Hi-Res Everything: My Quick And Dirty Look Into Lossless And High-Resolution Audio

For years high-resolution audio has been mostly the indulgence of die hard audiophiles and what seems to be a source of contention for just about everyone else. Still, slowly I became ever more fascinated with it after I started using a separate digital-to-analog converter (DAC) with my smartphone which surprisingly did improve my listening enjoyment even while using a lossy audio format. Then I purchased an Astell&Kern KANN Cube High-Resolution Digital Audio Player and paired it with my Shure SE846 IEM… and I was positively amazed. The audio capability was outstanding and music sounded crisp, clear and with resounding details that I couldn’t hear before. Looking back at everything I can’t honestly say it’s solely due to any one particular thing that improved the audio. It’s a combination of everything working in tandem. Even so having every part of the chain being capable of playing high-resolution audio is awesome and will remain a part of my everyday life. That being said I not going to debate the merits or lack there of. Everyone has their own opinions and you don’t have to go the same route in order to enjoy better audio. So instead, let’s look at what you should know about lossless and high-resolution audio without making things unnecessarily over complicated.

First off, what is high-resolution audio or hi-res audio as it is commonly called. The easiest and simplest way to describe hi-res audio is basically this; any audio higher than what you find on a standard audio CD which is typically mastered at 16-bit/44.1kHz. Usually, you’ll find hi-res music files starting around 24-bit/96kHz but they can also be 24-bit/44.1kHz and just goes higher from there. These higher bit rates and frequencies mean the measurements of the recording are more accurate and generally have a greater depth of sound due to the increased dynamic range of the audio.

Next up, is understanding the different audio formats and which are capable of playing hi-res audio. In this case lossless versus lossy. The quick and dirty explanation of each is this. Lossless audio formats (i.e. ALAC, FLAC, WAV) keep all the audio information allowing for better sound quality. Whereas lossy audio formats (i.e. AAC, MP3, OGG) toss away some audio information in order to occupy less space thereby degrading the overall sound quality.

Here are some of the most commonly used hi-res capable lossless audio formats that are also supported by most digital audio players.

  • AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format): An Apple, Inc. created codec mostly used on Apple computers. It’s an alternative to WAV but has much better tagging support. It has the file extension of .aif or .aiff.
  • ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec): An Apple, Inc. created codec originally designed exclusively for Apple’s devices. Since it became open-source it has been adopted and supported by many other devices. It has the file extension of .m4a but is not a derivative of the separate non-related AAC compressed audio codec which uses the same file extension.
  • FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec): A lossless codec that can compress a file to smaller size without removing any information. FLAC does for audio what ZIP does for documents and data. Once compressed the file is physically smaller but when played it is then decompressed resulting in no loss of sound quality allowing for the full audio resolution to be heard. It also offers an uncompressed format which required no decompression of the audio file before playing. FLAC is the most widely used and most compatible format. It also has the best support for tagging audio files. It has the file extension of .flac or .flc.
  • WAV (Waveform Audio): Originally developed by IBM and Microsoft, for storing an audio bitstream on computers and later used to create audio on Compact Disc (CD). This uncompressed format requires no extra work to decode from any device capable of playing it and does not have great ID tagging capabilities. It has the file extension of .wav.
  • DSD (Digital Stream Direct): Originally developed to archive analogue recordings was later used by Sony and Philips to create the Super Audio CD (SACD) and is now a new format for music downloads only. DSD comes in a few flavors (currently DSD64 (1-bit/2.8MHz), DSD128 (1-bit/5.6MHz), DSD256 (1-bit/11.2MHz), DSD512 (1-bit/22.4MHz) and DSD1024 (1-bit/44.5MHz) but isn’t widely supported yet. This format is only available via download and has the file extension of .dff or .dsf.
  • MQA (Master Quality Authenticated): This format is based on time domain. It applies a digital fingerprint to a file that guarantees it was sourced from the original master recording. MQA isn’t widely used outside of the Tidal streaming service.

As far as digital audio players go; they are commonly referred to as DAP for short amongst audiophiles and on most forums. I would say they are best described as a highly advanced form of an MP3 player. The main components of these devices such as the digital-to-analog converter (DAC), headphone amplifier, pre-amplifier, and even the wiring in some are either higher-end or custom designed. These more advanced components are much better at processing and reproducing sound than what any smartphone is capable of.

A key feature of any digital audio player is the balanced audio port. This differs immensely from the standard 3.5mm headphone port most people are accustomed to. Along with being either larger at 4.4mm or the smaller 2.5mm size (mainly found on Astell&Kern players) these ports are also configured and function differently from the standard 3.5mm headphone port and are not compatible with each other. Avoiding all the technical jargon, balanced audio simply sends the signal in reverse polarity and is then corrected by your gear thereby cancelling out any noise (hiss) while leaving everything else intact. This results in a cleaner, clearer signal making the audio much more enjoyable. Balanced audio is also capable of driving more powerful and more sensitive headphones so the sound is effectively clearer even at lower volume settings and vice versa.

The final thing on my list and probably the most important are headphones (over-the ear or in-ear monitors (IEM)). Higher-end gear of this nature also has better audio reproduction, and better tuned components. They include audio cabling that’s usually user replaceable, upgradable, and generally don’t have a built-in mic to use with your smartphone with the exception of a few IEM that come with two different cables. Some also come with the 4.4mm balanced headphone jack as a standard part.

Getting Started

I think the move to high-resolution audio and to a lesser extent lossless should be taken in steps. Stopping to evaluate each step as you go along to see if you like what you are hearing and is it worth going any further. So the first thing to look at should be your headphones. This is the most versatile piece of audio gear you will own since you can use it with other devices. And let’s be real, listening to better sounding music through bad sounding headphones is just no fun. Since you are looking for a set that has better audio rendering capabilities you should look at headphone manufacturers like Audeze, Campfire Audio, Focal, Grado, Meze Audio, Shure, Sennheiser or Sony just to name a few. Any one of them are good choices and you can always catch a sale somewhere.

Once you have upgraded your headphones you will notice a difference for the better or worse. If it’s the latter then that probably means you’re using either highly compressed audio files or the source material was bad from jump start. This is where audio conversion software comes in. If you have the original uncompressed audio files you may have to convert them to a format that works on your device. In the case of physical media (CD) then you will have to convert those to a lossless format. There are various audio conversion applications out there such as Exact Audio Copy, Foobar2000, dbpoweramp or ffmpeg. This is also where the learning curve comes in due to the settings you have to make within the software.

NOTE: Lossy formatted files (i.e. MP3, ACC) can’t be converted to lossless formats since lossy formats have already tossed away information which can not be recovered. Also remember if you are ripping a CD you are you not turning it into a hi-res format either you are simply copying it to an uncompressed lossless format so it will play on another device. It will literally be a duplicate of what’s on the disc just in a different format and sound just as good if not better.

If you are looking to try out some hi-res audio you will have to purchase hi-res music as you can’t make theses yourself. Places like HDtracks, 7digital and Native DSD sell these types of files. Some places have a more niche collection like Native DSD which leans heavily towards classical and blues music.

The only thing left is the digital audio player itself. Just like headphones there’s a wide variety of price points and companies to choose from like Astell&Kern, Cowon, FiiO, Sony and many more. If you are going to purchase one you should be on the lookout for a hi-res DAP with as much builtin storage as you can afford (64GB minimum in my opinion), a microSD card slot (uncompressed audio files are pretty big and you may end up storing more than you thought), support for at least all the audio formats listed above and that it plays Native DSD files (doesn’t convert to PCM). None of these players will be found in places like Target, Walmart or even Best Buy. You will only find them online and in high-end audio stores. You can also check forums to see which one give the best bang for the buck.

That’s the end of my quick and dirt lesson for the day. There are details intentionally left out since I felt it wasn’t necessary to get my point across. Although, this isn’t the only way, it is the best way I think for a new comer to try it out piece by piece. This is also better as locally played music guarantees audio consistency. If you would rather stream your music there are music services such as Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz that you can try out. I do believe they offer the ability to download audio files so you can effectively achieve the same results without having to convert anything. Just remember with some services you don’t own the music. In the end no matter how you slice it, if you like music you are an audiophile no matter how you listen to it. End of story. So just sit back enjoy.


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