High-res audio: Hype or music to the ears?

High-res audio: Hype or music to the ears?

Crystal-clear music streaming

Music student Aaron Cheong, 24, had two George Harrison vinyl albums shipped in from Japan and intends to convert the music from analogue to digital, so that he can go beyond just listening to them on his turntable.

But he is not making merely MP3 audio files. Mr Cheong converts his vinyls into 24/96 high-resolution digital WAV or Free Lossless Audio Codec (Flac) tracks.

In geekspeak, the music files are encoded in a bit depth of 24 bits and sampled at a 96kHz frequency.

There is no standard definition of high-resolution audio, but it is generally accepted as being higher than the bit depth of 16 bit, sampled at 44.1kHz, that is, CD-quality audio.

Mr Cheong then runs the music from his Apple MacBook to his $2,000 RME FireFace 800 audio interface, which is connected to two electrostatic speakers. Otherwise, he carries his music on his FiiO X3 digital music player.

An avid vinyl collector since he started buying records six years ago, he is a recording arts and science student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

"I can't listen to vinyl on the go," he said, adding: "And some stuff, I want to preserve in digital."

These days, though, he knows there are less troublesome alternatives, but he has yet to try them out.

Streaming service Deezer recently launched its high-resolution audio streaming service, Deezer Elite, here, weeks after competitor Tidal rolled out its own high-resolution service.

Both offer a selection of 16 bit, 44.1kHz tracks at a bit rate of 1,441kbps, in the Flac music format.

Lossless data compression file formats, such as Apple Lossless (Alac), Flac and Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP), allow the original data to be reconstructed in full.

Lossy data compression, used in creating MP3 files, removes certain details from the original source. This helps to keep file sizes small.

But audiophiles regard this as stripping the music of certain aspects and denying listeners the full auditory experience.

The bit rate, which is different from the previously mentioned bit depth, refers to the amount of data, or bits, that are processed.

So, if you encode or buy audio files at 320kbps, it means that there are 320 bits of data stored in each second of the song. MP3s can be encoded at anything from 8kbps to 320kbps, though it is common to see files encoded at 96, 128 or 192kbps.

High-resolution music streaming does not just do away with worries about storage, but provides access to more than 20 million tunes in high-resolution format on Tidal and Deezer Elite.

But switching to high-resolution music also requires investing in a new category of hardware.

Regular low-priced earphones and headphones cannot handle the wider frequencies of high-resolution tracks. Neither can the majority of smartphones that are currently available.

Companies such as Sony, FiiO and Pono - founded by musician Neil Young - are also launching high-resolution music players to cater to this growing group. However, these products are not cheap. A regular music player can be had for less than $500 but the NW-ZX2 High-Resolution Walkman from Sony retails at $1,599.

For the next five months, Deezer Elite will be available only when used with speakers from American audio company, Sonos.

When Mr Michael Lee, 65, a retiree, moved to high-resolution audio earlier this year, he had to buy new hard drives for his Direct-Stream Digital (DSD) audio collection.

"My friend passed me some DSD files but they were huge. I have about four terabytes worth."

And while it is convenient to be able to switch tracks directly from his network-attached storage, it is hard to beat the simplicity of playing a CD. "It's a good way to share music, but I have too many CDs in my collection to switch to high resolution."

Moreover, not everyone believes that human ears can actually "hear" high-resolution audio tracks.

The human ear can hear frequencies of up to 20kHz.

To produce an accurate frequency in music, it is common to double the maximum frequency, so a 44.1kHz sampling frequency covers up to 22kHz.

As high-resolution audio can hit a sampling frequency of 192kHz, some consider high-resolution audio an overkill and a marketing gimmick manufactured to sell high-end audio equipment and services.

Ambient noise mixed in with the best hardware options will affect the listening experience, which means that high-resolution recordings might be enjoyed only in recording studios by sound engineers with the right tools.

Still, audiophiles such as Mr Cheong believe they can hear the difference. He attributes it to psychoacoustics, the study of psychological and physiological responses to the perception of sound.

"With high-resolution audio, I feel that transient (acoustics) translate a lot better. One really good example would be classical music."

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