"High-Resolution" is becoming one of those buzzwords in the world of audio. It seems like every big streaming service is trying to increase the resolution of their service, and that can only be a good thing. However, how many people actually understand Hi-Res audio? And does it even matter to your listening experience?

Let’s start by saying that a good listening experience is a good listening experience, no matter what. Of course, we’d all like to hear our favorite songs in the highest fidelity and quality possible, but plenty of us remember hearing albums on tape using a terrible Walkman, and enjoying the experience nonetheless.

So Why Does Hi-Res Audio Matter?

Like the quality and clarity of an image or video, the more data that is within the file you are using to listen, the better.

It still depends on a quality mix in the first place, of course, but assuming the quality is there in the first place, Hi-Res audio helps to keep it.

Historically, we’ve had to pay close attention to the size of files. Remember when iPods only had 5 GB hard drives? This would have got filled up pretty quickly with high res files.

Audio files were “compressed” for efficiency rather than quality, and lost data. A bit like a low-resolution scan of an image. The bitrates are reduced on these files and the sound suffers as a result.

The same size issue was in place for streaming services when they became big. The focus was on smaller nimble files that people could stream quickly.

As hard drives and internet connections have improved, so have the audio files.

Lossy Or Lossless?

Now, we can enjoy lossless audio streaming and downloads using a number of file types.

Lossless means that in the compression process, no audio data gets lost. You could consider this the “full” resolution.

Lossy file types mean that data does get lost. The compromise is that the files still sound decent, but the files are so much smaller. An MP3 is an example of a lossy format.

File types including FLAC (often used to carry immersive audio) and WAV are used for lossless delivery. WAV has historically been industry-standard for music production, but not viable for putting on CDs.

FLAC files aren’t necessarily lossless, it depends on how they have been compressed. The file types tend to be smaller than WAV files.

Given the choice, lossless audio is better. With an MP3 file, you’ll struggle to get the most out of your audio system.

A useful analogy of “HD” and “SD” when it comes to video is one we can all understand.

So what does hi res mean for sound?

With more data contained in the file, there tends to be a lot more detail and audible nuance, with a closer representation of the original recording. Greater texture and ambience also tend to be a side effect, especially if you have a quality sound system to match the potential of the sound.

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About the Author
Ben is a writer and musician from the UK with a background in music technology. He writes about engineering and production, musicianship and music equipment for a number of publications including his site, Subreel.