Can you hear the difference between a CD and an MP3 file? Most people cannot. But even if only one in ten can hear something, that means hundreds of millions of people. However, even if you can hear the difference, there is a good chance that the recording you love is not available in better than CD quality. Still, this problem is not as big as you first think. Let me show you why!
The topic of high-resolution audio (or HiRes audio for short) comes up often in my discussions. In this blog, I try to summarize my experiences in a few simple points. Note: everything I write here is based on what I hear. I did not do any research or had any formal education about audio.
A HiRes sticker on an audio equipment does not mean that it sounds good. All it means that you paid extra for that sticker. For example, the headphones output on my good, old MacBook Pro does not support HiRes audio, yet still I use that whenever I need to use headphones. I use that even if I have a dedicated DAC / headphones amplifier supporting HiRes audio. My company laptop, on the other hand, also supports 192kHz. Using it, I could easily spot the difference among various audio resolutions. However, even without HiRes audio, the headphones output of that old MacBook Pro sounds a lot better. I had a similar case over a decade ago: long after the EFIKA MX from Genesi reached end-of-life, I still used it to listen to music. I had similar experiences with speakers and hifi systems as well.
So in short, a HiRes sticker alone does not solve your music listening problems. A low-cost device without supporting HiRes can still sound (a lot) better. You need to have quality audio equipment in order to actually enjoy the difference.
Do you live next to a busy street or a highway? Does your computer have loud cooling? Is there air conditioning is in your room? You do not have air conditioning and it’s too hot to stay there with closed windows? Then, I have some bad news for you. While you might hear the difference between mp3 and CD even in a noisy environment, the advantages of HiRes audio are fully (or at least mostly) lost in such cases.
To appreciate the quality of HiRes recordings, you need an environment where you can actually hear the difference.
Do you have time dedicated to listening to music? My experience is that MP3 quality music can sometimes annoy the hell out of me, even if I listen to it as background music. I can still sense the missing details and my brain works hard trying to figure out what is wrong. However, listening to CD quality or HiRes audio does not make much difference when played in the background. Your mileage may vary, but I can really appreciate the added quality of HiRes audio only when I am focusing on the music.
If you do not have the time or the mood to focus on the music and nothing else, listening to HiRes audio does not have any added value.
In the introduction, I mentioned that not all music is available in HiRes quality. And I am not worried about this. I have a quite large CD collection. I listened to many of those in various HiRes formats: FLAC, DSD or MQA (on TIDAL). I can hear the difference. But for many of the music I listen to, I need to listen carefully. With 3x the price and 3x the storage area, there is often only minimal improvements in audio quality. The “Atom Heart Mother” album by Pink Floyd in 192kHz/24bit set me back with more than 3 months of subscription fee for TIDAL. Was it worth it? Definitely. A good recording became even better: all the little noises became completely life-like. However, another album I bought at the same time for the price did not feel anything special.
Of course, there are genres which make better use of HiRes. No wonder that most of the HiRes capable equipment is sold with jazz or classical recordings. Luckily, there are many albums belonging to these both on TIDAL or HDTracks. However, my guess is that much of the albums available in HiRes formats do not make much use of the extra audio quality. They are sold in HiRes format only to generate some extra income for the musician and/or record label.
As you can see, there is no easy and straightforward answer for my initial question. You need the right equipment, the right environment, dedicated time and suitable music to enjoy the advantages of HiRes audio. And, of course, a good pair of ears is also a prerequisite. :-)