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

DEEZER ELITE

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."

Hear this first

Before you dive headlong into the rough seas of high-resolution audio, here is a navigation aid:

What is high-resolution audio?

The music industry is still trying to figure it out. As CD quality is defined as 16 bit quantities, sampled at 44.1kHz frequencies, a leap to 24 bit at 96kHz should naturally be considered high-resolution.

Most recording artists record their masters at 24 bit. But sampling frequencies are also available at 88.2kHz and 176.4kHz, which add to the confusion of which is the best.

The Digital Entertainment Group, Consumer Electronics Association and The Recording Academy partnered with Sony, Universal and Warner Music Group last year to establish a standard definition in the hope of achieving a more unified approach to high-resolution music.

They propose to define it as "lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better than CD-quality music sources".

There are four file formats in the proposal. One of them, Master Quality C, or MQ-C, is "from a CD master source (44.1kHz/16 bit)".

This probably explains why Tidal and Deezer Elite are able to call their 16 bit, 44.1kHz music stream a high-resolution service.

Why does 16 bit or 24 bit matter?

This refers to bit depth and should not be confused with bit rate. Bit depth refers to the range of bits available to store audio levels, from having no sound, to the highest level attainable.

With 16 bit, there are 65,536 levels (two to the power of 16) available. At 24 bits, there are 16,777,216 levels.

So, on paper, 24 bit contains a lot more information.

How do sample frequency rates come into play?

Having a sample rate of 44.1kHz means having 44,100 samples of audio per second, while 96kHz means having 96,000 samples per second. In theory, this means more detail in each second of audio.

What is bit rate?

The combination of all that data, from bit depth and sample rates, has to be stored, so the bit rate measures the amount of data that needs to be processed.

When a song is recorded at 128kbps, it means that there are 128 kilobits of data in each second of the song. Thus, encoding a song at a higher bit rate means there is more data in each second of the track.

Why do we have lossy and lossless music formats?

The combination of digital information encoded means that the file size per song can be huge. To save on file size, some music file formats, such as MP3, strip out some of the details, thereby altering the original file.

A lossless file format, such as Free Lossless Audio Codec, does not alter the original file, so everything remains intact. But this results in a bigger file size.

So is the best possible audio file from a 24 bit, 196kHz source, encoded at the highest bit rate in lossless format?

The short answer is no. Technology means something better is always around the corner, but the real question is why it matters.

Humans hear a frequency range of between 20kHz and 20,000kHz. This range shrinks with age, with the condition of your ears. It is unlikely that anyone can hear beyond that.

And then there is the hardware.

Many portable devices cannot handle 24 bit tracks. Amplifiers and digital analogue converters can do it. But can your headphones handle frequencies as high as 196kHz?

And what about your speakers?

There is also the matter of concentration and ambient sound. If you listen to high-resolution audio on your headphones, are you focusing on the music or on something that prevents you from focusing on the music?

Even when you are at home, ambient sound from outside, or acoustics from the layout of your room, can affect what your ears hear.

Which is why some people argue that high-resolution audio is best left to be appreciated by those in the music industry.

DEEZER ELITE
Price:
$19.99; for new subscribers: $14.99 per month for first 12 months
$9.99 per month for 1-year and 2-year subscription (paid upfront)
For existing Premium+ subscribers with a Sonos system: $9.99 per month for the first year
All offers include a one-month free trial. All rates valid until February next year.
Library: 35 million tracks

While streaming service Deezer's new Elite plan offers high-resolution tracks, there are limitations to what users can do with the music.

The service has been launched exclusively with Sonos as its audio hardware partner, so you must use a Sonos speaker to enjoy the service.

The exclusive period is for the next five months, and there is no indication if Deezer Elite will work with all types of audio hardware, or with other partners after that.

First, you need to sign up for an account on your browser and make payment.

Deezer's service is cheaper than Tidal's for now. Opt for the $14.99 a month plan and you can cancel it any time. Pay $119.88 for an annual subscription and it will cost you just $9.99 a month.

After that, go to Audio in Settings and click on High Quality. This enables 1,441kbps streaming.

There is a selection of Sonos devices you can choose from and for this test, I tried Play 1 ($349) and Play 5 ($699).

Play 1 is a basic speaker, the kind that you put on a table top. Play 5 is big enough to fill your living room with sound and is the bare minimum you should consider getting for Deezer Elite.

Sonos speakers work only with the Android or iOS app. You will need to link the speaker physically to your home broadband or fibre network.

Fire up the app and follow the onscreen instructions to pair your phone with your Wi-Fi network, and with the speaker.

Then, go to Services and log in to your Deezer account. Any playlist created from your browser via Deezer should show in the app.

This connection links your hardware to the service. To enable streaming for Deezer Elite, choose a track - by genre, artist or album - and press Play.

The catch is that while you can physically link the Play 5 speaker to your computer with a line-in connection, high-resolution Deezer Elite streaming cannot be triggered this way. A wired connection gives you up to 320kbps only if you are a subscriber, and only 128kbps if you are a free user.

Not all tracks in Deezer are in Free Lossless Audio Codec (Flac), which is the format that the high-resolution audio files are stored in, so you have to check each music file individually.

Deezer says that its entire library will eventually be in Flac, but until that happens, there should be an option for Elite subscribers to view only Flac files.

To check the file type, you have to click on the information icon (iOS) or more option (Android), and tap the File Format option.

From what I have gathered, many of the albums are in Flac, but some songs in compilation releases and from live albums may not be.

So, does high-resolution audio make a difference? It does, but only to a point.

I put Deezer Elite up against Spotify. The result was no surprise. Spotify's free service on mobile starts at 96kbps, and 160kbps on the desktop and mobile. With a paid subscription, it can hit 320kbps.

Spotify's free service played hollow-sounding tracks, and this is the nature of free streaming services. The same goes for a non-paying Deezer user. So, if you want better music, be prepared to subscribe.

At the bit rate of 1,441kbps, any variance in audio streams between Deezer ELite and Tidal mattered only after I started to concentrate on the music, to discern the differences in quality.

I also had to keep my windows closed, dial up the volume slightly, and do nothing but sit there to appreciate the variance that high-resolution audio brought.

How many people would do that?

If you are updating your Facebook status, reading a book or surfing the Web, chances are you could switch to a lower bit rate for the next track and you would not notice the difference.

TIDAL
Price
: $19.99 a month
Library: 25 million-plus tracks, 75,000 music videos

A few things stand out in Tidal's high-resolution music-streaming service.

At $19.99 a month, it costs twice as much as Deezer Elite ($9.99), but forces no "exclusive" hardware partners on users. This means that if you have a good hardware set-up, no additional investment is needed.

In the United States, the same service is priced at US$19.99 (S$27), so Singapore users would appear to be getting a better deal.

On your computer, music is played on a Web player and high-resolution (1,411kbps) tracks are available only via Google Chrome.

The next available resolution is High 320kbps in Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) lossy compression, and after that, at Standard AAC 96kbps. Before you sign up, you can test the quality of the music with the service's high-fidelity audio test.

Tidal is owned by musician and music mogul Jay Z, alongside his wife, Beyonce, and other artists such as Rihanna, Kanye West and Madonna. Tidal claims it pays out more in royalties to musicians than other streaming services.

Sign up at www.tidalhifi.com and activate the Web player. Go to Settings. Under Streaming, pick the HiFi option. Remember that this is available only on Google Chrome.

In terms of volume, both Tidal and Deezer Elite stream songs at different levels. Then, there is also the case of which sound card you are using to link with your speakers as it can affect audio quality.

On your smartphone or tablet, you need to download the Tidal app from the respective Android or Apple app store and sign in.

Now, here is the tricky part. You can stream audio via your portable devices in the same HiFi, High or Standard/Normal quality, but the app does not list the bit rates. One would assume they would be the same bit rate as via the desktop.

When you stream high-resolution tracks under the correct settings, a HiFi icon lights up on your app display, making it easier to tell such tracks apart than on Deezer Elite.

But this does not appear if you use a third-party app, such as Sonos, to initiate playback of Tidal's service via a Sonos player.

Users can choose the quality of the streams over Wi-Fi or cellular data. Those who are currently on 2GB mobile subscription plans should set the quality to "Normal" before you bust your data limit.

Your device's speakers or headphones are probably not equipped to handle the HiFi quality audio that the service provides.

To be honest, I could not tell the difference in quality between Deezer's and Tidal's high-resolution streams. Sarah McLachlan and Guns N' Roses sounded equally sharp and clear on both. It all boils down to the type of tracks you want to listen to.

While both offer an extensive discography from Tori Amos, her Live At Montreux album is missing here. Yet, it is offered only in MP3 quality on Deezer Elite, which means a high-resolution version of that album is missing on both services.

But being owned by, or closer linked with musicians does have its advantages. There are exclusive videos and playlists by Beyonce, Daft Punk and Madonna.

Taylor Swift, who famously removed her entire discography from Spotify last year, is on Tidal. However, her latest album, 1989, is nowhere to be found.

Tidal's drawback is connectivity. It takes a few seconds for each song to load, so expect longer than normal waits when switching tracks.

There have also been instances of the music pausing in mid-track because the song is buffering. On occasions, the music continues when it is ready, but at other times, the rest of the song does not load.

Given that I am using a wired 1Gbps connection, and that this has not happened with Deezer Elite, it is safe to say the issue does not lie with my hardware or Internet service provider.

Verdict

The question here is not which high-resolution service is better, but whether you need it and will enjoy it.

Tidal's high-fidelity audio test (http://test.tidalhifi.com/) is meant to establish if your hardware is ready for high-resolution audio.

But it can also be used to determine if your ears are ready, and able to tell the difference between ordinary and high-quality tracks.

The test plays a snippet of five songs in two formats, and users are asked to select the ones they think are the high-resolution files.

Using the Sonos Play 5 as the speaker, I did two tests on my computer. On the Tidal one, I picked out three of the five songs in the test.

For the second test, (http://www.trustmeimascientist.com/2012/04/02/take-our-audio-poll-do-we-...), I picked one but not the other.

Statistically speaking, I fared no better than if I had just made a guess.

For those who want to learn more, there are several other tests that can be found online.

High-resolution audio is not more robust or more detailed. It just means that your ears can pick up more information, such as the strum of the guitar in the background, or the raspier breathing of the singer during the studio recording.

And, even then, you need the proper hardware and patience to enjoy it.

As for my results, I gather that it has more to do with the way I am conditioned to enjoy my music.

In my mind, my favourite song plays a certain way, whether it is on my TV, music player, computer or radio, and my ears are used to it.

I took the test wondering which tracks sounded better to me. On that score, there is no right or wrong. My ears felt that the choices I made were the better ones and I suspect it is the same for most people.

I am glad I took the test as I cannot see myself buying new headphones and speakers just to get that incremental jump in audio quality.

It just does not sound right.

 

sherwinl@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Apr 8, 2015.
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