Is High-Resolution Audio the Future?
We have recently seen a new attempt to improve the sound quality of the music we all enjoy listening to. This comes under the banner of ‘Hi-Res audio’, which is looking to improve all aspects of music playback.
Sony is the driving force behind this new initiative and branding, but the idea of improving the music we listen to is also being looked into by other big names including LG and Samsung, along with many smaller companies. In the case of the smaller companies, these tend to be audio specialists who manufacturer high-end audio components.
All of these companies have the common goal of aiming to improve the consumer’s audio experience whether they listening to classical, heavy metal or somewhere in between.
The term for this type of higher quality music is “High-Resolution Audio”.
For more, read on after the break.
So what exactly is High-Resolution audio?
To understand High Resolution audio, we need to look at exactly what it is and how it can improve the music we listen to. For a long time now we have all become used to low quality MP3 and other similar lossy music formats. These formats were ideal for the low-speed Internet of the past, and when there was a limitation on storage available on portable music players, but as the saying goes “Times they are a-changing”. We now have Internet connections which see measurements in Mbit/s instead of Kbit/s, whilst the storage available on music players has sometimes increased at what appears an almost exponential rate.
High resolution audio looks to counter this situation by bringing sound to consumers which exceeds CD quality. You might think that this refers to a new audio standard designed specifically for this purpose, in fact it isn’t. The term high-resolution audio refers to any piece of sound or music which has a higher sampling frequency and bit-depth than a CD, which is 44.1 kHz at 16-bit. This naturally means that you can have varying qualities as anything above the range of a CD is effectively ‘high-resolution audio’.
Sony has then put their spin on the term and introduced some branding to give us Hi Res audio.
When talking about having a higher frequency we are referring to capturing more of the original sound wave at the time of creation when the performer is recording. Essentially the more times it is possible to sample a sound wave, the greater the accuracy of the recording. So you get to hear more of your music the way it was originally performed.
Not only do you have various levels of quality, but as mentioned there are several file formats for distribution of the this higher quality audio. The most common high-resolution audio formats are DSD (DSF), WAV, AIFF, FLAC, and ALAC. This means it is possible you will meet various audio formats when searching for music, although FLAC appears the most common at the moment.
This all makes for an interesting situation where you have competing files formats, which all have various benefits. Of course you will likely meet different file formats while purchasing music and you will need to make sure that your hardware is compatible. This may initially cause problems, but as the hardware matures you will see improvements in compatibility.
The point about various frequencies and bit-rates being available also comes into play when you are thinking about purchasing music. As a higher frequency and bit-rate should give you a better product right?
The answer is again more complex than you think, but it is pretty logical. If you have a file which has a been captured at 96kHz from an original studio recording, this often sound better than a 192 kHz one taken from a more questionable source. Essentially the original source of the music is more important than the frequency and bit rate. If however you have file which has come from a quality source and has a high frequency and bit rate, then you should have the best possible sound.
But can I hear it?
There is a point which many people will make and that is human hearing may not be able to detect the subtle differences between high-resolution audio and CD quality, as during creation of the CD standard, the frequency and bit rate where chosen to reflect the best audio standard humans are able to typically distinguish.
To counter this you need to look at the fact that degradation of sound can occur and having a high frequency and bit rate means that there is less leakage of this static into the audio sound range. There are also individual differences between people’s senses, the subtleties one person is assured they can hear may be completely missed by another.
We are not audio experts but there did seem a noticeable improvement in the music we were listening to. This of course could have been a self-imposed illusion, but we do enjoy listening to music, and did get more from the individual performance.
So how does this affect my smartphone?
With Hi-Res audio you need to play it on suitable equipment which is able to cope with the higher demands of the audio. Therefore Sony has released new components, including speakers, to deal with the extra needs. This has also been the case with other manufacturers, who have released similar equipment without the branding.
But what about taking high-resolution audio with you in a portable device? The answer is you can have a dedicated portable music player which can deal with the demands of this new sound quality, but these are at the moment expensive. Now companies like Sony and LG are incorporating this feature into their smartphone product lines.
This means that you will be able to get the high-resolution audio at a much lower cost than has been previously possible. This should make it more likely that this technology will get into the hands of more consumers and be adopted. It is also a great way for a manufacturer to distinguish themselves from competitors, as it gives consumers an understandable benefit when purchasing a smartphone, hence the Sony branding.
For the last couple of years it seems to have become increasingly difficult for smartphone manufacturers to produce innovative product using the traditional ways of looking at technology. How fast do you really need processor, and far can we take display size before it becomes impractical?
This is something that manufacturers have obviously thought about, as they have stated to look outside the box and add to the improvements that we have now come to expect. So we have stated to see curved screens in products and will no doubt see lots of other creative ways to make a new product the must have item. Hi-Res audio is one such technology.
There have been previous attempts to improve the sound we receive with smartphones. The most widely known about would be when HTC purchased significant shares in Beats audio. This was so they could include their technology in their smartphones and even supply Beats headphones in a few products.
This attempt by HTC differed slightly as it didn’t improve quality of the actual music files. It instead was relying upon the music being enhanced through the usage of filters and high quality earphones. While this attempt to improve the audio wasn’t entirely successful from a business perspective, it did show a tangible way a manufacturer could produce better audio from a smartphone and use it as a unique selling point. It also showed that there were still ways for a manufacturer to distinguish themselves from competitors.
HTC’s attempt with Beats audio was the first time consumers had come into contact with the benefits of superior audio. The result was the experience when watching movies and listening to music on their smartphone was more immersive and enjoyable.
The HTC and Beats audio collaboration hasn’t been the only attempt by the smartphone manufacturer to improve audio of their products. Recently we saw HTC include Boomsound with the HTC One. This dealt with the poor sound quality that all of us had experience of when trying to playing music through a smartphone’s speakers.
It was the first time a smartphone manufacturer had included two high quality speakers into their product. Even better the speakers were both forward facing so you had the music and sound directed to you and not the floor in front of you, as up until this point you had a single speaker on the back.
Using High-Resolution Audio on a smartphone
To try out Hi-Res we purchased and downloaded some high-resolution audio files to a Sony Xperia Z3 Compact. We chose this product as a couple of the team in the office have these smartphones and they are able to playback this type of audio through the headphone jack.
We used some Sennheiser Momentum headphones for our testing of the music, to give us an idea of the improvement we can expect with this type of audio. These are not an officially branded Hi-Res product from Sony, but they are of a high quality and only lack the extreme frequency range the Sony Hi-Res products have. But at least they gave us some idea of what to expect.
What we found was that music was crisper and more vibrant and had more heart. Essentially it felt more like we were at a live performance and could hear the finer details, which are normally missing in recordings
It is also worth mentioning when we are talking about listening to music on a Sony product. Not only do the Sony Xperia Z3 and the Z3 Compact benefit from being able to play high-resolution audio, but they is also have DSEE HX (Digital Sound Enhancement Engine). This technology from Sony improves the sound quality of existing music files to near high-resolution audio quality.
This is a great claim, however it is difficult to imagine real-world improvements this good, as that would mean an existing compressed MP3 music file could be upgraded to quality exceeding a CD. It does however have some merit, as it does improve reproduction of existing files, just possibly not to the level indicated within the marketing information. Some supporting documentation on the technology would be appreciated although are likely not readily available.
Where do you buy High Resolution audio for your smartphone?
Surprisingly it has been possible to buy high-resolution music for a several years now. The sites just haven’t yet had mainstream coverage like streaming services and other alternatives to buy music.
This should however change as interest will increase with the hardware capable of playing the music becomes more common place.
Due to Sony including Hi-Res audio in their smartphones and similar improvements being seen with other manufacturers it may become a deciding factor in making this type of high quality music become more mainstream. As more people realise that they can listen to their favourite music in a new and more immersive way using their smartphone.
As said earlier the purchasing of high-resolution music still has its issues as there are various file formats and quality of tracks can vary. Below is a list of the most popular sites available, but with a quick search you will likely find more.
Bowers & Wilkins Society of Sound
High resolution audio is hopefully a technology which will start to become more commonplace, as its benefits become more widely known. The Hi-Res branding from Sony will help push this and the fact they are including this technology within their popular smartphone range of products should help with its adoption.
This push by Sony is welcome and should hopefully result in access to high-resolution audio being easier and less expensive. When you see them combining this with technologies like DSEE HX and building advanced noise cancellation into a smartphone you can see what is possible.
Hopefully we will continue to see innovations and similar improvements from other manufacturer’s products, with high-resolution being one that is universally adopted. That way all smartphone consumers can enjoy the benefit of this improvement to the music experience.
If not and you enjoy your music then a Sony smartphone is a great introduction to this technology.
Let us know what you think, is high-resolution audio a fad, or does it bring a genuine improvement to music on smartphones?