Sample Spectrals

Comparing Audio Formats: High-Resolution vs. Current Standards

With the introduction of PonoMusic’s Kickstarter (which at the time of writing sits at just about $5.3M in crowd-funding with almost two weeks left), high-resolution audio has been on the mind of a lot of music lovers lately.  The Neil Young-backed campaign currently has over 15,000 backers, with over 13,000 backers preordering an actual, physical PonoPlayer, which shows that there is a real demand for higher-quality audio.

But what is high-resolution audio?  The simplest answer is that high-res audio is digital music that uses larger samples at a greater frequency than standard CD “lossless” audio.  It all boils down to more data representing the audio you’re listening to.  If you’ve ever downloaded lossless audio in formats like FLAC and ALAC (both offered on Murfie), you’ve probably gotten CD-quality files that use a 16-bit sample size and 44.1 kHz sample rate.

The team behind PonoMusic looks to push the currently less popular high-res audio standards into the mainstream.  These files typically use a 24-bit sample size at a sample rate of either 96 kHz or 192 kHz.  In the past, these files were prohibitively larger, but increased network speeds and decreased storage cost has finally made them a viable option.

(Note: According to their Kickstarter FAQ, the PonoMusic store will offer files at CD-quality, not just high-res, stating that the store “has a quality spectrum, ranging from really good to really great, depending on the quality of the available master recordings.”)

Neil Young + Pono
Image Copyright CBS (via The Quietus)

The only remaining question, then, is if the difference in quality is worth the added cost.  Additionally, labels have been slow to make albums available in this quality, and many works were never recorded in a way that allows for high-res products.  I don’t want to take a position one way or the other, but I do want to give you the chance to test out some high-res music and decide on your own.

To help you decide if high-res audio is for you, we’ve enlisted the help of The Cypress String Quartet, who have generously allowed us to share a sample from their release Beethoven: The Late String Quartets.  Below, you can download a high-res test sample in 24-bit / 96 kHz FLAC (which Murfie currently offers for vinyl digitization), as well as CD-quality 16-bit / 44.1 kHz FLAC, 320 kbps MP3 and 320 kbps AAC.

Audio Format Comparison Samples (right click & “save link as”):

All formats in one zip folder

High-Res 24-bit / 96 kHz FLAC
CD-Quality 16-bit / 44.1 kHz FLAC
CD-Quality 16-bit / 44.1 kHz ALAC
320 kbps MP3
320 kbps AAC

If you need a program to play the samples, VLC media player is a free, open-source application that will do exactly that.

So, what do you think?  Take a listen to the samples, and let me know in the comments or hit us up on twitter.

Note: These samples are provided courtesy The Cypress String Quartet, who reserve all rights.  Please do not re-distribute without permission from the quartet.

Published by

John Kruse

John Praw Kruse is a Wisconsin-based artist and musician. His ambient works have been used as the primary soundtrack for the independent film Geister (Germany, 2011), as well as a number of short films. He is the founder of Mine All Mine Records and the Lost City Music Festival.

5 thoughts on “Comparing Audio Formats: High-Resolution vs. Current Standards”

  1. i dwnld the high res flac and the cd quality flac and played them back on media cope. the cd quality sounded louder and more full, but after listening a second time, i feel the bass in the cd quality actually blurred, and was muddied giving it a fuller sound, because when listening to the high res the bass lines were distinct and didnt bleed…imho. i wonder if this new high res would benefit truly only newer recordings that are made for a high resolution playback system?

  2. I haven’t tried to differentiate your files but I have done this kind of comparison before with hi-res, CD quality and 320 MP3 files. The tests and results here are for CD vs. high res but he links to an earlier test using MP3s. In both series, it was apparent that many people have a difficult time correctly identifying the bit rates of the files they are hearing in this context.

    I count myself among the confused in this regard, in part perhaps due to aging ears and a history of attending loud concerts. But I don’t think that’s the whole story… If I’m in the car or listening to small speakers at my desk I truly can’t tell if it’s 320 kbpsMP3 or CD quality. On my main stereo, which is more than decent, I can’t tell with a direct A/B comparison but over the course of listening to a full album in MP3 I sense that I’m wanting a little more “fullness” or “presence” in the sound. On the whole, for my ears, CD quality (fully uncompressed FLAC) is good enough and not demonstrably inferior to the high res version.

    However, there are cases where the performance and recording technique achieved some magic, and that’s when (for me) the high res file is really worth having.

  3. A thing to be careful of is that formats higher than CD quality might only play at CD quality on some sound cards (they get downsampled if your hardware can’t do the higher bit-depth and/or sample rate).

    1. Very good point! I definitely should have mentioned that in my post, so thanks for bringing it up.

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