12 reasons why hi-res audio will never go mainstream


“I can hear things you c*n’t”. Introduced by Sony and later administered by the Japan Audio Society, an ‘official’ hi-res audio (HRA) logo sought to make it easier for consumers to identify hardware capable of reproducing content that offered (on paper at least) more musical information than the Redbook CD standard’s 16 bits and 44.1kHz.

That was 2013. When I visited Yodabashi Camera’s flagship store in Akihabara the following year, the audio floor was awash with this same black and yellow imagery, especially the Sony section.

Stateside in June 2014, the Digital Entertainment Group (DEG) and Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) joined forces with major record labels (Warner, Universal and Sony) to formally define hi-res audio for the US market: PCM files must have a bit depth of at least 20 and sample rate minimum of 48kHz to qualify as hi-res content. In less technical terms: “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.”

(CD quality is not hi-res audio.)

Later that year, the Japan Audio Society extended their HRA logo’s usage to overseas markets. France’s Qobuz were approved by JAS to use it on their download and streaming site and shortly thereafter in the USA, the logo was green lit for deployment by CEA members.

Per the CEA’s December 2014 press release: “The Hi-Res Audio logo, which currently is only available for use by JAS members, will be offered to CEA member companies via a licensing agreement with JAS for use in product promotion, advertising and merchandising efforts. In support, CEA will promote the HRA logo at the 2015 International CES®, produced by CEA, and throughout the coming year.”

This week, hi-res audio software (downloads) gets its own official logo, once again by way of collaboration between the CEA and the three majors (among others). Download sites offering content that promises ‘better than CD quality’ via a minimum of 20bit/48kHz can now rubber stamp it with all new black and yellow approval. Expect to see the logo’s imminent deployment on websites like Blue Coast Music, HDTracks, Acoustic Sounds’ Super HiRez and Pono Music.

The probable intent of this new logo is to simplify and to unify; to help consumers more readily identify hi-res audio content; to broaden its appeal and to sell more music. But to whom?


For audiophiles, listening to hi-res audio is a reasonably commonplace. Spreading HRA’s appeal beyond audiophile borders means confronting some seriously stiff, and probably insurmountable challenges.

1) The library is too small. Music first, hardware second, format third. That’s my mantra. Beyond showing that which is technically possible, what point owning an album in hi-res PCM or DSD if one doesn’t dig the music in the first place? For the listener whose tastes extend beyond audiophile-approved recordings the catalogue of hi-res titles, especially in DSD, is dwarfed by its Redbook (CD quality) neighbour.

2) The conversation is too loud. For hardcore hi-res Harrys the tail wags the dog. Music is refused or pooh-pooh-d on the basis of its delivery container specifications. These guys appear to be more into the technology than the music. They would have you believe that hi-res content is the be-all and end-all of the audiophile experience; that anything less is a waste of time. But is that really true? Look back at HRA’s comparatively small library size and ask yourself: does hi-res PCM and DSD command a disproportionate amount of the ‘better sound’ conversation? Such reflection brings us to our next challenge…

3) Audiophile squabbling. The delta between a CD-quality file and its hi-res counterpart is small. How small? Small enough to ensure that even within the audiophile community itself a consensus on HRA’s benefits is always just out of reach. If audiophiles can’t agree that there’s an improvement to be had from going hi-res, what hope for Joe Public?

4) Money. If you’re one of those people who believes the difference between CD and HRA is a reason to dig up the greatest audiophile cliche of them all – “night and day” – then I’d invite you to also tot up the dollar value of your audio system. I’m willing to bet it’s at least several thousand dollars deep, maybe tens of thousands. My point? Deluxe hardware is as much a prerequisite for realising the benefits of HRA as it is for vinyl. The entry-level stuff just won’t cut it. That means any incoming hi-rez-er needs more money than that demanded by the download itself.

I argued as much following the launch of Neil Young’s Pono Player. David Pogue’s listening test for Yahoo! might have been flawed but it highlighted a key point: the alleged improvement brought by those 8 additional bits and a doubling of the sample rate isn’t easy to detect, even with pro-sumer hardware. Talking of extra bits…


5) More isn’t always more. Talk of hi-res audio brings frequent mention of “24/96” and “24/192”.

The first number refers to an audio file’s bit depth: the amount of data used to capture each digital sample. A 24-bit file primarily promises more dynamic range than a file limited to 16 bits i.e. CD. Don’t agree? You might well be right or you might be wrong. Refer to point 3. audiophile squabbling.

The ‘96’ and ‘192’ refers to the audio file’s sample rate: the number of samples per second. More samples = better, right? The answer largely depends on who you ask (again, see point 3). Getting technical: higher sample rates not only theoretically provide more musical information but they move the digital filter’s ringing to a higher frequency and therefore further beyond our hearing’s upper limit.

Xiph.org’s Monty Montgomery argues that higher sample rates can actually sound worse than Redbook’s 44.1kHz whilst (much of) my own listening plainly contradicts his theorising. My advice: trust your own ears but also keep in mind point that the differences are subtle (point 4), even when played back through multi-thousand dollar setups.

And then there’s the questionable provenance of files. Is the file being offered for sale an up-sampled version of a 16bit/44.1kHz original? Few downloads sites provide sufficient detail such that consumers can buy with confidence.

6) 24/48 isn’t enough. Then there are the studios themselves over which most of us, audiophiles and curious onlookers, have zero influence. The majority of contemporary pop, rock and electronic releases – i.e. music that appeals to more mainstream tastes – rarely come to market in a hi-res audio format. CD quality is the best we can hope for (see number 1). And if your new favourite indie rock band does bring their freshest release to HDTracks, it’s usually 24bit/48kHz at best because a) it’s all that the artist’s recording budget would allow or b) the record company didn’t specify more bits and a higher sample rate from the mastering engineer or c) the mastering engineer didn’t think it worthwhile. Guess who knows more about hi-res audio: a mastering engineer or the average audiophile? Talking of studio work…

7) Mastering often sucks. Next to hardware, the second biggest factor influencer of sound quality isn’t the delivery format but the quality of the recording itself. And if the mastering engineer chose to apply an heroic dose of dynamic range compression to your favourite album, why bother with hi-res at all? Flipping it around, the better the recording/mastering, the more likely the end user is to reap the benefits of HRA. But if the recording/mastering quality isn’t up to scratch…well, as the old saying goes, you can’t polish a turd.

8) Your room matters more. Actually, I lied about the second biggest influencer of sound quality being recording/mastering. Well, at least partially. If you listen through loudspeakers, the size and acoustic make-up of your listening room messes more with what you hear than can be compensated by extra bits and samples in the source file. Big time digital streaming player Sonos recently introduced Trueplay, their own take on room modelling and associated DSP-fuelled correction. Keener observers will note that Sonos introduced this ‘value-add’ prior to hi-res audio compatibility which at time of writing remains M.I.A.

9) No big backers. And like Sonos, Apple has also yet to back hi-res audio. Perhaps they just don’t see its mass market appeal? When we consider hi-res catalogue size (point 1) and the associated demand for costly hardware (point 4), can we blame them? Besides…

10) 2 + 2 = 5. The maths behind selling downloads in a streaming world just doesn’t add up. The average hi-res download sells for upwards of US$20. That’s roughly on par with a vinyl record. In an ironic twist, many modern-day vinyl releases are pressed from the hi-res digital files found in download stores. But with a record, the buyer gets a physical object, pride of ownership, collectability and resale value. A folder of files might take up less space in one’s life but a hard-drive simply cannot compete with vinyl’s tangibility and associated playback ritual.

11) 2 + 2 = 9. The maths stings harder still when a hi-res download is put next to Tidal Hifi or Deezer Elite. Would Sir/Madam prefer a sole download-to-own album in 24bit/192kHz or would he/she prefer a month’s access to stream millions of albums in CD quality? When a mainstreamer facing this conundrum learns of the need for a decent hifi/head-fi setup that may only reveal single digit percentile SQ differences (at best), inconsistent recording/mastering studio practices and HRA’s razor thin library, which option do you think remains the most attractive?

12) It’s a streaming world. Meridian’s MQA is being loudly touted by the British audio company as the next big thing in file formats. Its promises are two fold: an ability to make existing CD-quality content sound better and an ability to ‘fold’ hi-res audio content into a Redbook-sized container. But there’s a wrinkle: an MQA-capable DAC is required to unlock the hi-res portion of each MQA-encoded file and a download is still a download whose appeal in a streaming world remains (effectively) audiophile only.

MQA’s potential to assist with the broader market’s wholesale (and invisible) transition to hi-res audio, and without an uptick in data usage, shouldn’t be ignored. Is it the key to unlocking interest in HRA beyond beyond the audiophile niche? Perhaps – and only if it applied to streaming. That’s a big ‘if’.


With download sales trending downwards, re-branding hi-res content is akin to deck chair rearrangement aboard a sinking cruise liner. Those who would argue that a little sprucing up never hurt anyone might be missing the bigger picture: what does broader market appeal really look like?

The audiophile world would do well to look beyond the comfort of its dedicated listening room and Eames-replica chair.

Newcomers don’t want to re-buy albums for the umpteenth time. They want to improve that which they already own. In the digital audio realm, the 12-step program begins with getting away from lossy sources like MP3 and AAC and into lossless formats like FLAC and Apple Lossless. That means Tidal Hifi or Deezer Elite and CD ripping.

As well as the huge potential for improving on CD quality formats, the audio/phile world might be better off advocating the joys of stereophonic playback which is slowly being lost to a world of monoboxes like the UE Boom, Sonos Play 1 and even the Devialet Phantom. (Thankfully, two of each can be paired as left and right channels). How about a re-branding of S T E R E O itself?

Beyond that, better speakers, room treatments and/or correction, a better amplifier, a better DAC, a better streamer – these upgrades will multiply the enjoyment factor of ALL music and not just a select few, predominantly audiophile-focussed recordings.

Music first, hardware second…software third.

Further information: Sony | JAS

Written by John H. Darko

John lives in the NOW + HERE = NOWHERE. He derives an income from the ad revenues of DAR. John is also an occasional staff writer for Stereophile, 6moons and TONEAudio.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
Facebook: DAR


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    • At the end of the day …..perhaps a lot of today’s music isn’t “emotionally involving” enough to really care about “hearing it” any better.

      • Nope. There’s as much good stuff be found nowadays as there ever was. With the pile considerably higher, you just have to dig harder to find it. 😉

  1. “Eee ba gum! Listen tae this ‘ere musical download from t’interweb, Martha!
    I kin ‘ear Traffic Warden writing ticket for Mister Shadrack’s Cortina outside of Concert Hall an’t he’s only jus’ popped in t’pub for a half!
    These Hi-res recording are t’dog’s kanckers an’ no mistake!!!”

  2. Sad but very true. Hi Res for me is akin to 180 g vinyl pressings, for the very few who have the set up and ears to benefit from it and, more importantly, like the catalogue of music available. Logo is fine, I have a similar one on an old Sony DVD player, it reads SACD, never played a disc in it and don’t own one. Had some music to my taste been available I would have tried it.

  3. Hi-res. A digital ouroboros, if ever there was one. In all the manoeuvring of the last decade (downloads, streaming, mp3 delirium), publishers have hastily thrown out the CD bathwater – but wait! Where’s the baby?

  4. Polishing a turd, or the Celtic version is: fur coat and no knickers,

    Absolutely priceless John, you nailed it.

  5. I think the hires sticker seems a lot like the digital ready sticker when CD first came out and should be just as relevant. Agree with all your points, John. In particular, streaming is simply a no brainer when the music comes first. I think headphones can circumvent money (4) and room (8) and would have thought a move to binaural recording or at least equivalent processing could take a hold and be more relevant as a “software” enhancement (much like DSP room correction.. or is that hardware?).

  6. IMO the biggest reason for slow growth even among hi-end crowd is that the audiophile took hi-res seriously but obviously most at the labels used it as a money grab. So they lied, just upsampled CD files and basically did a terrible job at mastering from poor sources on many of the reissued titles. Pretty mush the same as they did at the beginning of the CD era. If they can’t do it right, don’t expect the public to buy that trash. The lack of traction has become even more apparent over the past year or so.

  7. Good write up for the most part. I have to side with 16/44.1. Not only for Monty’s well researched articles but even AVSForum did a really well laid out listening test where the result was meh on even seriously high end setups.

    The price premium certainly doesn’t help especially when both the 16/44.1 and the 24/96/192 are all just derived from the same master set and really doesn’t take too much extra effort to produce.

  8. HD Tracks and other sellers of high-resolution content need to do a much better job (or at least make an effort) to disclose the source for the tracks.

    Also, they should offer customer reviews of content a la Amazon.

    • Qobuz offers user comments/reviews. They offer both streaming and lossless files and high res. audio. They have the best services, audio gear reviews,… and many more.

      Ironically, the people outside continental Europe are too ignorant because it’s not British/American. Despite the service is much better + the fact you can redownload your files at any moment in almost every format from lossy to hi-res. In the meantime they’re under financial pressure and ask Qobuz-fans to sign their petition and to subscribe to their streaming services (including Qobuz Sublime) and download as much as you can. There are hardly comments or support from UK- and USA despite they offer a superior service compared to the US-services.

      There’s definately a wide choice of new releases as well. While US-services are mostly limited to extremely commercial bubblegum pop from Katy Perry, Miley and other former Disney stars on the dole. The upscaled 16bit to 24bit files were mainly a problem in the dvd-a/sacd-era (+ early days of hdtracks when they were providing files sourced from those dvd-a’s), when people couldn’t check the ‘digital files’. These days most of these problems have been solved.

      Then there’s the problem with Jimmy Iovine (Interscope/Universal), since he’s involved in Apple/iTunes /Beats Audio – according sources – he’s putting pressure on artists to not release music in hi-res and to focus on his services: Beats Radio, Mastered for iTunes! Those “Mastered for iTunes”-files have often less dr-compression, clipping,… compared to the cd- or hi-res files! If people start comparing their iTunes-files with the ultra-compressed hi-res-files, many of them will prefer the files “Mastered for iTunes” over the hi-res files! This is intentionally done to ruin hi-res files. Another example were the Pono-actions with the limited Pono-players. One of the artists involved were Arcade Fire … so fans bought a special Arcade Fire signature player to hear them in hi-res for the very first time but it was refused by Universal to use those hi-res files. That’s a very dirty game he’s/they’re playing, and the customer and the music industry are the biggest victims. Why not give users choice to various formats and bitrates like Qobuz does?

      I have been writing to many (indie-)labels recently that haven’t released any hi-res files to date. What I learned: the majority of them has only 16bit masters for both cd- and vinyl. You read it well, most vinyl is cut from 16bit files these days. The only difference is they use a tiny less dynamic range compression for the vinyl master. But from the knowledge that many current vinyl pressings are often very poor, warped,… the audible difference is very small.

      IMO digital mastering might still be loud, but the soundquality is definately better than a couple of years ago. They still maximize the sound, but there’s definately less limiting and brickwalling than 5 or 10 years ago.

      For vinyl … Current releases are mostly cut from 16bit files. Even if 24bit files are available!

      Exceptions: Music on Vinyl, Speaker’s Corner,… use digital 24bit as source file if the record company gives them. If the record company sends them 16bit files they got no choice.

      Analogue seems to be reserved for niche labels only: Analogue Productions, MOFI,… if sources are available! For e.g. Norah Jones, some of the albums were recorded in 44.1-24bit.

      Copypaste from a conversation I found at Facebook (with Jagjaguwar label, but similar conversations from Matador,…): Masters are typically delivered to us in WAV format. Converting that to 24 bit or a comparable lossless format doesn’t quantifiably improve sound quality, considering the source is of a lower bitrate. The science behind 16 bit audio covering the ENTIRETY of the human hearing range, and the face that all of our streaming services support 16 bit audio is why we haven’t found it necessary to re-sample our audio masters in order to make a larger file with the same amount of audio information. We care a lot about our fans, which is why we put out such great records!

      We don’t use the 24bit vinyl masters for digital release, and all non-vinyl masters are sent to us by the mastering houses in 16bit WAV, so we don’t own 24bit WAV masters. 16bit is the industry standard for a reason, and it isn’t worth changing our long-lasting contracts with these world class mastering houses who don’t deliver 24bit. Blaming us for ‘not caring about our fans’ and calling us hypocrites and scammers on social media is rude, and there is absolutely something to be said about the conscious decisions that labels, artists and audio technicians make when it comes to fidelity, lossless or otherwise e. g. cassette only labels. Are we not allowed to make conscious decisions about how our music is delivered? Are you entitled to ridicule and cajole us just because you know more about this than the majority of the music industry?

      You’re welcome to wait until 24bit is the industry standard, in which case we will 100% guaranteed reissue our catalog.

      • Hey Tim,

        I don’t know where to begin but there is a lot in this post which doesn’t jibe with what I understand from talking to many, many engineers, artists, and labels.

        First off, the whole industry pretty much records everything at 24-bit/44.1kHz. Period. It’s been that way for the last decade or more. You can not go into a studio and record at 16-bit, it just doesn’t exist because even basic hardware uses a 24-bit depth, i.e. there are no such thing as pure 16-bit masters anymore. I don’t know where you got that idea from, but if you don’t believe me go talk to your local studio that any local band can rent out to record. It’s all 24-bit. Whether its Diana Krall or Deathspell Omega or your neighbor’s cousin’s first removed grandson’s punk band. It’s 24-bit.

        Before the press to CD, things get dithered down to 16-bit, but for vinyl, typically the 24-bit/44.1kHz master is just passed to the pressing plant as is. That’s not a high-res master either, that’s the digital master that also gets posted on Bandcamp a lot of times. So when you ask a label, did the CD and vinyl share the same master and they confirm that – that means it was the 24-bit/44.1kHz digital master used for both CD and vinyl. Again, I wouldn’t talk to the label, but rather the label’s engineers to confirm this.

        Finally, a 24-bit depth is not high-res by any stretch of the imagination to most high-res proponents. Typically, when the high-res crowd talks format, they are talking about sampling rate more often than not and the bit-depth comes a long for the ride, i.e. 24/96, 24/192, DXD, and of course, if you are really insane, DSD.

        • I agree that in pro-studios 24bit is mostly the standard (but today there’s also a serious amount of ‘bedroom artists’ who have no clue about this). But the labels got stuck in contracts with mastering houses for 16bit only. The only definitive master they got is 16bit. They’re just too lazy/greedy/ignorant to change those “16bit only” contracts as long as 24bit isn’t the standard for “music consumers”, which with current mentality by “Joe Public” will be never. And then there’s Apple … they’re still using their lossy codec, and force/discourage labels and artists to sell 24bit masters of their albums! Artists like U2 and Adele would also be very popular at 24bit hi-res download stores, but they decided to let them pay by Apple to not do this to make hi-res fail! That’s why U2’s latest album was uploaded automatically “for free” at every Apple device!

      • Pono ignores Europe, and just like hdtracks they focus on baby boomers.

        They focus on major labels as well, while they should focus on indies to convincee the “next generation” (subpop, matador, pias,…). But no … they don’t try anything and now the indies sold their soul to Apple/Beats who only care about major labels. And now, they forced the indies to mastering contracts with max. 16bit depth, and so the majors becoming more powerful …

  9. Great article John!
    Whilst I confess to having plenty of high-res recordings and an expensive rig, I also question the value proposition of high-res recordings.
    When it comes to recordings careful mastering matters way more than anything else.

    That said, I’d like to point out to something in your article which doesn’t square with my observations – tidal Hifi is nowhere near to redbook in my expience. Comparing the same music via tidal and my own cd-rips, tidal invariably sounds worse: congested, lifeless, more constrained. The difference is not subtle; my disappointment was so large that I discontinued my free 60 day Linn sponsored trial halfway.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on this – have you ever had the chance to critically compare one and the same song via tidal and cd(-rip)?

    • Off course…. Tidal is Jay-Z, Beyoncé,… Do you really think they care about soundquality?
      It’s just another try by the major labels to extinct the indie-labels and hi-res music.

  10. Somewhere between nauseating audiophile drivel and DR5 fingernails across chalkboard pop recordings is where everyone should want to be. Unfortunately not that many people appear to be getting the message. Yet high end streamers and DACs appear to be popping up everywhere. I can’t keep track anymore. The regular Joe will soon be shopping for OLED and 8K at Best Buy to watch his Monday Night Football and favorite ”check your brain at the door” blockbuster of the week while we’re desperately digging for some fresh music that doesn’t make our ears bleed in order to justify our high end gear. Is the well beginning to dry up?

  11. The face in that billboard poster says it all, really. No sane person would want a line drawn between them and that condescendingly obnoxious mug.

  12. I am always amazed that high-rez or relatively high-rez video is such an easy sell, but the equivalent audio is not…

  13. 1. If the HiRes download sites want a purchase I really would like to know the chain, e.g. DSD from the analog master or upsampled from an old CD issue. Not having this info probably loses more sales than they could imagine, and almost leads to a sense that the info is deliberately hidden. There needs to be a std. or to have this info in the metadata. 2. Price. There is no need for the HiRes download to compete on price with a physical copy and its packaging. Make the DSD (or whatever) copy the cheaper one and people will follow vs. staying on the sidelines. Halve the price you might triple the sales. Love this site. Always an interesting topic and with reviews to boot.

    • 100% agree. $25+ is a sizeable chunk of cash for one album when a lossy stream is free. We therefore wanna know where it came from.

  14. That’s the truth John… Getting average Joe back to 2 channel on a diet of lossless is a stretch on its own… Mainstream acceptance of High Rez and DSD is just a pipe dream.

    People want what is convenient and easy. The iPod revolutionized music because it made it easier to buy, store and listen to music. It did away with cumbersome components and allows people to take their library with them everywhere. Yeah its lossy but People enjoy music because its music, not because the signal is a pure representation of the original studio recording. Audiophile notions that average Joe just doesn’t know any better are dismissive. And while the merits of DSD may sound obvious in your average multi thousand dollar system, the same sound quality deltas don’t factor as much when you’re listening to music on the go. Normal people do a lot of their listening in the car, on train or walking around town or doing things around the house. Life is busy. People with families or younger single millenial X,Y, Z’s (i.e. the mainstream) don’t have a lot of time or disposable income to set up a dedicated listening room. That is largely why headphones have taken off… Because they work well with the modern life.

    I wish hardware manufacturers on the digital side would spend more time engineering their gear to optimize playback at Redbook since the lion share of material out is 16/44 instead of engaging in this ridiculous high rez numbers race. The thing that kills me is that the 1% of source material that is high res and DSD it is driving the entire digital hardware market to the point where companies are designing for and advertising their equipment’s compatibility with file types that don’t exist! Octa Speed DSD?

    • “The thing that kills me is that the 1% of source material that is high res and DSD it is driving the entire digital hardware market to the point where companies are designing for and advertising their equipment’s compatibility with file types that don’t exist! Octa Speed DSD?”

      Like I said, the conversation about hi-res it WAY TOO LOUD.

  15. Onerous DRM killed any possibility of HRA slipping into the main-stream and gracefully replacing the CD format a long time ago. I expect that I would purchase more High Res music if there was a physical media option so that I could both archive/collect the disc and rip/copy the contents for streaming.

    Spending $20+ for a digital download (which I have to carefully curate due to no physical media available as a backup) is still a tough sell. If I already own the CD (and have a lossless FLAC rip in my digital library), then buying the vinyl version for “critical listening” tends to be more appealing.

    That being said, all I really want is the “best” release of an album possible. The bit depth and sample rate seems to be more or less irrelevant for anything less than stellar recordings. I wouldn’t expect that anyone, short of the most die-hard completist, is going to (knowingly) waste money on the poorly mastered HRA version of an album to replace their poorly mastered CD version of the same album.

    • You absolutely can copy music bought from HD Tracks to a physical medium if you want. Flash drives or DVD discs.

    • Many releases cost between $12 and $18 at Qobuz. With Qobuz sublime you have a 1 year lossless streaming subscription (in the future hi-res if they survive) + huge redcution between 30% and 70% on many releases.

  16. Since I got my PONO I have taken it around to numerous local Hifi vendors, and they will always pull out something that sounds ‘better’, generally a $1000+ Anstel and Kern AK120 or whatever..EVEN SO, the differences are slight, they are there, but you wouldn’t know without playing one against the other…I recently auditioned Greg Osborn’s speakers and I brought along my $250 Sony A15 walkman, and he switched to his Consonance DAC, sure he played me some Eagles remastered, but once again the differences were millimeteres, maybe a bit of timbral space, or clarity, but not MASSIVE. Mind you the differences between mp3s and HD flacs are quite substantial once you hear back-to-back, but the improvements are more around the edges of the sounds, things like hi-hats, acoustic guitar strums, electro sequences, maybe the odd sample, things like that..The main ‘improvement’ that HD should deliver is a baseline of quality, like Crterion do with BluRay movies and the like..

  17. Judging by the music CDs of the last 15 to 20 years (unfondly known as the ‘Loudness Wars’), I would say that the average audiophile knows far more about high-res audio and that the average mastering engineer is a gibbering moron.
    I fully agree that 24/48 is not high-res. The latter starts at 96 kHz. It’s all about the sampling rate. Arguably 16 bits is enough. Certainly most people cannot hear a difference above 20.
    The thing that annoys me most about the whole High-Res mess though is the fact that having bought my music collection once on CD and in many cases twice because I previously bought it on Vinyl, the music industry now expects that I will buy that music all over again with a small uptick in sound quality but a major uptick in price. Why can’t I have a High-Res file at a discount if I already bought the CD (or Vinyl)?

    • Theoretically I suppose someone who already owns the CD or vinyl could illegally download the hi-res version and be within the law (sort of) as he already payed for the rights once.

      • Yes it would be but does any pro-audio equipment actually record at that sample rate. I was under the impression it’s all 48, 96 or 192?

    • The difference between 16bit and 24bit has to me a larger impact, than differences in kHz-ranges. I got 44.1-24bit versions that sound better than their cd-counterparts (both have the same mastering). The problem is that they keep asking a “premium price”. If they want to make it the standard, the price should be “standard” as well. If it costs $0,01 more, people will continue downloading lossy formats. But now Apple/Beats have taken over with their agressive politics forcing current mainstream artists and labels not to release their music in 24bit (U2, Adele, Lana Del Rey,…) and also convince them to make an inferior mastering (with more dynamic range compression, clipping,…) for other digital formats like cd and lossless downloads. Source files for vinyl have to be sourced from 16bit digital files so they can’t sound “analog” or “superior” like vinyl releases in the 60s and 70s did. People should unite against this madness.

    • For the most part it’s not the mastering engineers that are responsable.

      The loudness wars mostly happen in the production/recording-stage.

      If they record their album extremely loud and distorted, or they abuse/overuse compresssion in the producing stage, the mastering engineer can just try to make it sound less worse. And that’s what they’re trying to do these days.

      There are a few mastering engineers – mostly semi-professionals/bedroom amateurs – that are pro-loudness wars, but I can assure you that the vast majority hates the loudness wars even more than you.

      You can read more about it at various websites where they interview engineers like Greg Calbi and Bob Ludwig. If they receive these horrible sounding recordings, they just try to compensate the lack of DR, with some tweaks, plugins and their knowledge.

      I also heard horror stories about a local mastering engineer … He just explained that it’s horrible what they receive these days. Even people sending 192kbps mp3-files recorded at maximum distorted volume. He had the luck to have enough mastering jobs to refuse that kind of stuff, but less popular ME’s and people at the beginning of their carreers need to accept these to have bread on the table.

      Don’t shoot the mastering engineer! Blame the artists and the labels!

      • Some good points there Tim but whoever is to blame, it all exists in a realm that sits beyond the influence of listeners.

  18. I’d rather transfer the music from disc to my digital devices myself. Most hi-res music has no tangible value. You can’t touch it, feel it, resell it or bring it to a used record shop. No physical disc, no liner notes or artwork. Would seem like a win for the labels. No transportation costs. But they’re pricing themselves out of the market with what they give you for your money.

  19. Hi John. You’re almost right, as long as the tech doesn’t change. How long will that be?

    – “Almost” right: Pretty well everyone is listening to digital audio via standardized chips that first oversample to 352.8 or 384kHz, then convert that (through a sigma-delta modulator) to a DSD-like stream before finally converting to analog music. So pretty well everyone already listens to hi-res, they just don’t know it. The only difference in purchasing something already at higher resolution prior to feeding to your DAC (or the DAC chip in your iPhone, or whatever you listen with) is that there may be fewer conversion steps inside the DAC chip. That’s it.

    – As long as the tech doesn’t change: 30 years ago, your article would have said people don’t want to listen to hi-fi ’cause they can’t be arsed to be cleaning LPs and fiddling with turntable settings. 20 years ago it might have been all those big electronic boxes, including the CD player. Today maybe it’s that higher quality headphones are expensive and Apple, the thousand pound gorilla, doesn’t happen to sell hi res downloads. If/when someone comes up with tech for a recording and playback chain that involves hi res, makes money for the music industry and musicians, and is reasonably cheap and convenient for consumers, whether download or streaming, then that will simply supplant the vast majority of what we’ve got now, as first CDs, then downloads, then streaming have before. Or maybe it won’t involve what we know today as hi res, and will be different than anything we have currently. We don’t know; all we do know is that the two sides of the conversation we have today will almost certainly be irrelevant in a decade or two at most.

  20. i couldn’t agree with you more, on every point. hi-rez, like vinyl, in my opinion are viewed by the industry as a way to price gouge those who are willing to pay a lot more for something that may be marginally better. i like vinyl and hi-rez, but i am not going to spend 2-3 times (or more) as much for music than a cd. has everyone forgotten about the “sacd and dvd-a are going to save audio” era?

    • That’s it, isn’t it: we’re being asked to pay *significantly* more for something that’s only *marginally* better. And that margin only properly presents on high-end rigs.

  21. The biggest obstacles to larger adoption of hires are the adaptability of hearing and digital processing. The most profound difference arises during the the high speed neuro-genesis period from birth to puberty when your brain grows music decoding neurons and wires them up. If you learn to hear music through mass market reproduction chains (including digital signal processing and pop recording techniques), you do not grow the neural circuits to decode hires.

    Conservatory trained musicians who practice acoustic music for hours a day from childhood grow an extra 10 billion neurons to decode music and acoustic space, and easily hear the difference between 24/96 and DSD, which are roughly equivalent file size. OTOH, reviewers who listen to AAC, MP3, YouTube and other mainstreaming services all day are never going to hear a difference between 16/44 and 24/96 because their brain cells are permanently scrambled.

    It does not help to listen to 50 cent headphone chips and $2 production cost shiny white earbuds, either.


  22. You cannot stop the HiRes revolution, you can only get onboard or fall by the wayside. Many of the arguments presented here are passé. CDs sales are in steep decline and will soon go the way of the wax cylinder. Get yourself a $300 Pono Player and a pair of Balanced Headphones and you will experience HiRes sonic nirvana. Just cause you’re not hearing it or seeing it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It’s the best thing out there next to Analog Master Tape. I know because I’ve compared. What have you done but parrot other people’s peeves.

    • Sure. I have a Pono Player and balanced cables for a pair of AudioQuest NightHawk. And I *do* hear it. I want to listen to Autechre’s Chiastic Slide in hi-res. Where do I get that? Oh, I can’t. OK. What about Built to Spill’s Keep It Like A Secret? FoTL’s Travels With Myself And Another. Oh, those aren’t available either. And should they exist in hi-res I’d have to pay $25 *per album* when I’ve already ponied up for the vinyl and the CD. And being more modern recordings there’s no guarantee that the mastering quality (or lack thereof) necessitates hi-res delivery.

      However, I’m not talking about me. This op-ed takes it viewpoint from outside the audiophile niche.

      • Well, pissin’ in your own pot won’t make the water taste any better. If you want more HiRes, then build some momentum the way vinyl did. It’s not going to happen overnight. It takes time, money, and effort to remaster and there aren’t as many big studios as there used to be. The price will come down when there’s more competition. Remember what CDs cost when they first came out. There really is no other alternative at the moment so get on the train and enjoy the ride because the niche is about to go mainstream.

        • Selling downloads, hi-res or otherwise, in a streaming world means niche appeal. And that’s ok. Niches are often wonderful places to inhabit and the world has splintered into millions of them. But for members get a measure of who they are in a broader societal context they must step outside and look back at how their small group of enthusiasts might appear to those yet to make it home. What does it look like? Is it welcoming to newcomers? If so, where’s the appeal? Will newcomers enjoy spending time there?

          You say “If you want more hi-res…”. I don’t necessarily. I’m OK with it remaining on the fringes. It seems to me that those who are in the business of selling hi-res material care for its expansion the most? I wonder: are you one such person?

          The current state of play with vinyl is an excellent example of a niche about which the press coverage (both mainstream and audiophile) is FAR louder than warranted by its sales figures. For all the cosy/nostalgic news TV spots about its resurgent vinyl sales figures still only comprise 2% of the market.

          Streaming is UP. WAY UP. Downloads are DOWN.

          I’m curious: what kind of evidence shows that hi-res is about to go mainstream?

          How will the mainstream listener see the value in 1) the ISP download quota burned by larger file sizes, 2) greater per album expense, 3) severely limited library and 4) the need for hardware whose costs will spill into many hundreds of dollars, if not thousands?

          I’m not sure one can draw a parallel between the current state of hi-res content and when CDs first came to market. Back in the 80s, if you wanted music you HAD to buy it on a per album or per single basis. If that were still the case now, $25 for a hi-res release would look more reasonable next to $20 per CD equivalent. But it isn’t. The mainstream – the 99% of the planet who aren’t audiophiles – no longer buy music to own. They rent it from the cloud.

          The only way I foresee hi-res circumventing some of these barriers is if Tidal begin streaming MQA. However, their CD-quality service, itself already a proper alternative to hi-res and one with a comparatively GARGANTUAN catalogue, still only reaches a very small percentage of music listeners. Let us not kid ourselves that it too is anything but a niche.

          I refuse to buy into wishful thinking on behalf of HRA’s future as a mainstream format when even a modicum self-awareness as a member of the audiophile niche tells me otherwise.

          • You want evidence of HiRes going mainstream, just look at the Pono Player. Most of those people had never heard of HiRes, now they’re downloading tunes like they were bags of cocaine. Plus several successful Kickstarter campaigns aimed at HiRes accessories including balanced IEMs. Just to name a few things. Now on to the other points in your massive missive diatribe.
            Sales. You need to check the latest RIAA numbers regarding vinyl. It is true that streaming is up big but at what price? Do you really want to pay a subscription service to deliver MP3 quality music to you? There’s a sucker born every minute and Madison Avenue knows it.
            So yes it is going to happen. When? Who knows. When people wake up from listening to their iPhones and mp3s and move from black and white music to technicolor. Resistance and denial of a coming change is always the first stage. But just as the CD moved Vinyl out of the top spot, HiRes will displace the CD. Streaming also has a place but only if it goes HiRes. The revolution has begun. It is time to wake up to the sound of music all over again. Take Care now.

          • Neil Young was quoted on Part-Time Audiophile last week as saying they’ve sold around 22,000 Pono Players. That’s a loooooong way from mainstream numbers. You need millions to pull up alongside Spotify and grin through the passenger window at them. Millions.

            I believe this graph gives proper context to vinyl sales:


            From this Digital Trends piece:


            “Globally, vinyl sales account for only 2 percent of industry revenues, according to the IFPI.”

            TWO PERCENT.

            And there’s no way hi-res download sales are doing anyway near as much as vinyl. Happy to be enlightened if they are but until then I just can’t buy into your assertion that people are “downloading [hi-res] tunes like they were bags of cocaine”.

            I’m confused though. In an earlier reply you say hi-res is “already going mainstream” and in this one you say “So yes it is going to happen. When? Who knows.”

            You’re right, the CD did displace vinyl as the dominant format. And it did so in the space of around five years. And IMO the change was facilitated as much by CDs’ convenience as any (alleged) improved sound quality. In the late 80s the number of albums coming to CD exploded! This is not the case with hi-res PCM right now – its catalogue is not exploding. And it’s certainly not the case for DSD. Five years ago we heard that DSD was gonna be the next big thing. But even now the global DSD catalogue remains wafer thin when compared to its Redbook counterpart. The hi-res PCM catalogue is a little larger but not by much.

            I’d love to see people move away from lossy streaming as much as you but the next logical step for them is Redbook/CD quality/lossless and any change, if it comes, will more than likely be in the streaming domain.

  23. Here is reason 13. Anything originally released on CD now sells for a dollar each at all the thrift stores around town. Take it home and rip it. Plus u have a backup. That’s how I built my back catalogue

  24. If Pono has only sold 22,000 players then the industry is in trouble. Far as I can tell when the Pono player came out it was the best value in Hi-res. And probably still is.

    No other company seems to be remotely interest in selling a product that represents good value. They’re more concerned about their proprietary revenue streams and hyped up overpriced products and it shows. You can say “Well they have to eat too”, but it’s short lived and most will not will survive long term. Nobody’s really talking about hi-res anymore.

    • Yup: 22,000. That number comes straight from Neil Young’s own mouth. 18,000 were sold via Kickstarter according to Kicktraq: http://www.kicktraq.com/projects/1003614822/ponomusic-where-your-soul-rediscovers-music/ …se we can assume the remaining sales were web direct or instore.

      …and yet this is all that the world’s loudest hi-res audio conversation (to date) could muster. The mainstream don’t care about hi-res downloads. They are NOT huffing them like Bowie did cocaine in the 70s. They *might* care about if it’s hi-res streamed and if a) the price is right and b) their bandwidth doesn’t get hammered. Hello MQA!

      Yes, the Pono player is one of the best value DAPs out there but not simply because it does hi-res. I feed mine mostly Redbook. Why? Because my audio library comprises 97% Redbook. My CD rips sound wonderful through the Pono Player – it doesn’t discriminate. 😉

      As an aside, the best thing that can happen to the world of portable audio in my opinion is if Apple make good on the rumours that it’s about to ditch the 3.5mm headphone output on the iPhone. That moves Lightning or USB C (whichever they go with) to the centre of the conversation. That means people will be talking about how to tap the iPhone’s digital output which in turn means the DAC conversation will get immeasurably louder. DACs inside headphones. DACs that feed headphones. And with the DAC chatter will hopefully come talk of sound quality – that differences between DACs exist. “Does that DAC sound better than that other DAC?” will then mean something to the man in the street. Until Apple support hi-res audio, far less likely is Joe Public asking: “Can I get this in 24/96?”; “Wait, what, I can’t?”; “Why would I buy it again when I can already stream it and a million other albums for a month in CD quality for the same cash?”.

      • 22,000 is a pretty good number for a first run HiRes product. Yes it’s not in the millions but neither were many other successful products. Sony has also come out with a player and others will follow. As to new releases, check out the Grammy nominees for this year, almost all were recorded in HiRes. Meanwhile the classic analog tape stuff has to be remastered so it’s not like ripping a CD. It takes studio time, special equipment, and engineers that weren’t trained to compress the life out of the music. So if you want to stay on your Redbook CD that is fine, the music industry has no problem selling you downsampled music. And speaking of Apple, that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. You should know they’ve been receiving HiRes versions of the music all along and building a vast library. They even have their own HiRes format (ALAC) but that is not what they’ve been selling to the iGeneration. Why? Well for one thing the current iPhone designs do not endear themselves to quality HiRes reproduction. It might happen but probably not unless they decide to be hifidelity visionaries. You should know though, that even Steve Jobs preferred the sound of vinyl. Opportunity lost. And I agree with you there, they could have a huge impact. Let’s hope and pray they make the changes they need to make instead of wallowing in their mp3 like revenues.
        So here we are and here are the state of things. HiRes is small but it is not going away. Will it grow big? Only time will tell. Momentum is building but there is strong resistance to change as your article amply illustrates. Meanwhile the CD continues its steep decline but it is cheap and like coal it continues to burn and cloud the sonic airwaves. Streaming will grow but it cannot survive unless it goes HiRes.

        • Hi-res is small and isn’t going away. Agreed. But streaming needing hi-res to survive? As we say in Australia: yeah naaah.

          • I prefer FM to AM because either can be applied to pretty much ANY song ever recorded and neither broadcast tech is technologically tied to a narrower catalogue than the other. It’s the same with MP3 vs Redbook and probably why, the way I see it, more viable to move listeners from the former to the latter without a loss of music choice (or convenience).

          • I prefer 8-tracks because they are larger than CDs and like laserdiscs even more. I’m expecting both formats to make huge comebacks.

          • How would you rate the relative audio merits of 8-track tapes, 78 rpm mono records, and magnetic cart tapes?

          • The noise performance of AM is what makes it unacceptable. I am beginning to wonder what happened to the concept of HiFidelity? Have we lost track and lost connection with the heart and soul of the music. The most important component of any system is the source. If the source is compressed MP3 then it doesn’t matter how much you spend on the rest, it won’t make the source any better. Let’s get back to basics and start using our ears. That’s all I’m saying, they are two of the greatest analog devices ever made and built right into our heads.

          • Agreed. Source quality is vital; and the first step in improving that IMO should be a move from lossless to Redbook where next to no library surrender takes place.

  25. You know, I’ve noticed the young hipsters in my Park Slope, NY neighborhood have been buying 78s of late claiming they sound warmer and more life-like. Any chance I can get some Diana Krall or Yes remastered to the 78 rpm format.