High Resolution Audio – Which companies are backing High-Res Audio?

On the surface, things aren’t looking particularly rosy for lovers of high quality music formats.

For teenagers, YouTube has become the go-to method for listening to songs, while most other people, even die-hard music addicts, eschew spending big on physical formats in favour of cheap and convenient compressed digital alternatives like MP3 downloads and Spotify streaming. It’s enough to make an audiophile weep into his teetering stack of 180gm Pink Floyd re-issues.

But these trends don’t tell the whole story. Hi-Res Audio might just explode in the coming year, with manufacturers and musicians alike hopping aboard the audiophile express. Or, it might not. Read on to find out why Hi-Res Audio is so interesting, and why it might also remain a very niche concern.

So what is hi-res audio? Hi-def TV for my ears?

Good question – and one for which there are several possible answers. Unlike HDTV, there isn’t a set standard for what constitutes Hi-Res Audio, but generally it’s considered to be anything with a bit depth and sampling frequency above 16-bit/44.1kHz, which is standard CD quality. 24-bit/192kHz is considered the Holy Grail of Hi-Res Audio, but ‘lesser’ qualities like 24-bit/96kHz are still hi-res.

The more bits, the more accurately the signal is measured. The higher the sampling frequency, the more samples-per-second were taken when the original analogue sound was converted into digital.

Confusingly, Hi-Res Audio can come in a variety of file formats. There’s FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), WAV, AIFF and DSD. The first two are compressed formats, which might suggest they’re inferior to the others – but they’re also lossless, which means they’re compressed in such a way that no audio data is lost. So they take up less disk space than the others but sound exactly the same.

Note, however, that not every file in one of the above formats is hi-res. Plenty of people use FLAC or ALAC to rip CDs losslessly, for instance – in which case the file played back is CD quality, not hi-res.

Update 17/06/14: Record labels and consumer electronics groups have got together to lock down the definition of what, exactly, hi-res audio is. The Digital Entertainment Group, the Consumer Electronics Association and The Recording Academy have teamed up with Sony, Universal and Warner Music Group to come up with a standard definition for high resolution audio: “Lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better than CD-quality music sources.”

Four different file formats have also been agreed: MQ-P; MQ-A; MQ-C; and MQ-D. “MQ” stands for “Master Quality”, meaning that the file is produced from a digital or analogue master recording. The file types are as follows:

  • MQ-P: from a PCM master source 48kHz/20-bit or higher (typically 96/24 or 192/24 content).
  • MQ-A: from an analogue master source.
  • MQ-C: from a CD master source (44.1kHz/16-bit).
  • MQ-D: from a DSD/DSF master source (typically 2.8MHz or 5.6MHz content).

Although the Master Quality file types and definition of hi-res audio are voluntary, the hope is that with major players backing them, they’ll come to be a de facto standard.

There have been attempts to popularise Hi-Res Audio in the past, most notably with the DVD-Audio and SACD disc formats, both of which entered the market in 2000 to what might be generously described as “limited success”. That didn’t work out – so why is now any different?

Firstly, there’s a concerted push from a loose partnership consisting of the Consumer Electronics Association (the organisation behind CES Las Vegas), Sony Electronics, and the three major music publishers (Sony, Warner and Universal). The CEA’s job is to market the idea (much like it has done in recent years with HDTV, 3D TV and 4K), Sony’s is to build compatible hardware and the record companies’ is to make hi-res music more readily available.

And we’ve recently seen the very first hi-res compatible smartphones released in the forms of the LG G2 and Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (both capable of playing FLAC and WAV at 24-bit/192kHz quality), and there’ll be more launched next year.

Rock legend Neil Young is also releasing his Pono portable music player – and an accompanying library of studio master quality albums – in “early 2014”. Details on Pono are fairly scant, but it will be 24-bit/192kHz compatible and albums released for the first time in hi-res through the store will include the likes of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.

Making hi-res available for listening via smartphone or portable device (such as the Sony NWZ-F886 detailed below) is extremely important, as most non-audiophiles don’t sit at home listening to music through incredibly expensive hi-fi equipment – they listen through their phones when they’re out and about. You want to capture the younger market? You need to put hi-res on portable devices.

Storage is also cheaper than ever, meaning it’s somewhat less of a headache accommodating the huge files required for Hi-Res Audio. 24-bit/96kHz files weigh in at 34.56MB per minute, compared to 1.44MB per minute for 192kbps MP3s. That’s 24 times the space.

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