Is High-Resolution Audio Worth It? Here’s All You Need to Know

Written by
Jay LeBoeuf
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8
min read

If your idea of a home sound system is an iPhone connected to a Dixie cup, you may be missing all the buzz around high-resolution audio. You’re not alone. For decades, listeners have been conditioned to forfeit sound quality for the convenience of streaming. 

In the early aughts, hyper-accessible digital audio brought about the demise of the CD, and with it the superior sound of analog media. Despite advances in how and where we got our music, there were few innovations in audio quality itself. And so here we are, numb to inferior music quality after two decades of streaming compressed audio formats. 

Today, Apple, Spotify, and other streaming services are fighting to differentiate their offerings — in part by pushing hi-res audio. If you’re thinking of trying high-resolution audio, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s what you need to know.


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What is high-resolution audio?

High-resolution audio, sometimes referred to as HD or hi-res audio, delivers sound quality that’s as close to the original source recording as possible. While the concept of high-resolution audio has been around for quite some time, it wasn’t until 2014 that the Recording Industry Association of America joined with the Consumer Electronics Association, Digital Entertainment Group, and the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing to officially define high-resolution audio. Their definition: “lossless audio capable of reproducing the full spectrum of sound from recordings which have been mastered from better than CD quality (48 kHz/20-bit or higher) music sources which represent what the artists, producers, and engineers originally intended." 

What are the benefits of high-resolution audio?

Compared to compressed audio files like the commonly used AAC and MP3 formats, hi-res audio formats provide a much higher quality listening experience.

The standard measure of CD quality is 16-bit/44.1kHz. In that figure, bit depth refers to the amount of data in each sample; sample frequency, or sample rate, refers to the number of times per second a sound is sampled. So in the CD-standard measure, there are 16 bits per sample and 44,100 samples per second. For perspective, most high-resolution audio content is in the range of 24-bit/96kHz and can even go as high as 192kHz. The higher the bit depth and sample frequency of the track, the better it is at relaying to the listener all of the information from the original recording. That’s why, with high-resolution music, you hear every artist intended breath, squelch, and bump with a depth and crispness you can’t get from lesser audio formats. Similarly, high-resolution audio can also make a huge difference in how you experience a podcast, enhancing voice clarity and adding extra polish to music and effects. 

When you listen to audio through services like Spotify, which uses a mid-quality file format known as Ogg Vorbis, the audio file you hear has been compressed to make it easier to stream. This file reduction is known as lossy compression. The scope and richness of the original recording are diminished in order to shrink the audio file to make it easier for streaming and downloading. In the end, the Adele lamenting lost love over your AirPods is a very compressed Adele, without all the nuance of the original recording.

Where can you play hi-res audio?

Depending on your listening preferences and budget, there are plenty of ways for you to hear high-resolution music. Here’s what you need to get started:

  • Smartphones.  Android phones are much less fussy when it comes to compatibility and work with a range of hi-res file formats such as MP3, FLAC, AAC, WAV, MP2, OGG, and FLAC. iPhone users can play FLAC AAC, AIFF, MP3, Apple’s own ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), and others. But some formats, like WAV, can’t be played natively and require workarounds. Generally, as long as you have the storage, you can listen offline or play high-res audio content from the music services that offer it. 
  • Desktop. You can easily shop for and download high-resolution music on your computer, which generally has more compatibility with high-res audio file formats than portable devices. Mac users in particular have easy access to hi-res audio via Apple Music.
  • Portable music players. The latest crop of high-resolution portable music players are compatible with FLAC, MP3, AAC, DSD, and other formats. Some, like the Astell & Kern A&futura SE180, come with DAC (digital-to-analog converter) to use in conjunction with your smartphone and headphones. If you can do without the bells and whistles, there are more affordable models like Sony’s latest iteration of the classic Walkman, the NW-A55L.
  • Streaming services. Apple Music entered the lossless audio game with its own hi-res streaming music service, joining the ranks of Amazon Music HD, Tidal, Qobuz, Primephonic, and Idagio. Notably absent from this roster, at least for now, is streaming heavyweight Spotify. Its long-awaited lossless service, Spotify Hi-Fi, has yet to be released. 

5 Common high-resolution audio file types 

The file format of your audio content will play an outsized role in its sound quality. Each file type has its pros and cons, and the pros can quickly flip to cons when file formats meet an unsupportive device or streaming service. Again, a true hi-res audio listening experience relies on near-perfect alignment of the right parts. 

  • WAV: The granddaddy of audio files. Uncompressed WAV files were used to create CDs and are still one of the most widely used formats due to the superior sound quality. But music quality comes at a price, and in this case, the huge files make WAV cumbersome to store and use. 
  • AIFF: Created in 1988 by Apple, AIFF—or Audio Interchange File Format—is similar to WAV in that it offers lossless and uncompressed audio content that accurately represents the original in very high-quality sound.
  • FLAC: Free Lossless Audio Compression, or FLAC, is the go-to format for hi-res streaming and offers CD-sound quality without requiring as much space.  
  • ALAC: On par with FLAC, Apple’s take offers the same lossless compression for iTunes and iOS.  
  • DSD: Direct Stream Digital is a hi-res file format that uses the same pulse-code modulation (PCM) used for CDs. 

Downloading and streaming hi-res audio

If you’re new to hi-res audio, you’ll find plenty of places online where you can beef up your library. You may not find every album on your list, as not everything is available in high-resolution audio, yet. It’s sometimes more surprising to discover what has been released in hi-res than what has not. Here’s where to look:

  • Apple Music. Apple Music offers both lossless and high-resolution lossless audio, though the latter selection is still somewhat limited. 
  • Bandcamp. Bandcamp is an excellent source for indie musicians to sell their wares without being gutted by unfair commission rates. Instead, the musician receives 90% of the money you spend. And yes, they offer lossless and high-resolution music. 
  • Tidal. Tidal HiFi subscribers now have access to Tidal Masters, which offers an extensive library of hi-res albums. 
  • Amazon Music HD. Amazon offers hi-res streaming to its Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers. 
  • Qobuz, Studio Premier, and Studio Sublime. Qobuz offers both downloading and, on Qobuz Studio Premier and Studio Sublime, you can enjoy streaming as well. The quality is high but then so is the price, which can run over $200 per year, depending on your service tier. If you remain unconvinced, there is a free trial. 
  • HDtracks. HDtracks’s catalog skews towards classical, jazz, and oldies, and doesn’t offer single-track downloads. This store does get major points for allowing shoppers to preview sampling frequency and select their file preference among FLAC, ALAC, AIFF, WAV, and the occasional DSD. 
  • 7digital. For downloads, it's hard to beat 7Digital for ease of use and variety.  

Disadvantages of hi-res audio

Ask a group of diehard audiophiles about the cons of high-resolution audio, and you’ll likely get a range of answers, if they even admit there are cons at all. But there are cons, and file size is top of the list. It continues to be a significant blocker as listeners grapple with limited storage and data allowances. Things are improving, though. The standard FLAC format is already half the size of uncompressed WAV formats. 

Cost can be another big deterrent for someone making the transition to hi-res audio. Though the devices and platforms required for high-resolution listening are available at various price points, you’ll still end up spending more than you would otherwise.

Do I need special equipment to listen to hi-res audio? 

There are a lot of moving parts to consider to ensure a genuine hi-res listening experience. Not only does the audio file you’re listening to need to be in hi-res, but your means of listening should also support hi-res formats. That includes both the device itself as well as the wireless speakers or headphones you use. 

Listening to your hi-res tracks via incompatible Bluetooth wireless headphones or speakers can negate the benefit of hi-res. That’s because Bluetooth further compresses audio files and strips away quality as it transmits data, even in instances where the listening device supports hi-res audio. iPhone users dead-set on achieving authentic hi-res listening will need a digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, to connect between a lightning-to-USB adapter and your hi-res compatible headphones.

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Written by
Jay LeBoeuf

Jay leads Business Development at Descript. He's been a founder, a music technology leader, an engineer, a Stanford University lecturer, and a drummer.

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Jay LeBoeuf

Jay leads Business Development at Descript. He's been a founder, a music technology leader, an engineer, a Stanford University lecturer, and a drummer.

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