Why Hi-Res? All I Want For Christmas Is The Real-Res!

For downloads of new digital recordings what we want and what we should be offered is the original recorded format. It's really that simple. In this context, "hi-res" has no meaning unless we want to say that since downloads of new digital recordings are downsampled, that necessarily makes the original recorded format "hi-res." Hint: it doesn't.

Or to put it another way, there is no reason to downsample a digital recording to 16/44.1 for download.

Example: Artist X's new album is recorded in 24/48. The download version for sale should be 24/48. Not 16/44.1. If people want to buy a lossy version have at it—that's what Apple, Amazon, and others are for1. But here's my point—24/48 isn't "hi-res" it is the real-res. The only way "hi-res" makes sense is by comparison to a downsampled version!

Analog recordings are another matter. Here, digitization can take any form but the difference between a 24/96 and 24/192 digital reissue of an analog original pales in comparison to the quality of the recording and conversion. Even more so with a re-master; give me great re-master at 16/44.1 (not really but stick with me) because it will smoke a crappy 24/whatever. But today, there's no reason to convert an analog recording to 16/44.1 for digital download distribution (it doesn't have to fit on a shiny disc). Here's a suggestion for the people in charge—give us the resolution you think is best.

What's better—24/96 or Eric Dolphy?
It seems to me, "Hi-res" was coined (pardon the pun) to create a differentiating factor between what we already own, streaming, and better. The fact of the matter is "hi-res" in and of itself means nothing. It's like saying a hot dog is all meat.
"You can step into the same stream as often as you'd like." Joey Heraclitus
Digital music should be sold in its original recorded format. Fabricating a new category of digital music distribution to make us believe it's inherently better is misleading at best. For new recordings, I think its rather disingenuous to offer a 16/44.1 version and a "hi-res" version for download since there's no reason for the 16/44.1 version to exist. Unless you're selling everything for the same price, like Bandcamp2.

I suppose one issue from a business perspective with selling the best digital version is it can only be sold to the same person once.

1. I wonder why anyone would buy a lossy download when they can stream the same for free. All day, every day.
2. The majority of Bandcamp music buyers download the MP3 or lossy version even though lossless costs the same. I mark that up to marketing and awareness.

jimx1169's picture

All very valid points. I'm not trying to stir the MQA pot, but all of the points you made above are why I don't believe MQA is needed. MQA, which I haven't heard yet, probably sounds awesome but I don't understand why the original file needs to be compressed (folded, in MQA speak) at all for distribution whether it be streaming or downloading.
Regarding re-mastering I would like to see the loudness problem un-done on a huge number of recordings but that's a different topic all together.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
i.e. buying albums. In my opinion, MQA's value proposition lies in streaming but this another topic.

To clarify, FLAC downloads are compressed but not lossy so there's no reason not to use FLAC for downloads - it speeds 'em up.

spyder1's picture


If all recording studios up graded their recording equipment to DXD as standard. Then all of the down sampled versions, including mp3 would sound good.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
I'm a fan of sticking with what is ;-)
bobflood's picture

that the world's networks are robust enough and open enough to support streaming of all media at full resolution (a day I doubt I will live to see) this vision may come to be. Until then physical media will still need to be produced and for music that will remain 44.1/16 CD which means that will remain the standard. Streaming may be the future but optical media sales are still very strong in many parts of the world and will remain so for a very long time. This is a problem similar to road building in that the more you build the more you need.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Not streaming.
ednaz's picture

I'm particularly annoyed by "mastered at 24/48, upsampled to 24/192" stuff that's being sold at 24/192 prices. I want to meet the person who thought that was a good idea and flick them in the forehead to see if perhaps they reboot into awareness.

Knowing what I know about recording (not a lot, but I've been in studios for a couple dozen recording sessions the last few years) the capture can happen at all kinds of bit depth/sample rates. I frankly don't much care about that. But then the "but it's all beef" stuff happens... captured 24/48, but upsampled. I've seen sessions captured at all kinds of bit depths and sample rates that I completely loved in the mixing room, but wasn't fond of in the eventual release, either on CD or "high res"... I'm completely with you on real sample rates. Every time someone resamples its a chance to futz with something. I'd love to have the best mix at the best sample rate, and not the stuff that some exhausted tech did while counting the minutes until going home.

My other big peeve about downloads is selling something as "high res" that's been abused in the dynamic range wars to a 6 or 5 or (seen it, angry I bought it instead of a t-shirt) 3. Been caught out enough times that I no longer buy downloads unless I know the DR. Trying to sell me 24/96 which in theory should have rich information, but without telling me you squeezed almost all the information out of it by pumping the loudness... People who do that should be sentenced to Muzak played at volume setting 11 through cheap Beats headphones, for a month or two.

I know Alabama Shakes set all their amps at 11, so I understand their recordings being pegged at 4 in the loudness wars. But... recordings like that sound just as good at iTunes resolution as any other. (Maybe that's why it's being done?) A few artists I now only buy iTunes, until I see more respect for the emotional value of dynamic range.

As to MQA. Damn it's excellent on Tidal. But I've recently had the chance to hear some MQA encoded non-streaming music, which reinforced my impressions from earlier A/B testing. For a really well produced album, having it at the highest real resolution is more important than having it MQA. MQA is like sprinkles on the icing of the cake. Definitely real, and additive... but if the cake sucks, or the icing sucks, kind of like saying "and we included some sirloin in those wieners, I'm sure you can tell..."

Honestly, I'm thinking that there may be a service where one could listen to music in a few different forms - iTunes, RedBook, 24/96 - to let people sort it out and buy what sounds the best possible for the band and music and engineering. Or... everybody be honest and open, and go native.

lamusique's picture

I don't know why bother with HI what ever.
First If the recording is excellent, then even a download from iTunes then rip it on a cd as I do will sound excellent..
I have a reasonable CD playback (Audiomeca Mephisto2 with DAc DAc and I can assure you its sounds
better than downloads Hi R...what ever I have heard.
Like analog playback, the better the front end, the better the sound,
I have had quite a few CD playback system over the years, and recently,
Have had a DAC that really made me appreciate CDs like never before.

Like Analog, Digital playback for CDs will make a HUGE difference if the gear is up to it

ednaz's picture

I've got an Exasounde22 DAC and it makes RedBook files sound better than any CD playback device I've ever tried. But, I've also bought a couple examples of the same music at 24/96 and RedBook (just in case there's a difference in the mix, or that a consumer tool down-res may somehow harm things) and it's not just me who hears the difference.

My wife listens to books on tape on crappy earphones for 80% of her listening, and it took her about 15 seconds of listening to each file to correctly ID the high rez version. I've mixed together RedBook and high rez files on a single album playlist and played them when we've had a house full of people, and without me saying anything about it, had several people ask what's up with how different each "song" (not really songs... if it were vinyl I'd say cut) sounded.

I am fortunate to have hearing way better than most my age (despite how many Ted Nugent, Cactus, MC5, and Detroit Dogs concerts I attended right in front of the stage), and I can readily ID which cuts are higher rez and lower rez. A little self testing and I found that my ability to appreciate the differences cuts out around 24/192, with 24/96 vs 24/192 requiring a lot of effort to sort out. And I can't reliably sort out DSD versus 24/192 despite the Exasound getting great reviews for DSD. However - it's VERY type of music dependent. The more hard rock or metal or electronica the music, the less high rez matters, to my hearing. Solo piano? Chant? Percussion ensemble? Folk? Jazz? Well recorded and produced, it matters a lot. There isn't a type of music I don't listen to, and it's kind of all sorted out for me into res matters, or it doesn't, in listening.

I generally don't re-buy something re-released high res if I've got it on CD. The exception is if it's been re-produced, re-engineered. (Looking at you, BlueNote, great example.) Again, it's something I learned from experience where I'd bought high res and been disappointed, and learned after a couple times.

As to what it is that makes that difference, I couldn't say, but... even my dogs know. The first time I played a couple of high res jazz albums with audience or musician background talking, it set them off trying to find who'd snuck into the house. No dog of mine has ever done that from a CD or RedBook file. So I suspect it's something in high frequency overtones and sound patterns caused by various sound waves interacting with each other in a way that we may not be aware of... but that doesn't mean it's not happening.

I think everyone should follow their own ears on this. I had over 15 years of musical training and performing that may have made me more sensitive or aware of sound. I've got friends who love Sirius XM... to me it sounds like what chewing on aluminum foil feels like. Who cares? Pick the files that, when played on your gear, make it damn hard to get ANYTHING done.

nick's picture

I couldn’t agree more. Storage and speed have advanced exponentially, resolution is stuck in park. Doesn’t make sense.

rozentals's picture

The digital audio quality was an issue 10 years ago, but not any more so much. Today all streaming services provide the sound quality in the range which is not distinguishable for 99% listeners’ ears.

However, still, the real challenges are headphones and speakers. They all colour (change) the sound frequencies in one or another way from the original that was recorded at the studio (flat).

In other words, each headphones sound different and as a listener, you kind of can’t know what was the true sound the artist / producer created.

To tackle the problem one way is to compensate the hooked headphones frequencies and make the sound authentic and flat like this software is doing according to each unique headphone model - https://www.sonarworks.com/truefi

deckeda's picture

Columbia and the LP
RCA and the 45
Philips and the cassette
Philips/Sony and the CD

The dissolution of physical product meant files were already too splintered for Apple to drive AAC to be "the next format," despite commanding download sales for years.

File resolutions are the byproduct of all that mess. Well, that and the industry's desire to offer a better iteration at a premium.

The astonishing thing is that even within labels there is no standard format. It doesn't matter if it's a huge artist or struggling indie performer. Vinyl? Yep, they'll tout that. Oh, there's a hi res version? It won't even be mentioned on the artist's web site or in a social media post. Go search HD Tracks.

The same label, or label family won't offer consistent formats. They don't care about any aspect of the ONE thing that could solidly drive downloads: sanity.

They've given up on sales and so have consumers, on buying. Visiting family over Christmas and they're all listening to streams now, despite owning downloads. When music is easily accessible through the TV or from the little, WiFi-enabled speaker on the kitchen counter, then that's the way it'll be.

Stereo systems? Oh, how quaint.