than is asked of you by a pair of EarPods or Amazon Echo Dot). You don’t have to break the bank exactly, but we are talking a minimum pairing of something in the realm of the Chord Mojo DAC and Austrian Audio Hi-X55/Grado SR325x headphones for a desktop solution to warrant journeying into hi-res. In a speaker-fronted system, that minimum is more like well-reviewed hi-fi components around a grand.

It might be tempting to scrimp on playback devices when music is so accessible, but in the words of George Michael, if you're gonna do it, do it right.

MORE:

Hi-res music streaming services compared: which should you sign up for?

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her eight years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.

  • mocenigo
    There's an error in the article. The ALAC format is fully documented and royalty free, and many non-apple devices (I would say nearly every device manufactured today) supports it.
    Reply
  • manicm
    I'm sorry but the author hasn't even taken a comprehensive view.

    Are you aware that all playback equipment, most most notably the amp and speakers must have a frequency response higher than around 30/35 khz to qualify as high res compatible? Not many are!

    Becky doesn't even mention this.
    Reply
  • the Splund
    mocenigo said:
    There's an error in the article. The ALAC format is fully documented and royalty free, and many non-apple devices (I would say nearly every device manufactured today) supports it.
    Ah, you beat me to it!
    I use iTunes to manage my library but run a FiiO X5iii HiRes player that is more than happy to play the ALAC (.m4a) files, some of which are HiRes. Generally ALACs work for me but I have a few FLACs to handle the odd 5.1 and Quad files
    Reply
  • Friesiansam
    What Hi-Fi? said:
    we are talking a minimum pairing of something in the realm of the Chord Mojo DAC and Austrian Audio Hi-X55/Grado SR325x headphones for a desktop solution to warrant journeying into hi-res
    Well I use a Pathos Converto MK2 and Focal Elegias. Almost all my music is CD quality but, I tried a classical album (a decent recording) in 24 bit 176.4 KHz, from Qobuz and damned if I can say for certain it sounds any better...
    Reply
  • peterbr
    The article also does not mention the other side of the spectrum, the bad to awful quality of sound on some programs and series in TV these days. Audience using streaming services like iPlayer in combination with BlueTooth will probably not notice this so much. BBC news is great example, some presenters sound like they speak through a tube or use a cloth covered microphone. The dialogues in Series like `theResponder and Hidden Assets are almost impossible to follow when using high end audio equipment ( AV-Receivers)
    Reply
  • Hifiman
    Whether you ascribe to the traditional concepts of ‘front end first’ and/or ‘garbage in, garbage out’, then hi-res being offered by all the main streaming services (bar Spotify) can only be a good thing. At least anyone’s system will not be limited by the quality of the digital music as it has done previously. True, many will hear no immediate benefit but, as stated, it should encourage manufacturers and users to offer and buy suitable hardware. And it should be this way around: there would be little point in having 4K televisions if the signal was still in 625 lines.
    By the way, I was under the same impression as other commenters here in thinking ALAC has been an open standard for the last decade or so.
    Reply
  • HappySounds
    In my view the article is really well written and covers the ground pretty comprehensively.

    However there are two things that I take issue with:

    Firstly describing ALAC as proprietary when it is royalty-free (since 2011) and readily useable by any company who chooses to implement it. There are even open-source libraries which support decoding to make its implementation easy, and even Windows 10 & 11 support it natively.

    Secondly the big question, which is whether anyone can hear the difference, or more particularly what proportion of people even care. We should by now have moved on from a time when people are simply pursuing "ultimate quality" in anything without any regard to what is already amply sufficient for the purposes.

    Technology will keep on evolving but it does get to a point at which it outstrips what is necessary for the purpose, and as consumers we need to know when to get off the bus. What HiFi should be assisting us in judging that point.
    Reply
  • davidc
    manicm said:
    I'm sorry but the author hasn't even taken a comprehensive view.

    Are you aware that all playback equipment, most most notably the amp and speakers must have a frequency response higher than around 30/35 khz to qualify as high res compatible? Not many are!

    Becky doesn't even mention this.

    Any decent quality amp has a frequency response that good.

    And pray tell, why do you care if your speakers response if past about 20kHz?
    Reply
  • manicm
    davidc said:
    Any decent quality amp has a frequency response that good.

    And pray tell, why do you care if your speakers response if past about 20kHz?

    Actually not many amps are rated to have a frequency response>30khz.

    Why do I care if speakers can handle >20khz? Because if I would play hires content I want the equipment up to snuff. And while not wanting to wage a war again, audiologists will tell you frequencies that are beyond our hearing can still touch on those we can - it's called harmonics.

    So if you're not interested in high res content then by all means ignore the above. But I'll wager that content will be wasted if you're on substandard equipment. Do high res or don't. Simple.
    Reply
  • davidc
    Umm...no, audiologists will not tell you that. In fact, I am going to see one of the premier audiologists in the country (Dr. Glick), and I can assure that she does not think you can hear above 20kHz. In fact, if you are a male over 50 or so, you are probably down 30dB at 20kHz. Yes, there are harmonics up there...but that doesn't mean you can hear them.

    Also, I think pretty much all amps that are decent have a freq response that extends beyond 30kHz.
    Reply