Hi-Res Audio: A Solution In Search Of A Problem
According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), about 75 percent of the recorded music industry's revenue comes from streaming. Bandwidth keeps getting cheaper and faster. Hardware and software continue to improve at an exponential pace. Surely there is pent-up demand for high resolution audio (Hi-Res Audio). After all, doesn't everyone want the "best sounding" audio?
A Little History
At the turn of the century, music lovers were embracing to peer-to-peer music-sharing sites like Napster, Gnutella, and LimeWire (all of whom, including music lovers, were being sued by the RIAA). Apple introduced iTunes with the tag line "Rip. Mix. Burn."
Buried in the details of this amazing musical revolution was an almost unnoticed bit of collateral damage: the de facto end of high-fidelity audio.
To an audiophile, CDs already sucked, so you can imagine what anyone with "an ear" thought of mp3 or AAC versions of their favorite recordings. Not to worry; most people are not audiophiles.
Earbuds: Final Nail in the Coffin
When you combine "lossy" compression with 29-cent earbuds, you get the world of recorded music as mass marketed by Steve Jobs. You also get the death of sonic quality. The funny thing is, nobody noticed.
While This Was Going On, Sonic Quality Was Trying to Matter
The format to achieve the most notoriety was likely Neil Young's PonoPlayer. In September 2012, Young went on the Late Show with David Letterman to show off a prototype of the PonoPlayer. In April 2014, the device raked in more than $6.2 million in a Kickstarter campaign, as more than 18,000 backers were eager for a device designed to play HQ audio. The device never truly caught on, and Neil Young announced its demise in April 2017.
The Real Problem
You cannot solve an acoustic problem with an electronic solution. In practice, this means that sticking earbuds in your ears (no matter how good the earbuds are) will not allow you to hear the track the way the composer, producer or mastering engineer intended. When recordings are professionally mixed and mastered, the creators generally work in purpose-built control rooms with exceptional speaker systems (not on laptops wearing earbuds).
If you are trying to create a stereo image, the two speakers should be placed symmetrically at the endpoints on the base of an isosceles triangle and you should be sitting at or very near the apex. Most engineers agree that the optimal base angle for this triangle is approximately 60 degrees. This acoustical environment gives you a three-dimensional sonic canvas to work with. Place the speakers anywhere else, or place them in a room that is not properly constructed for this kind of critical listening, and you may record and mix something, but the results will not be Grammy-worthy stereo.
The engineer and producer of a multichannel format such as a 5.1 track will almost always create a stereo mix for distribution. In consumer audio terms, it's the most common listening format. But they don't do an earbud (or even a high-quality headphone) mix, because of the physical limitations (literally the physics) imposed by putting tiny speakers in your ears.
So, how much time and money have you spent on your listening room? Because that's the only place hi-res audio is going to matter to you – if it matters at all. If you're listening to hi-res audio through your AirPods while walking on the street or sitting on a bus or sitting in your house with the air conditioner running or in a motor vehicle or on an airplane, the ambient noise in the environment will make it all but impossible to hear the difference between a pretty good 320 kbps AAC file and a very amazing 9,216 kbps Hi-Res Audio file.
High-Quality (Or "High-Resolution") Audio
Jay-Z's TIDAL platform separates itself with its HiFi subscription tier, which offers access to high-res audio and costs $20/month: twice the price of its base tier, as well as twice the price of Apple and Spotify's most popular plans. Called "TIDAL Masters," these hi-res tracks are "master-quality recordings directly from the master source." HiFi audio has good sound, but limited resolution (44.1 kHz /16-bit); TIDAL Masters offer "an authenticated and unbroken version" (typically 96 kHz / 24-bit). TIDAL offers 60+ million tracks, including 170,000+ in hi-res.
Looking for more options? Here are some hi-res audio alternatives:
· Qobuz – This hi-res streaming service from France launched in the U.S. in February. Its base tier, Qobuz Premium, offers 320 kbps mp3 streaming for $9.99 per month. You can bump up to 16-bit CD-quality streaming for $19.99/month ($199.99/year), or stream the more than 70,000 24-bit hi-res albums for $24.99/month ($249.99/year). Want an even more exclusive tier? Qobuz's Sublime+ tier will set you back $299.99/year, which offers hi-res streaming, "purchasing advantages," and hi-res downloads at reduced prices. Whew.
· Primephonic – If you're into classical musical, you'll want to check out Primephonic, which offers 320 kbps mp3 streaming for $7.99, or lossless 24-bit FLAC streaming for $14.99/month. Primephonic has more than 1 million classic tracks available to stream.
· Deezer – For $19.99/month, Deezer offers personally curated recommendations and millions of streamable songs available in CD-quality FLAC format.
If you're on cellular, you're going to blow through data much more quickly than you would if you're playing lossy audio from Spotify or Apple Music. Lossless compression goes hand-in-hand with large file sizes.
The Bottom Line
Author's Note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.
About Shelly Palmer