So What is “High-Res Audio,” Anyway?

MP3s took root because they’re small.  When bandwidth and digital storage was a fraction of what is today, it made sense to shrink audio files into something more manageable. Today, though, that excuse doesn’t fly. We have the ability to acquire and store larger, better-sounding files. And we should.

For the past three weeks, I’ve been roadtesting a portable Sony High-Res audio player. Unlike most (well, virtually all) portable music players, the Sony handles FLAC files, uncompressed digital music files that sound remarkably better than MP3s.  Listening to a High-Res version of Bob Marley’s “3 Little Birds”–a song that I’ve heard hundreds and hundreds of times over the decades–revealed bass notes that I never knew were there.  It was almost like hearing a brand new song.

Yes, yes, I know that some experts say that I’m delusional and that I only think I’m hearing new detail in the music.  For them, I have two words made up of seven letters and three of them are “F.” I know what I hear, bunky.

Wait. Back up.  What is High-Res audio, anyway? Billboard explains:

High resolution audio has become something of a movement lately. During a panel discussion at the SF MusicTech Summit in November, audio engineerDennis “Wiz” Leonard summed up the goal of the Musicians for Audio Quality Initiative, a group of which he is a member:”In the time between 1980 and now we have made all these advances in technology but we are in fact listening to lower resolution than the CD standard. And what is at stake here is our sanity, seriously,” Leonard said.

He and co-panelist Bob Weir, founding member of the Grateful Dead and another leader of the initiative, detailed the subliminal affects of listening to the sort of low-resolution music that we get from our smartphones, claiming there was scientific evidence demonstrating that such music causes stress. The holy grail, Leonard said, is high resolution audio that is streamable, downloadable and shareable.

That’s a taste. I highly recommend you read the rest of the article,

As an unrepentant and slightly militant audiophile, I’m depressed by the fact that we’ve actually regressed when it comes to the sonic quality of the music we feed our ears.  So many people are completely satisfied with crappy earbuds, bassed-up Beats headphones and listening to music through laptop speakers. They’re missing so much when it comes to the power and impact of music.

I’m with Neil Young on this.  His Pono player finally goes on sale Monday for $399 USD and the Pono Music Store–a place where you can buy High-Res audio–is open for business.  He hopes that once more people hear all the music that goes into each song that they’ll make the switch from MP3s to something better.

The big drag with my digital library is that it’s all based on iTunes, a program that won’t handle FLAC files.  Sure, there are plenty of players I can download, but it bugs me that I have to have two separate digital libraries.  Still, it’s a small sacrifice for better sound.

Here’s hoping that High-Res audio continues to make inroads.





Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

4 thoughts on “So What is “High-Res Audio,” Anyway?

  • January 8, 2015 at 11:20 am

    Here I thought “high res audio” was something like Molson’s M beer claiming to be “micro carbonated ” and the only one in the world.

    Of course it is. They trademarked the word. Here’s hoping iTunes steps it up and starts allowing all file formats.

  • January 8, 2015 at 11:45 am

    Hmmm $400 for a Pono that does one thing or $400 for a cell phone that I can stream almost any song I want, make phone calls, text, surf the internet, play games…
    Nice try Neil, Pono may survive to be a Niche like vinyl but the are still going the streaming route. The onus should be iTunes, Spotify, Rdio etc to push better quality streams and the laptop manufacturers to come up with better media players on their hardware.

  • January 8, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    I’m tempted by Pono but waiting for iTunes to get in the game. We are so invested in the Apple ecosystem and have either Apple TVs or DA convertors to get the sound into good quality sound systems. I would happily pay to upgrade it all to 24bit/96khz including new hardware where necessary… I just don’t want to put much work into it.

  • January 8, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately for most people) when you already have high bitrate MP3’s or other lossy files – such as -q0 256kbps VBR (which avoids the ~16khz low pass filter of most CBR files), or even well encoded 320kbps files – the sound quality difference just isn’t big enough of a difference from lossless – certainly not enough for Joe Public to notice and make the switch, being that it is at the expensive of convenience and massively reduced device storage capacity.

    Plenty of double blind tests have confirmed it’s difficult to near impossible to tell the difference between well encoded high bit-rate lossy files and lossless files. Going the extra mile for that little bit extra is a niche pursuit, and it always will be. And I count myself among as an audiophile; at least a well-tempered one. I work in A/V, I have better than average set-ups at home, and I have always and will always lust for better gear and better sound – but within reason. There’s only so much you can squeeze out.

    The good news for us is, many new Android phones handle FLAC, they just don’t always have the storage capacity to make the best use of it. Some have expandable SD-card storage, so that helps. It also seems phone makers are putting better components into their phones lately – decent DAC’s can be found in some Sony and HTC phones, among others.

    And Alan, if you need lossless for iTunes and your other iDevices, just convert FLAC to ALAC. Lossless conversion, no expense in quality. Its not that difficult, just a bit time consuming.

    I made a long comment on the article about your journey through hi-fi gear from the 70’s until now, but I lost it. Basically what I was trying to get across is that even fairly modest gear these days will get you 90% of the sound quality (or better) of very good/expensive gear from the 70’s, 80’s, even 90’s. Sure, Beats suck, but they are still better than a lot of the crap out there. It’s just the source that people have to be careful with. Whatever gets people on the path to better sound is good for all of us. The new high-resolution formats in digital files and on Blu-ray, etc help drive this. People will come around, but it has to make sense to make the switch.

    Personally, I still can’t convince my wife of the merits of all this, and god knows I’ve tried!!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.