What Is Hi-Res Audio? The Basics

High resolution audio changes your music listening options

MP3 files and other file formats used by most music streaming services are of low quality when compared to the traditional CD format. Fortunately, there is a move to bring back high-quality two-channel audio by extending the capabilities of downloadable and streamable music so that it matches, or surpasses, CD quality. This initiative is referred to as hi-res audio (HRA). 

What Is Hi-Res Audio?

To fit music into a format that can be easily streamed, as much as 80 percent of the information in the original recording may be lost. The same is true when you convert an original recording from a CD to an MP3 file. The goal of hi-res audio is lossless audio, which means that a music file retains all of the information provided in the original studio recording process. A lossless file is most commonly uncompressed, but there are some compression algorithms that allow the retention of all required information.

How Is Hi-Res Audio Defined?

The DEG (Digital Entertainment Group) defines hi-res audio 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.”

The CD format is considered the reference point separating low-res from hi-res audio. In technical terms, CD audio is an uncompressed digital format that is represented by 16 bit PCM at a 44.1khz sampling rate. Any format below CD quality, such as MP3, AAC, WMA, and other highly-compressed audio formats, are considered low-res.

Hi-Res Audio Formats

Hi-res audio is represented in physical media by the HDCD, SACD, and DVD-Audio disc formats. Digital hi-res audio formats include ALAC, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, DSD (the same format used on SACD discs), and PCM (at a higher bit and sampling rate than CD).

What these file formats have in common is that they provide the ability to listen to music in higher quality. Unfortunately, these files are quite large, which means that they usually need to be downloaded before you can start listening.

Downloading Hi-Res Audio Files

The main way to access hi-res audio content is via download. This means that most of the time you can't listen to hi-res audio-on-demand. Instead, you download hi-res music files from a content source available on the internet to your PC or other compatible devices. Two popular hi-res audio music download services are Acoustic Sounds and HDTracks.

Hi-Res Audio Playback Devices

You can listen to hi-res audio on your PC. If you have a network-connected home theater receiver that is hi-res audio compatible, it may be able to access hi-res audio files from network-connected PCs, media servers, or a flash drive plugged into the receiver's USB port.

Hi-res audio playback is also available through select network audio receivers and portable audio players. Some brands that incorporate hi-res audio playback capability on selected digital audio players, stereo, home theater, and network audio receivers include Astell & Kern, Pono, Denon (HEOS), Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Sony, and Yamaha. Look for the official hi-res audio logo on the product or product packaging.

Official Hi-Res Audio Logo
Sony Europe Press Centre/Creative Commons

You can also play some hi-res audio content (24bit/96kHz) on non-hi-res audio compatible playback devices using Chromecast Audio and compatible Play-Fi devices.

Hi-Res Audio Streaming With MQA

MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated. It provides a compression algorithm that allows hi-res audio files to fit into a much smaller digital space. This allows the music files to be streamed on-demand, provided you have an MQA compatible device. Although MQA files can be streamed, some services may either only provide a download option.

If your device doesn't support MQA, you can still access the audio via download. You just won't get the benefits of MQA encoding. Some MQA hardware product partners include Pioneer, Onkyo, Meridian, NAD, and Technics. Some MQA streaming and download partners include 7 Digital, Audirvana, Kripton HQM Store, Onkyo Music, and TIDAL.

Qobuz streams hi-res audio in the FLAC format and does not use MQA.

Is Hi-Res Audio Worth the Cost?

To take advantage of hi-res audio listening, there are costs involved, both on the hardware and content end. Although hi-res audio capability is incorporated into a growing selection of moderately-priced stereo and home theater receivers, dedicated hi-res audio compatible network audio and portable audio players can be expensive. The price of hi-res audio download and streaming content is also higher than their MP3 and low-res audio file counterparts.

If you're planning to make the jump to hi-res audio listening, seek out and conduct your own listening tests to see if the price of entry is worth it for you.