What is high res audio? Chances are, you’ve probably seen the tiny black and yellow hi-res sticker at least once or twice. Does it mean that the headphones inside the box sound 10x better than headphones without it?
Can you actually hear a night and day difference, or is it something that’s only fully captured on a frequency response graph? Many audiophiles claim they can hear a major difference, but the average listener doesn’t always share that opinion.
Throughout this brief guide, we’ll do our best to help you understand whether or not you should believe the hype. Rather than just crossing your fingers and hoping for the best, we think it’s wise to know what you’re getting into. Keep reading to uncover the mystery and meaning behind the sticker!
What Is High Res Audio?
The term “hi-res” is not only seen on headphones, portable amplifiers, and other audio gear but is also used to describe certain types of audio recordings. Most of the time, when you download a song from iTunes or Amazon Music – it will be in MP3 format.
MP3s are technically lo-res recordings, but you probably want to know what sets them apart from other audio files.
The Digital to Analog Conversion Process
Before you can listen to your digital download, it has to be converted into an analog signal that your headphones or speakers will recognize. While some people prefer digital vs. analog recordings – most hi-res files are in digital form.
As we briefly mentioned above, MP3s are considered to be low-resolution files. This is mostly because they’re compressed into a smaller size in order to save storage space. When you compress a file, it decreases in size. Some of the sizes that’s lost during the compression process can contribute to a loss in detail when you play it back.
When it comes to saving a ton of storage space, MP3s are a godsend. The loss in quality (and if it really matters) will always be debated. This is why some people make the argument that even though some detail is lost during the process, you still might not notice a dramatic decrease in sound quality.
Now that you have some basic background information, it’ll be helpful to know the difference between the 2 main audio formats listed below:
Take a look at the section below to see a brief breakdown for each format!
Lossy vs. Lossless Files & How Compression Changes The Sound
Lossy files are compressed into a smaller size in order to save space. Lossless files, on the other hand, are the uncompressed version of a recording.
In theory, smaller files tend to sound a bit more watered down and less detailed than the lossless version. Lossless files are advertised as sounding “better than CD quality”. Before we get into the debate over whether or not the average listener can actually hear the difference, here are some of the benefits of listening to lossless versus lossy (lo-res) recordings.
How Digital Recordings & The Internet Changed Music Forever
The ability to send and receive more files is one of the main benefits of compressing files into MP3s. Before compressed MP3s and the internet, as we know it today, you would have had to physically walk to your local record store to buy new music.
(That is unless you knew someone who had a specific CD or LP that they were willing to lend out.) The lossy formats listed below are the most commonly downloaded digital formats:
The ability to instantly send, download and receive MP3s has changed the way we consume music. Some purists argue that digital downloads have watered down the quality of music.
Anyone who regularly listens to lossless files will wholeheartedly disagree. Usually, audiophiles and sometimes studio professionals download (or work with) lossless files.
Here are a few of the most commonly-used lossless formats:
- WAV (Uncompressed)
- ALAC (Apple’s lossless format)
- DSD (direct stream digital)
Many audiophiles prefer downloading FLAC or uncompressed WAV files because they claim to hear much richer, fuller, and more detailed playback. The average studio professional may or may not agree with that specific claim, but will usually record at a higher sample rate.
That way, they’re able to capture more detail during the initial recording process. When they go back to edit the track within their DAW (digital audio workstation), they’ll have more information to sift through and work with.
In a nutshell, that explains why some people prefer lossless over lossy, but we still haven’t unearthed any hard evidence to support the claim that everyone can hear a major difference between the two. It usually helps to understand the basics of how the sampling rate and bit depth affect the sound you hear.
Sampling Rate & Bit Depth (In Layman’s Terms)
Reading online forums about sampling rates and bit depth can seem like a foreign language if they’ve never been explained to you. In layman’s terms, the sampling rate describes how many samples (per second) are taken from an analog signal, which is then converted into digital form.
Bit depth is the amount of information available used to store that signal. The sampling rate and bit depth work hand in hand to create an accurate representation of any given recording.
Watch the short video below to see it explained in full detail:
The wave on a measurement graph is basically a visual representation of the sampling rate after each dot is connected. Each dot represents one sample per second and the space inside each wave represents the bit depth.
The sample rate of a CD-quality recording is 44,100 Hz (or 44.1 kHz). As mentioned in the video above, 24-bit/44.1 kHz is the generally accepted gold standard. When you look at the numbers, it might seem logical to assume that a higher sampling frequency and bit rate would translate into a more detailed and full-sounding track.
Although a higher sampling rate does capture more information, anything above 44.1 kHz might not justify the extra data. Many believe that anything over the 24-bit/44.1 kHz standard is overkill (at least technically-speaking). Keep reading below to see a study that supports this theory!
The Listening Test – Can You Really Hear The Difference?
Most people aren’t trained to hear the difference between an uncompressed WAV file and regular MP3. If you have an above-average hearing (and/or know what to listen for), you will probably notice a slight lack of detail on a lo-res MP3.
In this study, published in the Journal of Audio Engineering Society, 2 sample groups were given a listening test. The first group didn’t have any training before taking the test. The second group received training on how to listen for an increase or decrease in sound quality.
What Were The Results?
After the tests were completed, they found that 1 in 2 untrained listeners (only 50%) can hear the difference between WAV and MP3 files.
Listeners that were trained before taking the test, still only got it right about 62% of the time.
The total average of both sample groups shows that they were able to correctly guess which file was playing with only 56% accuracy! Does this mean hi-res audio is a hoax? Not necessarily.
Are You The Exception?
Based on this study and our own anecdotal evidence, most people can’t hear a significant difference when they listen to tracks with higher sampling rates and bit depth. (Not to mention the gap between 44.1 kHz and 96 kHz.)
Although most people can’t hear an improvement in quality more than 51% of the time, you might be the exception.
It also suggests that simply slapping an “official” sticker on a headphone (or amp) doesn’t guarantee that they’ll automatically outperform devices without one. In most cases, the placebo effect seems to play a bigger role than we’ve been led to believe.
If you want to test your hearing abilities, watch the double blind FLAC vs. MP3 sound test below:
How many did you guess correctly? Even if you only got 2 out of 3, you still did better than the sample group that was trained from the study above!
Is It A Marketing Tactic or Scientific Proof?
Now that you understand what hi-res audio is and have tested your own hearing, which side do you lean towards? Is it a marketing tactic, or is it possible that we can learn how to listen for the subtle differences between an MP3 and FLAC?
After uncovering the mystery, we still hold the belief that headphones or DAPs with the black and yellow sticker usually sound pretty awesome. That said, it’s probably not a good idea to base your entire purchasing decision on the somewhat loose certification.
The best headphone brands with top-performing products don’t always rely on a sticker to prove their value. Once again, the official stamp of approval definitely looks great but doesn’t always make or break any specific model.
When it comes to choosing between FLAC, WAV, or MP3 files, we recommend listening to a variety of formats before drawing any conclusions. The only downside to downloading lossless formats is their larger file size. If you have some extra storage space to spare, why not download a few FLAC files and see what you think?
Leave a comment or question below and let us know what you think! We usually respond within 24 hours and look forward to hearing your thoughts! Thanks for stopping by, we hope to see you here again!