by Phil Lozen
I just listened to Led Zeppelin on a $500,000 sound system; my life may never be the same.
It was my first foray into the world of High Resolution Audio (HRA) and while it may have ruined listening to music on “normal” setups for me, the real question is what can HRA do for you when you haven’t experienced aural nirvana?
High-Res Audio, is, well, audio at higher resolution than most people are accustomed to listening to. Three big industry groups, the DEG: The Digital Entertainment Group, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and The Recording Academy recently colluded to formalize the definition for high resolution audio, and are helping to get the word out about its benefits.
In the past, high resolution audio could have meant just about anything. Today it’s been narrowed to mean “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”.
That’s a lot of words, but a few keys pop out, including the first one. Lossless being a part of the definition is important because it eliminates MP3s, which are lossy by design, and ensures the original structure of the data is retained. The phrase “mastered from” is important as well because this means merely ripping your CD collection, even at the highest format iTunes allows, won’t qualify as HRA.
The mastering process done by the recording studio is key to the quality of the sound, explained Thomas Golden, Sales and Project Manager at Paragon Sight and Sound in Ann Arbor, Mich., my guide for the previously mentioned tiptoe through the tulips of two-channel stereo.
“Any genre of music has good cuts,” Golden told me when I asked if certain types of music benefit from HRA more than the other. “Who recorded it, who pressed it? That tells the story more than anything. All things being equal, there might be more to hear in jazz than pop, for example, but when are all things actually equal?”
Much like with Blu-ray movies, where some studios like Disney have earned the reputation of always putting out high-quality releases, Golden said some music will simply sound better just based on the recording process.
But there’s so much more to HRA than just the studio recording. Let’s look at what’s behind HRA, and what you need for the experience.
What Files are HRA?
Resolution, in audio, refers to the sampling rate. High resolution usually features a sample rate of 96kHz or higher, with a bit depth of 24, shown as 96/24. Sampling rates of 192 kHz are common with high res files. CDs are 44.1 kHz/16, for comparison.
High resolution audio music can come in various file formats, including FLAC, WAV, ALAC, PCM and DSD. Audiophiles argue over which format is the best, with one of the main points of contention being DSD’s use of a bit depth of one vs. PCM (which is the underlying format behind FLAC, ALAC, and WAV), where 24 is standard in the HRA realm. However, DSD uses a sample rate of 2.8MHz, where PCM’s typical HRA rate is 192kHz.
DAC – Yes You Need One
If only it was as easy as downloading HRA files and calling it done, maybe adoption of the format would have taken off more than it has. But simply throwing a 192/24 FLAC file on your iPhone or home server won’t put you in the world of HRA yet. For that, you’ll need a Digital Audio Converter (DAC).
Let’s start with most people’s go-to music device – their phone. Not many mobile devices will handle HRA files, though a handful of Android phones from LG, Sony and Samsung do. Apps exist for the iPhone such as the Onkyo HF Player (free, but with $9.99 in-app purchase to unlock the good stuff), and there is some belief the DAC built into the phone (whose specs, unsurprisingly, are not public) could handle the files in a future update.
When it comes to home use, the picture muddies a bit. If you store your music on a PC, and want to use that PC as the audio source, you’ll need an external USB DAC (and additional drivers to play music above 96/24) as a middleman between your computer and amp if you plan to hook your computer directly to the amp. Read a review of a Meridian USB DAC here.
You’ll also need to download a program to play those files, as Windows Media Player and iTunes won’t handle the higher resolution HRA files. J-River Media Player is one of the more popular. Finally you should ensure the DAC uses asynchronous USB for the best possible results, and one with balanced output is a good idea as well.
Many newer stereo or home theater receivers contain high quality DACs, but it becomes difficult sometimes to pin down the specs for your receiver’s DAC and to understand if you truly get all that HRA files have to offer by using DLNA, for example, to stream the tracks right to your receiver.
To avoid the work that comes with trying to use the PC as a source, newer all-in-one hardware is appearing, such as the Aria Music Server that seemed to put Norah Jones right in the room with me at Paragon Sight and Sound. Oppo’s 103 and 105 Blu-ray/DVD players can also play back HRA from an attached USB hard drive, and the Oppo BDP-105 includes a 2-channel asynchronous USB DAC input.
Special amp/DACs exist for headphone listening from computers or mobile phones, such as the Audioquest Dragonfly USB stick or the Denon DA-10.
On the Go – Taking HRA with You
So if you’re phone isn’t the answer, how can you enjoy HRA in today’s mobile world?
Neil Young’s Pono player has been in the news a lot lately. Young has long been a critic of lossy, low quality MP3 files so he went to Kickstarter and founded Pono as a way to bring higher quality music to the masses.
Sony also revived the Walkman brand for a portable High Res audio player.
The Output – Earbuds are not your friends
If the bulk of your listening is on the earbuds that came with your phone, you probably should have stopped reading a while back, and you should save your money by avoiding the pricier HRA downloads.
The output end of the chain – speakers or headphones – will make a huge difference. Certainly you don’t need to spend a half million dollars to appreciate what HRA has to offer, but you need more than a pair of $50 bookshelf speakers or headphones. The options for speakers and headphones are, as you might guess, endless. Suffice to say, you get what you pay for. Read about some of our favorite audiophile headphones here.
The Sound of Music – Where to get files
Finally, you need to find the files. Today, that likely means downloads. Availability of HRA is growing, but still somewhat limited. HDTracks has what is likely the largest library, available in FLAC up to 192/24, while the Superhirez and DSD Downloads areas of the Acoustic Sounds site has up to double rate DSD files as well as FLAC. Neil Young’s Pono has a growing library of songs up to 192/24 to go along with the Pono player.
A fair warning: Getting into the HRA game is going to eat away at your storage. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra – Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3 in double rate DSD is a whopping 5.8 GB download. A typical 192/24 file is about seven times the size of its CD-quality counterpart, and could be many more times as large as a standard, compressed MP3 file.
There currently are no options for online streaming of high resolution audio music, though you can get CD-quality lossless from a few services including Deezer and Tidal the a new player that is trying to get off the ground.
Is this the sound you’ve been looking for?
When all is said and done, the question has to be answered by your ears. Before spending thousands of dollars on DACs, upgraded music collections, new headphones and mobile players, head to your nearest professional retailer and experience HRA. Maybe you’ll be one of the many people who claim the HRA upgrade isn’t noticeable. Perhaps you’ll determine that you like your current setup just fine, thank you.
It’s no secret that previous attempts at higher resolution audio formats haven’t taken hold. Remember SACD and DVD-Audio? No? That’s because both failed to make a dent in mainstream music libraries. Might HRA’s digital roots be enough to make it the one that finally takes hold?
“We’re starting to see more requests for this type of setup,” Golden said. “We’re starting to see some purists who are seeing their vinyl and reel-to-reel setups becoming more difficult to maintain making the switch. HRA might start pushing purists over the edge.”