Hi-Res Audio vs The People....and Me

There is a large number of people vocal on social media with an interest in music and audio quality, from different age groups, with different musical preferences, who believe that hi-res audio, i.e something higher than Redbook 16/44.1, is complete nonsense and cannot make any audible difference if the original signal encoded is the same. I wouldn’t go that far myself necessarily, but rather any difference is pretty negligible to say the least. However, I have been aware for years that some of these ‘hi-res’ releases do sound radically different, and sometimes, but not always, better than their CD equivalent. What I am quite sure of though, is that the difference has much less to do with the digital resolution, instead it is the mixing that has changed, or possibly a lack of the dynamic compression applied to the CD master at the loudness battlefield.

Having switched my Qobuz subscription from Sublime to Studio, which now means I can stream the full catalogue of Hi-Res albums available, I’ve been surprised at how many albums I’ve been frequently playing have hi-res versions, and often how vast the difference is between those hi-res versions and what I’d been playing before. The difference is often very unsubtle, but still, I believe, for the reasons mentioned earlier around the mixing and compression. Nevertheless, it was, and is, great. Many times I’ve thought ‘This is what that album should have sounded like. Why can’t Hi-Res be marketed differently for what it is, a more high-end system friendly and dynamic recording / master?’ Well, the problem with that idea is that too often it isn’t.

Meanwhile youtubers, among others, revel in mocking audiophiles for believing they hear differences between CDs and Hi-Res. And given the marketing blurb for Hi-Res, I don’t actually blame them. They’re not as stupid as they look these young youtube folk. Well…actually, a lot of them are, but still, no one likes a sales pitch they believe can be proven to be BS, and I have no issue with them speaking out on the topic.

The fact remains though, in terms of a standard, the only thing you can say about albums bearing the ‘Hi-Res’ label, is that they are a higher bit-depth and sample rate than CD. There is no guarantee that they will be more dynamic, or sound better in any way at all. Look at what they’ve just done to Keith Richards - Talk is Cheap, now remastered in glorious hi-res. It’s become the full 24/96 LLOOOOUUUDDD!! The original was among the most live sounding studio albums I’ve heard. Fair enough, someone just had to mess about with it to celebrate it’s 30th anniversary, but I wish Qobuz could have retained the original version as well. Same with the Led Zeppelin catalogue, it’s all the 2014 remaster stuff, which while not all bad, not my preference, and I would expect John Bonham to turn in his grave over it.

It seems a shame that many people consider anything bearing a hi-res label to be a marketing con, and just a way for record labels to sell you the exact same thing again, or at a higher price. It can actually be really good, and while I feel it’s poorly marketed, I concede that as it stands, there is no other constant it could be marketed with. MQA seems to be a little more focused on the content being as per studio engineer and artist recording, presumably void of any further compression for a CD master, but still waffles on too much about the technical stuff (hi-res with some wacky data compression) being the reason anyone should want MQA, which seems unlikely to win people over either.

In this community I would expect many to have had similar thoughts about the reasons for hi-res stuff sounding different. Or merrily chime in now to explain why I am completely wrong. Would’t be the first time, and no doubt won’t be the last. I’d be interested in the conclusions and thoughts of others on topic.


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Interesting points. I must admit, I struggle to hear the difference between a well produced, mixed and mastered CD quality sound file/rip and a hi res version. As a hobbyist musician I constantly read articles that, when mixing or mastering a track, it is important to ensure it sounds good enough on all levels of equipment as the professionals do. Use different speakers, amps etc. I deduce from this that the bulk of the commercial music we buy must involve an element of compromise at the production stage somewhere in the chain. It is pointless commercially to have a track that needs high end equipment to sound good. If hi res files are remastered in anticipation they will be played on equipment with more detailed reproduction capability that would be good. Why would we want to compare that with the CD release which has to comply with the compromise of sounding good enough on any equipment?

I think the mastering is largely responsible - and you can only have a valid comparison if the lower res copy is made by downsampling from the same high res master.

It was brought home to me maybe 20 years ago in a way that completely negated any attempt at making assessments on which sounded better, vinyl or CD: My brother in law and I happened to have copies of teh same CD (as well as he having LP), and not knowing the other had teh CD the other brought their copy. After playing one, then the LP, and going back to CD to verify, there was something odd - it sounded different from how we both remembered. It wasn’t long before we discovered that the two CDs sounded different! Scrutinising, the only evident difference was that one was made in Germany, the other in UK - but the mastering clearly was different. On that basis, nothing is a valid comparison with anything else unless the mastering is known to be the same.

A useful resource is the 2L Nordic Sound website, which has a “testbench” page (as distinct fro its currently non-operational album sales page), from where copies of a range of tracks at different resolutions can be downloaded (free of charge) for comparison, all resolutions derived from the same master.

In my own experience the differences in sound are very difficult to pinpoint, just a general feeling that the higher res sounds better but without being able to define why - and differences small enough that without having done blind testing I can’t say with absolute certainty that I am not being influenced by knowledge of what I am playing.

Further interesting points. Agreed, there is little point in a master that requires high-end equipment to sound good. Also, if there were a compromised version, and a less compromised studio master, there would be little point in comparing them in different resolutions, as most likely the difference in mix and compression will by far out-weigh any difference due to the resolution itself.

However, and others may disagree, in terms of equipment, in the home at least, the recordings that sound best on my main system, are not in any way bad if played on lesser equipment. The real issue seams to be what it sounds like in noisy environments, for instance in a car, a public place, working environments etc. It’s as if there should be a version for noisy places and background listening, with everything as loud as everything else, and another for listening at home with less dynamic compression. In terms of an audible difference of one standard vs the other, I suspect it would be much less contentious than the difference purely between CD and Hi-Res assuming everything at source was the same.

Similar experience with CDs of the same album sounding different. I can’t remember the album now, and it was a long time ago, with two versions of the same album, but each published via different labels, sounding quite different to each other. Stands to reason I suppose if you think about the entire process, but certainly wasn’t expected at the time and had us very puzzled.

Likewise, while I think the effect of hi-res sample rates etc has much has less impact than other factors, on examples where I can detect no significant difference in the mix between redbook and Hi-Res, I do get this sense that the sound is just slightly smoother and easier on the ear with hi-res stuff, like vocals are little more organic for example. If it is even the case, would I pick it out in a blind test? Not sure, but pretty unlikely, I think.

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