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Sunday, April 21, 2024

What Is Hi-Fi Audio, and Should You Pay More for It?

Here’s a riddle: If higher-quality audio sounds better, and better-sounding music is more enjoyable, then shouldn’t you stream music in the highest possible audio quality?

The answer is yes. Listen to music in the highest possible quality. You’ll love the shimmering drum cymbals that keep singing out long after they’ve been hit. Hearing fingers sliding on the neck of the guitar will bring a new dimension to the acoustic ballad that makes you tear up each time you hear it. Listening to the best-fidelity streams means you’ll feel like you’re in the room with the artists.

The answer to the riddle is also no. Streaming songs at the highest possible audio quality costs most people too much money and effort to justify it. And therein lies the conundrum.

There’s no initiation sequence or member’s card to become an audiophile. If you love hearing the finer details of a song, then dive in. John Farrey, label relations manager for Amazon Music, describes a specific example of the level of detail that is possible with high-resolution audio streaming at 24 bit/48 kHz.

“Pharrell William’s production on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ truly shines in UHD,” also referred to as “Amazon Hi-Res Audio,” said Farrey. “He uses an a capella group as the sample and although they are really tight, you can actually hear the starts of the individual vocalists. Terrace Martin's two-note sax line from 1:28 to 2:08 is much quieter than both the bass line and the vocal, yet you can hear every note. It lives in its own lane and doesn't get overcrowded within the mix.”

Not everyone, even music fans, may need that level of detail. The information below will help you further sort out what’s needed to get these types of audio details, and whether it’s for you or not.

Can I Hear the Difference in Quality?

First, there are no standard terms around audio quality. That can make it a little difficult to discuss. The dividing line here for “high quality” will be lossless audio. If a stream doesn’t drop any data or frequency sounds from its stream, then it is lossless. Today, streaming music is almost universally lossy, meaning it doesn’t carry all the sounds from the original recording—there are tiny pieces missing.

The crux of lossless versus lossy music is human hearing. The reason you might never know whether sounds are missing from the latest radio bop is because computers are smart about which sounds are omitted. Only the most aggressive compression is noticeable to the majority of people. If you’re curious about your hearing ability, pause here and take a quick audio test to see how much you notice the missing bits. This is a chance to be honest with yourself about how detailed your hearing is and how much you notice the differences.

Do I Need Special Equipment?

Let’s assume you have awesome hearing. The paradox is that you need capable equipment from one end to the other to get the full, lossless, and high-resolution audio.

“Most smartphones released after 2014 (including iPhones and iPads) can support playback at 24 bit/96 kHz,” says Farrey. “A smartphone connected to a decent pair of wired headphones, something you might use for work or gaming, will give you a great listening experience.”

Plan on using wired headphones to do your high-quality music listening. Bluetooth headphones and earbuds just don’t support the higher fidelity in any meaningful way.

Just to be clear, spending more money on better headphones won’t fix the issue here. Even buying Apple’s $550 AirPods Max headphones and then wirelessly listening to songs using Apple Music on your iPhone will not deliver not high quality, lossless audio. It will sound good and you’ll get the fullest picture of that 256 KB AAC audio stream, but that’s it.

Also, a lot of phones are jackless now (although there are still some left). There’s nowhere to connect wired headphones. In this case you need a digital-to-analog converter, known as a DAC. These can start at about $60 and go up from there.

Another option is to bypass the phone entirely and use Wi-Fi speakers. Brands like Sonos, Bluesound, or KEF, to name a few, will support lossless streaming. In this case, the speaker will pull in the music from the internet itself without using Bluetooth. Make sure the speaker you select supports the high quality streaming service you want to use.

Where Can I Stream It?

The music is the next piece of the puzzle. The number of streaming music services that offer high-quality, lossless streaming is growing. That’s great. Spotify adding a hi-fi streaming tier in 2021 means that most major music platforms offer this option to listeners.

Tidal is one of the most well known lossless streamers because it used high audio quality to differentiate itself from the beginning. A Tidal hi-fi subscription provides access to stream 70+ million lossless tracks, along with Master tracks (high-resolution audio) and immersive audio (Dolby Atmos or 360 Reality Audio).

Amazon Music chooses to use the same terminology as video, ideally to help consumers differentiate between higher and lower quality. “HD” is the lossless level that includes more than 70 million songs with a bit depth of 16-bits and a sample rate of 44.1 kHz and above. “Ultra HD” or UHD, is even better, streaming up to 24 bit/48 kHZ (or 96 kHz to 192 kHz). “3D audio” is the immersive one and includes Dolby Atmos and 360 Reality Audio formats.

Qobuz is a new entrant to the US, but has been a long time pioneer in high quality streaming. It mostly simplifies things around a Studio Premier subscription that offers 70+ million lossless songs with FLAC 24 bit up to 192 kHz.

Reading between the lines, Spotify HiFi, available in late 2021, will offer a comparable catalog of 70+ million songs for lossless audio listening.

How Much Does It Cost?

Assuming you’re still interested in streaming crystal clear, robust, and full audio, you need to pay for it—each month. It’s more expensive, sometimes double that of the standard streaming music plan.

Tidal breaks down its costs to show that it makes a gross profit of $5.30 for its $19.99 a month hi-fi plan, compared to making $2.30 for its standard Premium plan. Similar to streaming video, it takes more bandwidth to stream higher quality music. The service is paying more to host these files and send them to each listener.

The price of Amazon Music HD varies on whether you are also an Amazon Prime subscriber. If you are, it costs $12.99 a month versus $14.99 a month for non-Prime subscribers.

Qobuz’s Studio Premier plan is $12.49 a month if you pay annually or $14.95 a month if you would rather not commit that far in advance.

Spotify has not announced its pricing for its Spotify HiFi tier yet. Chances are it will be competitive and fit right in with the rest of these other services as well.

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