What is High-Resolution Audio and which streaming services offer it?
This page was translated using AI and machine learning.
(Pocket-lint) – If you’ve ever listened to a CD recording of your favorite album alongside a stream from, say, Spotify, you might notice a difference. This is because the quality of the recording on the CD is significantly better than the compressed stream, especially when listening to your stream via Bluetooth.
High-Resolution Audio aims to give you sound quality that matches or betters CD quality in the convenient package for streaming from your phone or as a digital download to a dedicated player.
Tidal is one of the best-known services for delivering high-res audio. However, other providers have upped their game with many offering better quality sound.
Why is music compressed?
Before we get into Hi-Res Audio, let’s start by discussing compression.
It’s no secret that the music industry has shifted from physical formats (like vinyl) to digital formats (like MP3), but most people don’t realize that sound quality has been affected during this transition due to a demand to reduce the size of music files. Simply put: they’re easier (and cheaper) to distribute to consumers who download or stream.
In order to reduce the size of a music file, it must go through lossless or lossy compression. With lossless compression, all the original data of the music file can be restored after it is decompressed, while lossy compression permanently shrinks the music file by deleting some data during the encoding process and makes it much smaller.
Whenever data is lost or deleted from a music file during compression, the resolution is negatively affected.
It was the storage and transmission demands that drove the compression of audio into digital form, and with the falling cost of storage and the greater availability of faster mobile and broadband data, this prompted a shift to music. better quality.
What is High-Resolution Audio?
There is no universal standard for High-Resolution Audio, also known as High-Resolution Audio or HRA, although The Digital Entertainment Group (in conjunction with the Consumer Electronics Association and the Recording Academy) has published the following formal definition of term:
- High-Resolution Audio is: “Lossless audio capable of reproducing the full range of sound from mastered recordings from musical sources in better than CD quality.”
Now, when music is digitized for downloading and streaming, it’s essentially broken down into a series of audio snapshots (much like how multiple still images make up a movie), and our brains interpret all of those snapshots together as a continuous sound. The more snapshots taken, the more detail a digital music file will have.
We won’t get too scientific – but just know that sample rate is the number of snapshots taken per second when analog sound waves are converted to digital. There is another aspect called bit depth. This is the amplitude of the waveform at each sample point (8 bits has 256 levels for each sample; 16 bits has up to 65,536 levels). It’s the amount of data in those snapshots – the higher the sample rate and bit depth, the more information there is in that audio file.
So to recap: Hi-Res Audio refers to audio files that have a higher sample rate and higher bit depth than CD – and it’s usually best to have the most possible high. A CD has a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz and a bit depth of 16 bits, while high resolution files have a sampling rate generally between 96 kHz and 192 kHz at 16 or 24 bits.
Then you have the bit rate, which is expressed as the amount of data per second in that audio file. This is often what you’ll see voiced on streaming services. A CD would be 1411kbps, while some streaming could be as low as 96kbps.
What are high resolution file formats?
There are several high resolution audio file formats available with amazing sample rates and bit depths. Two of the most popular types are FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), both of which are compressed but claim to retain and recover every bit of data from a file.
Other file formats you may have seen that are considered high resolution include WAC, AIFF, and DSD. More recently we have seen MQA (Master Quality Authenticated), which aims to provide the original studio recording with 100% of the data.
Not all devices can decode these formats, and not all services offer all formats, however. MQA’s most prominent supporter is Tidal, with a range of Master-level tracks that use MQA to deliver hi-res audio. Tidal also uses FLAC for its “normal” hi-res music. Lossless Apple Music uses ALAC.
Which services offer High-Resolution Audio?
There are a range of services that offer hi-res music, but here we cover the big players in streaming.
Tidal is the name you know. There are two tiers of Tidal – HiFi, which goes up to 1411 kbps in streaming, and HiFi Plus which goes from 2304 to 9216 kbps. This refers to the bitrate offered, while you will find various qualities within the Tidal platform, including the MQA Master files we mentioned earlier. These are, however, only available to the HiFi Plus tier of subscribers, but both tiers of Tidal are considered high resolution. Prices start at $/£9.99 per month for HiFi or $/£19.99 per month for HiFi Plus.
Tidal is widely available on Android and iOS, desktop, and supported by many high-end audio devices.
Qobuz is both a music streaming service and a download store. It offers Hi-Res audio up to 16-bit/192kHz and costs $12.99 or £10.83 per month for Studio Premier. There are two tiers, with a £15 Studio Sublime tier also offering discounts on buying hi-res to download.
Qobuz is widely supported with Android and iOS apps, and supported on high-end audio devices.
Apple Music offers CD quality (16-bit/44.1kHz), Apple Music Lossless (24-bit/48kHz), and Hi-Res Lossless (up to 24-bit/192kHz). To listen to Hi-Res Lossless you will need to use an external DAC, i.e. it is not supported by Apple’s own equipment. Apple Music starts at $/£9.99 per month.
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Amazon Music HD was once a premium tier, but is now available to all Amazon Music subscribers, will run at up to 24bit/192kHz, with a bitrate of 3730kbps. Prices start at $/£7.99 per month for Prime subscribers or $/£9.99 per month in standalone mode.
Spotify HiFi has been rumored for some time, but is currently not high resolution, using AAC compressed at up to 320 kbps.
Do I need special equipment to record high resolution music?
In many cases, you can stream hi-res music through a smartphone or computer – or connected media player – with nothing else. But you have to consider what happens to your music. If that source is then processed by your device, and perhaps then transmitted wirelessly, you could be processing a lot of the quality.
To get the most out of your high-quality music, you need to know what the DAC – digital to analog converter – does. There’s a DAC in every computer and phone, but dedicated external DACs provide better quality processing, handling that data better to give you better sound at the end of the process. This is more important for those looking for perfect music, so if you’re considering subscribing to Tidal HiFi Plus for those MQA Master tracks, you’ll want a compatible DAC to handle MQA. If you don’t have such a DAC, the application will process these files itself, so you can still listen to them.
Even Apple Music Hi-Res Lossless will need a DAC to decode it. It’s not something Apple offers in its own devices – you’d need something to decompress and process the stream – like the Chord Mojo 2 for example.
While you don’t necessarily need special headphones or speakers, the better headphones and speakers you use, the better the experience. If you want to enjoy the best quality, you’ll need headphones that can handle higher quality music streaming – with many now also under the HiRes brand. Of course, at the higher end, wired headphones are the way to go, to remove the extra processing involved in wireless transmission.
Written by Elyse Betters. Edited by Chris Hall.