Hi-Res audio files: the real thing or marketing crap?

What is your opinion on hi-res music (24-bit / 96kHz or 24-bit / 192kHz)? Do you actually notice more details and generally better listening quality?
Have you ever made careful comparisons between albums in cd vs hi-res quality?

Personally I was convinced for years that hi-res music sounded much better, until I started making careful comparisons between the different formats. Currently I am increasingly convinced that the audible differences are really minimal when not absent.
As far as I know, the advantages of high resolutions are mostly in mixing or mastering, not for the listener.
We start from the assumption that, as human beings, we’re able to listen to sounds ranging from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. The audio quality of a CD, according to the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, is perfectly capable of reproducing all the sounds that we are able to listen to.
So what’s the point of listening with higher resolutions?
Someone refers to the greater dynamic range that high bit values ​​can offer, since, for example, a 24-bit file can potentially bring the extension of the dynamic range to 144 dB.
But since the dynamic range of the human auditory system, when measured in sound pressure level in the air, is about 120 db, does it make sense to break your ears (provided you have a system that allows you to do so)?

Personally, I keep listening to albums at the highest quality available, but it’s more for the belief of knowing that - theoretically - I have the best version possible (and because I don’t have space problems on my hard disk… for now). I don’t do it anymore for the real belief that I can listen “more” and better.

Add to this that, very often, new hi-res releases have worse (re)master because of the loudness war.

An example:

Iron Maiden - The Number Of The Beast (1982, CD)
Iron Maiden - The Number of the Beast (2015, remaster, Qobuz Hi-Res)

What are your thoughts? Please avoid sarcastic replies about poor sound systems, deafness, etc.

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Hi ,
Currently I have Spotify and qobuz . Best is qobuz , but I want to see when Spotify will be xd quality …
Nevertheless when I am listening my cds , is the same quality as qobuz or even better but clearly I see a big difference between Spotify and qobuz or cd quality , but between 96khz vs 196 or 12 but vs 24 I am not sure if I spotted some differences .
Sometimes I listen also to vinyl which is just gourgeous in terms of voice clarity .I am amazed by vinyl .
Thanks

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Like you said; what is the use of hi-res on loudness compressed music? what is the benefit of music recorded in 44/16 being upscaled to e.g 96/24? In the practice of real life, there isn’t musch benefit to paying extra for hi-res. Only the best recordings of acoustic music might benefit from hi-res (if recorded in hi-res from the start), but then again, good recordings of acoustic music always sound good, even from a 10 euro AM pocket radio.

Better invest your money in a good DAC and especially better speakers, and you will make quantum leaps forward even when listening to Spotify in standard quality.

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It is very interesting topic indeed.

Personally I tend to buy highest res that is available. Just because it is available :slight_smile: with some exceptions… I explain those later. Higher resolution is not always better because I have encountered new hi-res loudness war remasters which are clearly worse than their CD quality originals, same is valid for CD quality remasters.

I have thought a lot about it and made a little bit of research also. Since beginning of digital audio CD quality - 44,1 kHz / 16 bits is considered gold standard. Some places note that 16 bit word length was proposed for studio use and for consumers 12 to 14 bit was considered sufficient. Converted to dynamic range 16 bits gives 96dB and 14 gives 84dB. Both these numbers are better than consumer grade analog formats, like tape or vinyl, and are pretty good for studio work. Now-days it is very common to use gate or noise reduction to create perfect black background, it wan’t very common back then. Also as many know, for computers 16 bits are much simpler than 12 or 14 bits. 12 and 14 bit words just waste space, because padding bits are needed. So 16 bit is adequate.

Basically same thing goes with sampling rate. 44,1 kHz gives us 22,05 kHz bandwidth. Plenty of room and again better than consumer grade analog formats.

All that I wrote above is for PCM format. Also it must be understood that these numbers are probably also based what technically possible back then. In general, whole system was at its limits and had many now known and understood problems.

When hi-res files arrived I started to look more into subject and discovered very interesting fact from some medical non-audio book (I have to dig link out). It was something like this: if signal must be precisely sampled, then sampling rate must be at least 10 times higher. I started thinking how, why and how it can be connected with audio. And quite quickly realized how and why. If we want to sample something and signal shape is not very important, then nyquist theorem works well. On the other hand if we need to sample something very precisely to examine waveform shape(heart beats, seismic waves…), then we need to use at least 10 times higher sample rate. Simply put: there is difference between rough and precision measurements. And what is digital audio? Just measurements. So CD-quality is rough and hi-res is precision measurement. I asked about this from people who didn’t deal with audio, but did general electronics design. They confirmed that this is in fact true and well known fact what was used when signals were analyzed or measurement and test equipment were chosen. After all that I did visual comparison between hi-res and down sampled waveform and indeed hi-res waveform contains visually more details at higher frequencies. If this theory is considered, 44,1 kHz is sufficiently precise only up to 4,41 kHz - is it low? Is it high? Is it enough?

When digital audio developed further and digital mixers, recorders, processing hardware and software came available suddenly higher sample rates were needed. Only then was discovered that it wasn’t possible to make DSP tools based on CD quality standards. To make these DSP things work, internal up-sampling was needed. It was probably at that time when somebody decided to work higher rate from beginning to end. Before material was internally up-sampled, then processed and then down-sampled. Working at higher rates from beginning may simplify whole system and as we know it simplifies digital filters in ADC and DAC parts. In general - hi-res takes of strain from digital chain. Wind instruments and percussion can create bursts of almost white noise and alias filters must be very steep. At higher sample rates there is more room to play.

It is logical that in development, scientists try to refine processes to more precisely capture and reproduce signals, also audio signals. We can argue, does our ears can hear differences between CD-quality and hi-res audio or not. More important are hi-res audio technical benefits and advantages for those who design ADC and DAC chips, also digital audio processing equipment. As I mentioned earlier, alias filters were headache back then. I have heard that it is simpler to design slow roll-off filter than brick-wall filter

For conclusion, I personally like hi-res if done correctly. I don’t know, maybe I hear difference between CD and hi-res when listening percussion or wind instruments, but it is when I listen with electrostatic STAX headphones.

PS: Now about that exception. There are a lot of fake and up-sampled hi-res that should be avoided. Up-sampling don’t bring nothing back - what is lost, is lost. It just costs more to buy up-sampled file. I have encountered this up-sampling thing mostly in DSD world, where DSD1024 is big thing… do your research before buy, maybe it is possible to save a bit :slight_smile:

Sorry about my bad english.

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Thanks Marko, really interesting answer.
As I wrote earlier, the real benefits of using high resolutions seem to be there for other purposes but not (or not so much) for listeners.

Don’t worry about your English, mine is not that good either :grin:

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I forgot to write, if philips/sony had designed whole system based on 88,2 kHz / 16 or 18 bit then whole vinyl and tape thing had been dead since then. But they did as they did - designed digital audio first as consumer grade format, not suitable for pro work. I actually like vinyl sound very much, especially records from 60’s - from vinyl golden age.

  1. Higher bitrate gives the potential for lower noise / higher dynamic range.
  2. Higher sampling frequency gives options for better low-pass (anti-aliasing) filters: you push the artifacts created by filtering up to higher frequency.
    Most of the time other limitations (either on the production side or the consumer side) prevent any theoretical benefits over Red Book from being achieved.
    Personally, I have never been able to reliably identify higher bitrate, but I can occasionally spot filter ringing on extremely clear, well recorded piano or percussion. I have to concentrate but once I have heard it, it becomes hard to ignore.
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Thanks for your answer @pauljwells

About your points:

  1. I agree. But, especially on a pop or rock record, how much can these advantages translate into a better listening experience?
  2. Just to clarify, in my post, by “cd quality” I was referring more abstractly to a digital file with 16 bit and 44,100 hz, not necessarily to a physical cd playback. So in the comparison I would keep aside any questions concerning the Red Book.
    About the best fidelity in the highest frequency in a well produced song when played in hi-res, maybe you are right, I will try to make careful comparisons.

It depends of course on the source material. If that is no longer useful, a higher resolution is of no use. If you, as an audiophile music fan, want the best possible quality, then you cannot avoid HiRes. Spotify can never be the best possible quality. As may be sufficient for many applications.

If you have made an effort in your audio chain to achieve a good result, then you should not compromise at the source of all things. My opinion…

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Yes, I agree. It makes no sense, in fact, to prefer lower resolutions when higher resolutions exist and you have a good audio chain.
It is indeed the reason why I prefer hi-res audio files too.
But, as I wrote earlier, for me it’s a thing to do because it appears logical to do it, not because you’ll be sure of a clear and actual better quality that you can perceive.
With this topic I wanted to focus on this latest aspect: can we actually perceive more details when listening to hi-res files with our hearing ability?
In my case I would say more no than yes, especially with rock or pop albums which are the genres I listen to most.

A far more relevant thing, in my opinion, is the choice of the best version of an album according to its master (as I showed before with the Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast example).
Sometimes a first release of an album in a classic 16bit/44,100 hz sounds far far better than a hi-res version released 25 years later and that’s because of their master (dynamic the first, compressed and clipped the second, for the absurd logic of the so called loudness war).

I doubt anyone could ever hear a difference, especially 24bit depth over 16 bit. Makes zero sense. Some increase in the sampling frequency can make reconstruction a little easier but not a difference that I think anyone could pick convincingly in a blind test.

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I only stream FLAC. The issue is moot.

You might like to take a trundle through this website (Archimago's Musings), where Archimago explores this whole subject. Personally, I use FLAC files, ripped from CDs, and I only have one or two HD recordings bought in. Mind, I’m 64 and a motorcyclist, so my ability to hear HD sounds is seriously in question…

Thank you Chris, I’ll check the site you suggested right away, even because I want to write an article about this on an Italian webzine where I write and any good source is welcome! :slight_smile:

One possible case where there may be some audible differences between 16 and 24 bit is when recording is very high dynamic range and mastered at -20 to -40 dBFS. When I recorded myself, I used K20 standard metering, so I mastered my music at -20dBFS. As it is probably known, almost 100% of recordings hover around -15 to -3 dBFS - differences between 16 and 24 bit is surely inaudible. In practical world, most AD/DA is only 18 or 20 bit at best - 120dB. Extra bits are beneficial only in DSP world.

Agree with many of the PRO comments here and would add the following:

Sample rate

The sample rate is how many samples, or measurements, of the sound are taken each second. The more samples that are taken, the more detail about where the waves rise and fall is recorded and the higher the quality of the audio. Also, the shape of the sound wave is captured more accurately.

So yes by definition it is better, there is more music, thus more detail.

However, I would also agree that it is the original recording that matters the most. Listen to James Taylor 192/24 Greatest hits and it sounds good. Now listen to James Taylor Greatest Hits 2, at 44/16 and i think it is a better recording.

So I subscribe to Qobuz and listen to most new releases especially with Jazz etc, that are released in Hi Res and they sound incredible. Compare that to much of the old classic rock which sounds much more flat even if so called remastered. UNLESS of course its Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan and that is really good. Again a lot if it goes back. to the original recording, but when the artist cares, think DIana Krall, the high res is amazing.

Have you ever tried to make a comparison between a recent album in hi-res (for example, the latest by Diana Krall, since you mentioned her) and the same one in a standard 44,100 hz and 16 bit?
I doubt that big differences can be spotted. If an album is arranged, mixed and mastered to perfection, it will also sound good in MP3! (not as good as a lossless file, but not that bad either)

If your not an audiophile than, don’t worry about it. There is a difference but, you need a good systems to be able to hear it.

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I seriously doubt that anyone older than lets say 30 is able to hear frequencies upward from 16 kHz. Much more relevant than the battle for “high-res” music is the question of good recording and mixing of music. Deficiencies during this process are - at least in my experience - much more audible than a switch from CD-quality to super-high-res. And that applies also to reasonably priced HiFi-gear. Not to mention the basic physical facts (Shannon).

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Can you mention an album where your “there is a difference” is clearly discernable when listening to it at a standard resolution and then at a higher one?