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Hi-res audio is much ado about not very much (for most people)

  • Dear Neighbour

    I see that you use Apple Music to stream music wirelessly to a Bluetooth speaker and that sometimes when you want a punchier sound, you use the same streaming service on an Apple TV unit connected to your flat-panel TV and soundbar. But have you heard that Apple Music is now streaming in CD-quality and hi-res audio? To hear audiophiles talk about hi-res audio, you’d think it was the second coming of sound quality. Their conversation’s volume leads us to wonder what all the fuss is about. What we need is some context and a heavy dose of perspective.

    The difference between the 256kbps AAC Apple Music streaming that you currently use and the company’s newly-minted CD-quality and hi-res tiers will barely be audible with your existing hardware. You cannot use Bluetooth to transmit CD-quality or hi-res audio from your iPhone to the DAC. Bluetooth doesn’t offer enough bandwidth.

    Why not the Apple TV? Newer models (like the one that you own) don’t have the TOSLINK connection of previous generations and very, very few DACs – especially affordable DACs – offer an HDMI input. Besides, Apple TV OS only supports the lowest tier of hi-res audio: 24bit/48kHz.

    To do improvements to streaming source quality justice, you’re going to need a pair of loudspeakers that paint music as a soundstage between them, show some degree of separation between the instruments and offer wide bandwidth with relatively low levels of distortion, especially when SPLs increase.

    And new loudspeakers, dear neighbour, will change your life — even standmount speakers that come up short on bass. They will sound more open and transparent than pretty much any soundbar. And they will draw a soundstage 6ft+ wide. Of course, you’ll need an amplifier to power your loudspeakers and a DAC to convert the Apple Music signal from digital to analogue for the amplifier to do its job. You should be able to put together something decent for around โ‚ฌ1000. I made a video about one such system here.

    You could use a laptop to send Apple Music streams to the DAC over USB but I recommend an iPad and Apple’s CCKย if you want to access 24bit/96kHz and 24bit/192kHz without any extra hassles.

    Some streaming loudspeakers bake the amplifiers, DAC and streaming source into the loudspeaker cabinets and some of them support Apple AirPlay – a system that allows you to wireless stream Apple Music from your iPhone/iPad to those speakers – but frustratingly, AirPlay is capped at 24bit/48kHz. Maybe. Apple is very vague on what goes on inside AirPlay streams. But we do know that 24bit/96kHz and 24bit/192kHz streams are a no-go. A separates system – DAC, amplifier and loudspeakers – with a hard-wired streaming device like the iPad (or laptop) are the way to go if you want to hear the highest of hi-res audio with the least technical fuss.

    Now that you’ve got your loudspeakers on stands and positioned properly in the room and wired into the amplifier and DAC, you’ll be all set to press play on your first hi-res audio stream. Now comes your first red flag. There is no such thing as a hi-res streaming service; only CD-quality streaming services with a smattering of hi-res. By the end of the year, Apple Music will pull up alongside Tidal and Qobuz where less than one in ten of its songs will be available in hi-res.

    We can think about this another way: if we strip Apple Music of everything but its hi-res content (24bit/48kHz and above), we’d be left with around 5 million songs. That’s a far cry from the 70 million songs that will be available in CD-quality. Crazy, right?

    This is probably why the more pragmatic audiophiles among us agree that CD-quality is good enough. I call it the ‘sweet spot’ of streaming audio quality, not just because the streams haven’t been subjected to lossy compression but because pretty much any album you choose is available in CD-quality. It seems that Spotify’s decision-makers think along the same lines: their forthcoming ‘HiFi’ service won’t feature hi-res audio at all; just CD-quality top to bottom.

    Assuming you’ve found something to play in hi-res, now comes your second red flag: don’t expect an instant “wow!”. The audible difference between lossy AAC and CD-quality is small, the difference between CD-quality and hi-res audio even smaller, especially when heard through the kind of entry-level hi-fi system that you might choose. How small? Smaller than pretty much any change made elsewhere in the playback chain.

    In fact, when first playing hi-res content from Apple Music, you should brace yourself for an “is that it?” moment. Higher-quality streams like these do increase our levels of audible nourishment over time but the deltas are small enough that you’ll likely only notice them over the long-haul.

    But first, something important worth noting by all newcomers to hi-fi gear: buying better loudspeakers, a better amplifier or a better DAC will have far, far more of a profound effect on what you hear than moving from CD-quality to hi-res audio. As will changing up one’s loudspeaker cables, interconnects and power cables…but yeah, I get it: you don’t want to get into all of that deep audiophile stuff. You want to keep it as simple as possible. Fair enough too. Just know that the biggest impact comes from the hardware.

    Oh, and before I forget — you might want to throw a rug or two down on that wooden floor. The sound of the room influences the sound that reaches your ear after it leaves the loudspeakers. Whilst you’re at it, get some heavier curtains. They too will have a larger impact on what you hear than the move from AAC to CD-quality or from CD-quality to hi-res.

    Do you know what else impacts sound quality more than file/stream containers? Mastering and recording quality; decisions made in the studio by musicians and record producers. A well-mastered song delivered in MP3 (or AAC or Ogg Vorbis) will sound better than a poorly mastered song delivers in a hi-res FLAC container. And you won’t have to squint to hear the difference.

    Hi-res audio is a win for audiophiles with hi-fi systems transparent enough to resolve its improvements over CD-quality. Unfortunately, the volume of their collective enthusiasm for hi-res (and its numerical bragging rights!) could lead newcomers to believe that it matters most when in reality, it matters least*. For most people – like you, dear neighbour – who don’t own specialist audio hardware, it’s much ado about not very much.

    Some people like to point to the move from standard to high definition video as an indicator that hi-res audio supply will expand over time. What their argument omits is that this uptick in video resolution was met by a parallel increase in sales of HD TVs. The hardware kept pace with the software. And then some. In fact, we now live in a world where 4K TVs are more ubiquitous than 4K content.

    The same isn’t happening in audio land. Hardware buying trends have moved us in the opposite direction: toward lower-resolution listening experiences through greater convenience and smaller hardware, as typified by your Bluetooth speaker and soundbar.

    Moreover, ask anyone old enough to remember – or tuned in enough to notice – about the fate of earlier hi-res audio formats like SACD, DVD-A, DSD, the Pono player/store and, more recently, Blu-Ray Audio. They all slid into audiophile niches. It’s probable that hi-res audio streaming will do the same.

    I really don’t want to dissuade you from getting a pair of loudspeakers, an amplifier and a DAC – or all-in-one actives. Such hardware will comfortably best the sound of your soundbar to transform the way you listen to your favourite music. ALL OF IT. I simply want you to understand that hi-res audio is far from abundant and that when it does show up, its sonic impact will be, at best, marginal — even when you put that new hi-fi system in place.

    Happy listening!

    John


    Camera: Olaf von Voss | Editor: John Darko | Motion Graphics: John Darko | Ad Segment: Jana Dagdagan

    *Footnote #1: GIGO-ers note: just like hi-res, we need decent hi-fi hardware in place before garbage-in-garbage-out becomes a reality.

    Footnote #2: Yes, 24bit/48kHz is hi-res. And yes it can sound marginally better than CD-quality. BUT 1) the difference is minor AND 2) you still need a decent hifi system to hear it AND 3) you need to find that 24bit/48kHz content — around 4-5% of all available music.

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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