Hi-res audio is a term that has been around for a while, but you’re much more likely to hear it recently thanks to streaming services like Apple Music adding the feature. But what is hi-res audio, really?
What Does High-Resolution Audio Mean?
One of the most interesting things about hi-res audio as a term is that it doesn’t mean anything concrete. There are no standards defining what bit depth or sample rate an audio file must use to qualify as hi-res audio.
That doesn’t mean that hi-res audio is a meaningless term. Most often, hi-res audio means anything higher quality than CD-quality audio. CD-quality audio means 16-bit, 44.1 kHz, so hi-res audio is used to refer to audio files with higher quality.
Many hi-res audio files or streams you encounter will be 24-bit instead of 16-bit, which is typically the most notable audible improvement. Sample rates are often 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 96 kHz, or 192 kHz, though they can go higher. Some hi-res audio files are 32-bit and have sample rates of up to 384 kHz, but this isn’t very common.
Many hi-res audio files are lossless, but this doesn’t apply to all formats.
What About Lossless Audio?
You’ll occasionally see the terms hi-res audio and lossless audio confused, but they’re far from the same thing.
Lossless audio refers to the type of file compression (or lack thereof) used to keep the file size or stream bitrates lower. This is compared to lossy compression, which reduces audio fidelity to shrink file sizes. MP3 is the best-known type of lossy audio compression but is declining in popularity in favor of better-sounding formats.
While lossless audio definitely has a place in hi-res audio, lossless audio itself doesn’t qualify as hi-res audio, as CD audio itself is lossless.
Hi-Res Audio Formats
There are more possible hi-res audio formats than we’re going to mention here, especially when you get into streaming, but we’ll look at the most common.
The most common format you’ll see when shopping for hi-res music is FLAC, or the Free Lossless Audio Codec. Less commonly, you’ll see ALAC, or the Apple Lossless Audio Codec. Both keep file sizes reasonable but, as the name implies, deliver hi-res audio in a lossless format.
You’ll occasionally see hi-res music delivered as uncompressed PCM WAV files, but due to the large file sizes, this isn’t common. This seems to pop up as downloadable digital versions of vinyl records, but you shouldn’t expect to run into them too much.
Whether you’re dealing with lossless or lossy files in these formats, the resolution is described in bit-depth and sample rate. As mentioned above, you’ll see this mentioned prominently as a 24-bit, 96 kHz album, for example. With that in mind, there are other hi-res audio formats that work somewhat differently.
DSD or Direct Stream Digital is a common hi-res format that uses a single bit of information, but a much higher sample rate than CD quality audio. The original DSD format had a sample rate 64 times the speed of a CD, which is why it is sometimes referred to as DSD64.
Over the years, even more detailed DSD formats have emerged, like DSD128 and DSD256, all named in the same way as the original format. These are often used for more quiet, detailed recordings like classical music and jazz. There is a spec for an even higher quality version, DSD512, but it doesn’t appear to be in use anywhere to date.
Finally, there is a slightly controversial format: MQA, or Master Quality Authenticated. The upside of MQA is that it’s supposed to be used while an album is still in production, with the artist able to preview exactly how the finished product will be delivered.
There was controversy around the way MQA was originally marketed, as it didn’t always sound better than the CD-quality audio it was aiming to beat. That said, it has benefits, especially for streaming. MQA is most notably used by the streaming service TIDAL.
How You Can Listen to Hi-Res Audio
While we’ve spent some time looking at file formats and types, this isn’t something you’ll have to think much about as a listener. If you want to give hi-res audio a try, just head to your favorite streaming service.
Not every streaming service supports hi-res audio yet, but it’s beginning to sound like an inevitability. You can find hi-res audio in services like Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited, and you don’t even have to pay extra. Other services have higher-tier subscriptions that offer hi-res audio.
TIDAL, for example, has a Hi-Fi plan that does stream lossless audio, but this isn’t its highest quality. For that, you need to upgrade to Hi-Fi Plus, which unlocks MQA, as well as Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio.
Spotify remains a question mark for hi-res audio. The service announced Spotify Hi-Fi in 2021, but has yet to roll out the service at the time of writing in July 2022. Initially, this seemed like it would be a higher-priced tier, but given Apple Music’s inclusion of hi-res audio and Spatial Audio at no extra charge, Spotify may rethink that strategy.
While you can find hi-res audio from plenty of sources, it won’t mean a thing if you’re listening on your phone’s built-in speaker. Instead, why not take a listen on some of our favorite headphones?
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