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.