Are you wired for hi-res audio even if the world’s not ready for it?

Sony Walkman ZX2, lifestyle photo (1102x620)Your favourite tunes as you’ve never heard them before. That’s the promise of high resolution audio. Deeper bass, sharper riffs and vocals with greater presence for a fuller, richer musical tableau.

While that’s all well and good, the arrival of hi-res audio is long overdue and, right now, most of the world is far from ready for it.

In general terms, hi-res audio refers to files and devices that are capable of offering higher sampling frequency and bit depth than CD (16-bit/44.1kHz). So the higher figure (say, 24-bit), the fuller the sound. The kicker is that, unlike HD video which has an agreed set of criteria (eg 720p), there still isn’t a universal standard for hi-res audio.

Sony HAP-S1, Nov 20, 2014, John Biehler (1920x1080)Taking FLAC
FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Code), AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) and good, old WAV are some of the file formats that offer sampling frequencies over and above CD. None of them, however, could be considered compact, as a single five-minute song averages over 60 MB. On today’s 16 GB smartphones, you might just fit around 200 WAV or FLAC songs – and that’s without apps, photos or anything else.

A lack of storage space on commonly used mobile devices isn’t the only problem. Without a universal standard, there has been reluctance to support any one format from hardware manufacturers and digital music stores. FLAC files up to 24-bit have emerged as the most common format sold by stores such as 7digital, HDtracks and Bandcamp. Native support for FLAC on popular portables is scant, however. Android devices depend upon the handset and OS, while Apple devices… no, just no. The biggest digital music stores – iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Music – still don’t offer their customers the option to buy hi-res files, though Apple is thought to be working on releasing a new format to usurp its AAC standard.

Sony ZX2 close up, Sony/PR (3840x2160)Hi-cost hi-fi systems
Getting in on hi-res audio today comes at an eye-watering cost. The recently unveiled Sony Walkman ZX2 (128 GB) will cost you a mere $1,200 (£950) this spring, while the Neil Young-endorsed Pono Player (64 GB) has gone on sale in the US for $400. Those prices put this tech squarely in the market for audiophiles and early adopters.

The final, and perhaps most pressing, issue is whether hi-res audio tracks genuinely offer a noticeable leap in quality. The difference between standard definition video and high definition video is clear to most people. You can walk around a home entertainment store and see it for yourself. Such as comparison may not be so immediate with hi-res audio. Indeed, some songs can apparently achieve frequencies that the human ear can’t even hear, as Will Prentice, head of technical, sound and vision at the British Library, told the BBC, which makes it seem like overkill.

Sonos Play:3 press photo 2011 (1920x1079)A long way still
Purveyors of hi-res audio face a daunting challenge if they are to convince consumers that better sound quality is worth the entry fee. Millions are still satisfied to buy DVDs rather than Blu-rays and watch lo-res YouTube videos rather than paid-for HD streams. The same can be said for music too, with fuzzy, inferior MP3s floating around all over the internet. The growing popularity of wireless hi-fi systems, such as Sonos, and their thirst for studio-quality output could start to change all that. But it’s going to take a commitment from more content providers and, naturally, more affordable devices to make it attractive.

Whether you’re a connoisseur who opts for 180g audiophile vinyl or a casual listener who prefers streams and MP3s, advancements in hi-res audio are beneficial for us all. But with no agreed technical standards, a lack of content support and portable storage mediums still not large or affordable enough for its hulking file sizes, the era when we can all enjoy our favourite album in crisper sound feels a long way off yet.

Images: Sony/PR; John Biehler/Flickr; Sonos/PR

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