Is High-Resolution Music Dead?

Carnival of Souls in high-res

In a manner of speaking, it should be. Now that The Industry is promoting the crap out of High-Res Music, with that godawful logo, you may as well throw a flower on it and call it a day.

I never really liked the whole High Resolution Music deal to begin with, truth be told, and I still don't like it because it moves the focus away from what is most important—the music. High-Res Music also skirts the infinitely more important issue of the quality of the recording: The promotional machine wants you to believe that when you buy a high-res download, with that godawful logo affixed, it's going to sound really good; better than the lowly CD-quality version and this is simply not always the case.

CD-quality, good old-fashioned 16-bit/44.1kHz music, can sound really wonderful. As a matter of fact, I've heard good old-fashioned CD-quality music streaming from Tidal HiFi sound as good as any hi-res music I've ever heard. So there's that. I could, and do, live with CD-quality music and live happily ever after. Except...

But here's the twist—when I buy new music as a download, I want the highest quality version available. This is no different from buying an LP and looking for the best pressing. So when I buy a new album, I typically buy the 24-bit version when available (I mainly buy 24-bit music from Bleep or directly from the label). Why? Because it is the original recorded quality and I see no reason to buy a downsampled CD-quality version. After all, I'm not buying a CD so all of that lovely science behind squeezing music onto a physical disc with limited storage is, shall we say, passé.1

...I see no reason, whatsoever, to use a CD-quality container since we're not dealing with a CD
While I'm not a regular purchaser of reissues, a high-res version can sound better than the old CD, which is often largely due to the fact that the reissue has also been remastered. When transferring an analog recording to digital, I see no reason, whatsoever, to use a CD-quality container since we're not dealing with a CD. To my mind, a 24-bit/96kHz container makes the most sense for PCM and for DSD, DSD128 strikes me as a good choice.

It is also the case that some/many/most DACs, especially the ones that use the digital filters that come packed in a DAC chip, sound better when they are sent resolutions higher than CD-quality and oftentimes DSD can sound even better than PCM, depending on the DAC. On that note, a logical alternative is to simply upsample everything you send to your DAC using software (like HQPlayer).

from Carnival of Souls: dancing to audiophile high-res music

For me, high resolution music as some logical differentiating factor is dead. For new digital releases being sold as a download, give us the original recorded quality: Whether that means 16/44.1, 24/44.1, 24/48 and so on.1 And let's just call it what it is—lossless. Records have been recording in "high-res" for years, hell, Apple has been asking for 24-bit masters ever since they launched "Mastered for iTunes" back in 2012, so High-Res music is nothing new. We're just being sold something old as if it's new and, as we all know with music delivery formats, new historically = more expensive.

For the record, I buy music for the music and view recording quality as a nice-to-have extra.
High-Res Music was always a walking corpse since it tried to divert our attention from the quality of the music, i.e. the most important factor when buying music, and the quality of the recording. For the record, I buy music for the music and view recording quality as a nice-to-have extra. The idea that some people buy music because it's high-res or well-recorded sends shivers down my spine. But that's just my spine.

Once Tidal begins streaming hi-res music using MQA, ideally for the same price as their HiFi service ($19.99/month), thus making the distinction between CD-quality and high-res moot, it'll be time to stick a fork in it.

1 Note to the record labels: Since we're talking about less work to sell the original recorded quality, i.e. no down conversion required, stop charging us more for it. Dammit! All lossless downloads should cost the same. In the mean time, for CD-quality albums, I just buy the actual CD on Amazon for less than the CD-quality download, rip it, and use the CD as a frisbee.

I'm also purposefully ignoring lossy downloads for the same reason I ignore "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter".

COMMENTS's picture

I would like to know your take on MQA being hi rez. I have spoken to the designers of a few DACS/Streamers and none feel that MQA is hi rez. They all feel it's just a new codex (I believe that's how they put it) using CD quality. The all agree it does sound better than rebook, but say it's basically pre and post filtering like they already use as well as a few other things. They are just waiting to see how many record companies sign up and when they do, then they too will add it, but not until. I was fortunate enough to hear MQA last year when the Meridian rep came by with a whole library of music and really enjoyed it. I have a very good system and over 300gb of very well recorded hi rez music in a totally rebuilt mac mini server with a Paul Hynes power supply. I can hear the difference. The person I purchased the server from used it for his demos at all the shows. I've also heard well recorded hi rez in a few demos with even better equipment as my own and it was outstanding. That said, well recorded vinyl on a decent table sounds even better to me still. Didn't mean to meander, but I'd love to hear your thoughts on my original question if you would please. Thanks.

Michael Lavorgna's picture my review, which is coming in the very near future.

MQA is certainly hi-res, by most any definition. However, it is also a lossy process and with high-res recordings, MQA does not deliver 24-bit resolution. My review will focus on the sound, i.e. does MQA sound better or worse...

JoeWhip's picture

I want the resolution of the original recording if possible. I have some great sounding CDs I have ripped that sound better than their High Rez downloads. I have some downloads that sound better than their cd counterparts. The difference to me seems better or should I say less mastering. Some recordings need more mastering than others, some recordings are so good that the mastering engineer should just get out of the way. I really like the latter kind!'s picture

I look forward to your thoughts. I just find it interesting that a few digital companies who make outstanding and well known hardware don't feel it's high rez. Semantics maybe, but again, sound rules not labels to me. Thanks.

Michael Lavorgna's picture are right re. semantics. I would imagine we'll be talking about MQA a lot more in the comments to the review ;-)
Michael Lavorgna's picture
JoeWhip's picture

although I have no interest in replacing my DAC any tine soon having had it upgraded last year by the manufacturer. My understanding of MQA is that it can be fully implemented via software and that a MQA capable DAC is not needed. Perhaps when Damien gets around to Audirvana 3.0 we will gave such software!

Frank Hardly's picture

I've been writing pointless letters to labels etc about the issue of costs of production and price discrimination. One dutch label charges a fortune for their dsd files (mainly classical). I took great satisfaction from buying a title on CD (SACD) and taking it to a local guy with a PS3 that could rip the DSD file for me. Cost me less than half what the download would have. Can't imagine how this makes any sense with the physical costs of disc production and distribution. I think some of these labels are going to price discriminate themselves into oblivion's picture

I was told by the Meridian folks that you can play MQA on a non MQA DAC and it will sound better, however you won't get the true MQA SQ. Something to do with the pre and post filtering to get rid of the ringing. I'm sure Michael knows so much more about this as we all are learning as they roll it out little by little. My DAC doesn't have those problems the way the filters are set up and your's may not either. One manufacturer said that MQA has to be imbedded on the chip they are using or it can't be upgraded. I probably am giving lot's of misinformation, but these are questions that we all have and are dying to know about, lol.

JoeWhip's picture

always a good read! Not sure who the post was directed to. I will say that a good reviewer friend of mine did interview Robert Stuart and asked him if MQA could be fully implemented on the software side and was told yes but that they would be concentrating on DACs first. I can wait!

mcullinan's picture

MQA, DSD, High Rez, Who cares. <-- See, all the same format.

Perhaps it would have worked if the pricing was the same across the board with Redbook. Lets use a block of wood as an example. Lets say this is equivalent to a CD, but can hold any format. DSD --> Wood block. MQA --> Wood Block. Reebok --> Wood Block. Ok Id like 1 wood block please. $8.99 Thanks for that.

But even then I think it would fail. We come back to convenient services. Apple Music, Spotify. The 2 big players. The rest will fail.

Then there is the truth, I don't really hear any or much of a difference. And all my audio friends speak similarly. Plus there is vinyl. Sure it may sound better.. but to me its a pita. lol

Anton's picture

I am hoping you are wrong about one thing: I want Tidal to survive and thrive.

skikirkwood's picture

Good article! I too buy CD's only to rip them to my digital music library, and would prefer to download 96/24 versions that better represented the original master - if they were the same price as the CD.

A 192/24 download of Eric Clapton's new album "I Still Do" is $23.99 on Pono Music. The CD is $11.99 on Amazon. That's just not right.

ktracho's picture

Expecting Hi Rez to sell for less than MP3s is like expecting peanut butter made out of only peanuts and salt to sell for less than peanut butter with added sugar, oils (after removing peanut oil, of course), etc.

ednaz's picture

Nothing pi**es me off more (these days...) than when I download an album in 24/96 or higher resolution, and find that the whole thing has been produced under the philosophy of a "loudness wars" release. Albums like that don't sound much different in high res than they do in highly compressed formats. Something in that "mo' louder" process squeezes the life out of the music in a way that can't be put back.

I do love the wave of spectacularly re-mastered releases that are showing up, particularly in jazz releases. Some of the stuff that was recorded in the 1950s has been remastered so amazingly well in the high res formats that you have that eerie sense that the musicians have set up in your room. That's probably why I'm so annoyed by the high-res-highly-compressed releases. If someone can take a tape from a nightclub in 1960 and make it sound freakishly alive and real - real enough that often the dogs rouse themselves and go looking for whoever was speaking in the family room - why can't we get it right with stuff recorded a year ago?

AlexMetalFi's picture say the least.

What's sad about all of this is that HRA *could* have been *the* release vehicle to right the wrongs of the Loudness War with more coordination between labels and artists (and of course their engineers).

ayampols's picture

I cannot understand why 24 bits per sample is important to the listener. It gives us much greater flexibility during recording, what with all that headroom above the noise floor. But then it all gets limited during mastering. A finished, mastered track for most (all?) program types does not have the dynamic range that requires 24 bits to reproduce. Is this not correct?

Michael Lavorgna's picture
It makes no sense to me to to say, well since most music won't benefit from higher resolution delivery formats (that's a guess that I do not agree with), let's just stick with CD-quality. The fact of the matter is, most music is recorded in 24-bit and delivering it in it's original recorded quality will not sound worse than CD-quality. In many cases, it will sound better.
ayampols's picture

From a consumer's perspective, asking for the "original" sounds so reasonable! From a production perspective, however, it sounds pedantic. As a producer, I know that what ultimately sounded best to me -- that final 24 bit mix -- I am unlikely to ever hear again. My "original" will be subjected to lossy processing, and this processing, if done well, will be done several times, differently based on target media and delivery platforms.

When you go to an art gallery and buy a photograph, you won't be getting the original negative, not because of some ill-conceived policy, but because part of the art is the creation of the print -- and yeah, it's lossy. Similarly, in my world, part of the art is the creation of that audio artifact, and here I repeat my original contention: I am weary of subjecting myself or my listeners to a 24 bit product without first understanding how we benefit. I'd like to be convinced of why I ought to deliver 24 bit artifacts to my audience. It has nothing to do with any putative "original" which is long-lost once the mastering engineer gets her hands on it. The question is simply, should my mastering engineer hit the dither-to-16-bit button after she already walloped the dynamic range of the "original"? What if I, the owner of the studio, certified the 16-bit master as "original" with a fancy engraving -- should that really make anyone feel better about what they buy?

I respect your contention that you think 24 bit masters sound better. There's no arguing with that. My ears haven't come around to agreeing, and there's not much arguing with that either. But insisting that somehow a post-processed 24 bit bounce is more "original" than something else is not a reasonable argument to me.

JoeWhip's picture

The 24 bit recording before it gets pounded by the mastering engineer. That is what I want to buy.

ayampols's picture

There's got to be a market for this. But don't tell the mastering engineers!

JoeWhip's picture

I have a few recordings that are just that. They are sensational.

Michael Lavorgna's picture are suggesting that we, as consumers, should be happy with whatever we're handed. Lossy, lossless, whatever. I disagree.

Putting an original 24/96 file for download into a 16/44.1 container is silly. Period. There's no container.

ayampols's picture

No, Michael, I do not presume to know what would make a consumer happy, and I certainly would not be caught dead telling anyone that something I have in mind should make them happy. Only you can know what will make you happy, and I respect that.

My intent is not to suggest anything to you. I am stating something, something narrow and specific: that as creators of music, it does not make sense to distribute something that we consider overly bloated and improperly packaged just because you, and you specifically, say it's "original." That's the entirety of my argument, such as it is.

What I am trying to do is to challenge your piece in two ways: First, I contend that, for all intents and purposes, there is no such a thing as "original," and if someone thinks they know, they can be shown to be, if not entirely mistaken, then certainly not indisputably correct. Second, I believe that anything you regard as "original" is not closer, or more aligned with, artistic intent. You are not privy to what the artists wanted you to experience. You give the impression that you think you know, and challenge that.

I apologize if I have been expressing myself poorly. The photography analogy should have worked. Ansel Adams did not suggest that his fans should have been happy with whatever they were handed, and neither am I. What rude presumption! The analogy is intended to reinforce the idea that the lossy artifact is the artifact that we intend our audience to experience. Whether they like it or not is their business.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
How about this - when the final album is available, and that album is 24/48 or whatever, I see no reason why I should be handed anything else. I've bought lots of new music as such.
ayampols's picture

Without a doubt, and me too. This is a case where artistic intent is respected. You're asking for what the artist wanted you to have -- perfect!

ktracho's picture

My question would be why even bother to convert the 24-bit master? Just sell it as is, and pocket the conversion fee to pay the person who hits the "dither-to-16-bit button". If someone feels they need someone to hit the "dither-to-16-bit button", he or she should pay extra for the "deluxe" version.

ayampols's picture

This is such a good question. Personally, I have come across a few cases where I felt my ultimate artifact should be 16 bit:

  1. If I record raw takes direct to analog tape, I'll transfer at 16 bit, since I gain nothing with the higher bit depth. Not dithering per se, so it's not a great example for your question. But my grandfather made many popular recordings in the 1950's, and there's no way a 24 bit re-master of them makes any sense to me.
  2. My fans requested a CD.
  3. My listeners expressed concerns about size and stuttering during streaming, so I started to dither/compress. Then I found out none of them wanted the larger files. Then I found out I couldn't tell the difference. Then I found out that, from a dynamic range perspective, there is no difference.

If I ever found myself thinking, "Gosh, the 24 bit master sure sounds better," I'd be remiss if I didn't also make such a version available. Otherwise I'd be short-changing that part of my audience that appreciates the sound the way I do (basically, the folks reading this site)! It's just that, after the limiting process, I'm not hearing the difference. Perhaps if enough people convinced me that there truly is a difference and that they're willing to pay for it, I'd change my mind.... I guess that's why I'm getting so involved in this thread ;-)

deckeda's picture

ayampols, you've confused the two as always meaning the same thing.

Consider that the noise floor of a 16-bit recording is still so low that it won't add audible hiss. So by that measure, you're wasting you time recording to 24-bit and so is everyone else. Perhaps, if you're multi tracking every possible instrument with a zillion channels and then regurgitating them through the mix, then hiss and noise would get added with just 16-bits ... but at that point it would be a recording methodology issue most likely.

What you've forgotten about is definition and resolution and no, I'm NOT referring to "frequency response, and a human's ability to hear high frequencies or any of that.

Recordings have an inherent ability to resolve sounds to a certain degree and better ones do it better, finer! This is 24-bit's value, and yes it extends to the home. This is also why you don't see value in transferring your (presumably good) analog recordings to 24-bit, but the audiophile world mostly disagrees with you, because we (mostly) consider analog tape to be a high definition medium. Just like LPs can be.

Some of us have gear that resolves better than anything the studio owns, so yeah, we CAN hear what you hear. Probably better. Let me be plain, if you don't give us your best, then we for SURE can't hear it. So why second-guess us?

"My "original" will be subjected to lossy processing"

Thanks for the warning. Most recordings are still available on CD, which isn't lossy. And as stated, we'd appreciate even better.

"there is no such a thing as "original"

We''l buy your 24-bit final mix, the one you said you'd never be able to experience again (for some reason.) Go ahead and knock down the dynamic range a little. We accept that's a practical issue unrelated to "the loudness war", especially with pop music. It'll still likely sound its best in 24-bit. You might ask what we'll do with it, or you might accept that we'll just listen to it and enjoy it. Fair deal?

ayampols's picture

Quote: This is also why you don't see value in transferring your (presumably good) analog recordings to 24-bit, but the audiophile world mostly disagrees with you, because we (mostly) consider analog tape to be a high definition medium. Just like LPs can be.

Yeah I don't get that and that's part of my original question. I understand that some folks who do transfers will go for 24 bit because they'll use NR plugins that really do well with that extra dynamic range. But otherwise, I just don't understand, technically, why you'd take something with 12 dB range and noise already baked in, and then insist on 24 bits to hold that in the digital realm. Does one now require 32 bits for capturing a telephone conversation? Perhaps the NSA would like that, but when audiophiles insist on it too, it's worth stopping and asking this very same question -- why?

Quote: Let me be plain, if you don't give us your best, then we for SURE can't hear it. So why second-guess us?

Never would I want to second-guess you. But since this is a blog with loads of technically-minded folks, I can ask for an explanation. It makes no sense to me why you'd take something that, by any measure, has <16 dB of dynamic range and then demand on 24 bits of depth in a special "audiophile" version of it.

Quote: Most recordings are still available on CD, which isn't lossy.

Here you and I are speaking past each other a little bit. My starting premise is that what's on your CD is already lossy due to the mastering process. My question stems from observing a mastering process which so thoroughly processes the mix that, as part of the processing, removes so much dynamic range that large bit depths are suspects of overreach. I have no problem with high-end audio aficionados demanding 24 bit copies of gorgeous masters which contain loads of dynamic range and never had range limiting as part of the artistic process. I want that too!

Quote: We''l buy your 24-bit final mix, the one you said you'd never be able to experience again (for some reason.)

Hell I'll buy it too! But it's not available. I also would love to hear the pre-master mixes of my favorite recordings. Send me that link to Rubber Soul, the mix, before it got mastered. The original mixes are not treated as consumer-ready by the recording industry. If you're saying that's a mistake, I'll not argue with you!

Quote: You might ask what we'll do with it

Never. I will never second-guess the consumer. What I am doing is asking -- why do you think that 24 bits is better than 16 when the original source from which you are working simply doesn't have that DR in it to begin with?

deckeda's picture

Thanks ayampols. I should have been more clear when I said, “We’ll buy your 24-bit final mix.” (Just don’t charge more for it. Less work was involved than additionally creating a 16-bit version from it, thanks!) I meant a 24-bit master. I understand a final mix needs to be mastered, to possibly limit dynamic range to a practical level for the home, car or headphones and maybe tweak EQ. Mixing engineers that also try to master are often “a problem” for audiophiles (and for mastering engineers, too), but that’s another rant.

Very early in my post I tried to explain that the noise floor (and therefore, dynamic range) is a separate issue from overall sonic resolution. I realize 16-bit titles can obviously have “more than enough” dynamic range but that something else is happening to them, which could cause some of the music to disappear or become obscured. 24-bit is used in production is to lessen than fact to an acceptable working level.

Many of us feel that losing a few “theoretical” bits down to 16, in the final product, can also be a noticeable musical loss unrelated to soft/loud passages. That’s what this is about. In that sense, your premise of CDs being “lossy” is accurate. There’s potential resolution at stake here, not “hiss” per se.

Example: My old Telarc CD of the 1812 Overture has more dynamic range than my system can safely reproduce. But the strings and horns lack the character of what I know violins and reeds to sound like from other recordings and from real life. Had it been recorded and rendered to me in 24-bit format, maybe it would sound more life-like. I’ll never know, because decisions were made in production that prevent it. “Perfect Sound Forever,” until experience shows the real truth, later.

I agree that recordings and mastering play the larger role here! It could be the case that a 24-bit title of yours would sound no better than your 16-bit titles. It certainly happens! Production “values” and artistic intent are all part of this, too. Who gets to decide what quality means? You, or the customer? Which customer? The vocal ones, or a majority? How do you measure success?

Finally, let’s say there are no sonic differences between 16- and 24-bit versions of the same title. "No one, ever" could tell the difference. We still want the original available, because it removes doubt, and because it allows possibility. Is that a rational argument? Does it matter? (Is music “rational?”)

ayampols's picture

Quote: Many of us feel that losing a few “theoretical” bits down to 16, in the final product, can also be a noticeable musical loss unrelated to soft/loud passages. That’s what this is about.

Right, I think you nailed it there. Maybe the core of my question is -- "how does that happen?"

Quote: let’s say there are no sonic differences between 16- and 24-bit versions of the same title. "No one, ever" could tell the difference. We still want the original available, because it removes doubt, and because it allows possibility.

I get those same desires. However, a conversation about originals is incomplete unless we acknowledge the split in the modern workflow: once a mix is approved, that mix is used to create different artifacts in parallel. The parallelization in the mastering workflow creates a logical condition that yields multiple originals. When my audiophile bug kicks in and I feel like insisting on the highest quality original, I recognize that I don't even know what I'm asking for. I've got originals mastered for CD, originals mastered for iTunes, for vinyl, for Spotify.... All are first gen full quality LPCM masters, equal to one another in terms of quality in the eyes and ears of the artists, and the workflow doesn't create anything that qualifies as "more original" than anything else.

deckeda's picture

Let’s take a stab at defining “highest quality original.”

Would it be, using your examples:

In the old days, songs could also be mastered for A.M. radio. Any residual fidelity picked up by your record player was a happy circumstance. What’s different about then vs. now is that back then, the industry realized that A.M. radio wasn’t high fidelity. LPs, yes. Studios may have often mixed with an eye toward A.M. radio, but the overall production needed to sound good on the high resolution medium.

History shows us, mastering to the lowest common denominator is not the point of artistic achievement. So when you say you don’t know what a reference is, that’s a problem, I agree, particularly if your end product sounds basically the same across all formats, regardless of how capable each is. I have a few LPs I bought where this is exactly the situation, and it’s a true opportunity lost.

Just know that some producers have LPs and 24-bit releases that sound better than the CD versions, to say nothing of the lossy versions. You might ask them why, before wondering what a reference format is.

germay0653's picture

Does it actually lower the bit and or sampling rate in it's folding process or does it just remove the pre and post "ring" (temporal blur) artifacts, that were introduced as part of the digital recording process, during playback?

keithjacksontucson's picture

Too bad about HiRez philandering. Real Hi Rez , that is music, mostly classical, that is recorded in hi rez
is fabulous whether PCM or DSD.HD tracks has some good re-mastered downloads , Springsteen, Plant and Krauss, that sound a lot better than the original CD. They are still not high resolution, but they are worth the money.Tidal for me is the best thing that has ever come along and $20 is a bargain for all the music I've discovered. Also not hi rez but I love it.
Great article!'s picture

I too love Tidal. I do a lot of listening with the phone/Dragonfly Red/Noble Savants. I hear a good difference with my high rez stuff. Many are from masters directly. Some were downloaded from sights and some professionally transferred via a A/D converter from albums. I don't know why so many disparage HR music. I know at least two posted on boards who have trashed it, but when speaking with them offline about other things I asked if they ever heard anything high rez and they said no. I never followed up with what they've posted about it. Oh well, I will keep on enjoying my music since that's all that matters.

j. phelan's picture

With 24-bit recording, we can hear the full potential of RBCD. This wasn't the case in the 1980s, when recording was at 16 bits. The problem was post-production erasing resolution, from the release format.

16/44 covers the full-range of all kinds of music. Search the web for user comments and you'll see (most) don't say "hi-rez sounds better". Consumer Reports says it does -but barely, and doesn't recommend it as such.

With CD, you have an un-compressed format that has the most music of any format (by a super-wide margin). You support the artist and yet, the price is right. CDs cost about 1/3 what they did 30 years ago, adjusted for inflation.

Buy and rip - you'll have a back-up and won't waste space on your disk-drive !

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Did you reference Consumer Reports? Regarding sound quality? I don't trust them when I need a coffee grinder.
j. phelan's picture

..but, barely. I was just surveying opinions.

Both CD and Hi-Rez sound great -that's all that counts. I just think we jumped-the-gun on the later format. Will most music be available in 24-bit ? Probably not, being that (re-mastering) is an expense in era of cost-cutting.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...Apple has been asking for, and getting, 24-bit masters for years. I also think it's safe to say that most digital recordings are recording in 24-bit today. When this is the case, I'm simply asking for it and see no need to pack a 24-bit original into a CD-container for download.
j. phelan's picture

..but most serious guys, like us, want the past. The past 50 years, that is. And getting 24-bit is not needed (for analog recordings) and not available (for digital masters).

Phil_C's picture

The beef I have with common so-called Hi-Res music is that taking an analog recording or 16-bit/44.1kHz CD quality recording and putting it in a 24bit/96kHz or higher bucket, then selling it at high prices as Hi-Res is just plain wrong.

deckeda's picture

Beck's new single, WoW, is available in 24-bit, but at the same price as the MP3 ($1.29)

From a marketing perspective, I'm not entirely certain hi res copies shouldn't cost more to buy. After all, somebody values them more than the lossy versions and those somebodies are us. Where labels went off the rails was when they wanted something like double the cost of a retail CD, for a thing very few understood.