Hi-Res Audio: everything you need to know about the lossless music codec

hi-res audio
Image credit: Malt Wingen / Unsplash

When it comes to headphones, speakers, DACs, and AV receivers, quality matters – and the growing interest around Hi-Res Audio proves that the quality of our music sources matter, too. 

We agonize over buying the best audio kit we can afford, hoping to achieve the highest sound quality we possibly can – and then we use them to play super-compressed MP3 files that have lost much of the detail the artist intended us to hear. 

While many of us have become used to the super-compressed audio files that came with music downloads, and later streaming, there's a growing thirst for true-to-source, better-than-CD quality files – and that's where Hi-Res Audio comes in. 

Specialist Hi-Res Audio streaming platforms like Tidal and Qobuz have existed for a while now, but we're now seeing mainstream services like Amazon Music beginning to offer audiophile-quality tracks – for a premium price, of course. 

Advances in Bluetooth technology means that Hi-Res Audio is no longer the preserve of audiophiles who want to sit and listen to music in solitude with giant over-ear headphones hooked up to an expensive AV receiver. Nowadays, you can listen the highest quality audio files with wireless headphones and even true wireless earbuds.

As audiophile sound becomes more mainstream, Hi-Res Audio is looking like an increasingly attractive prospect. Here's why, and how, Hi-Res Audio could be the upgrade that makes perfect sense for superior sonics across all your devices, including your phone.

What is Hi-Res Audio?

Hi-Res Audio (HRA) is lossless audio capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better-than-CD quality music sources, a sound that closely replicates the quality that the musicians and engineers were working with in the studio at the time of recording.

Despite HRA recently gaining popularity, it isn't new. It has actually been around for over a decade and has a growing number of dedicated fans willing to fork out a bit more cash for the privilege of listening to Hi-Fi quality tunes both at home and on the go. The difference is that it’s becoming more accessible than ever. 

Despite sounding pretty amazing, it's not hard to understand the slow update of HRA – after all, the music files are a fair bit larger than MP3 or iTunes' AAC so they take longer to download and can gobble storage on mobile devices like penguins tucking into a fish supper.

Compared with iTunes and Amazon MP3 files too, HRA tracks are more expensive to buy and most popular digital music vendors don't even sell Hi-Res Audio tunes (yet).

hi-res audio

Image credit: Burst / Pexels

There's also the fact that to listen to HRA you need the right hardware and software, with most playback devices including mobile phones, portable music players and laptops not equipped as standard to get the full benefit.

Even the world's most dominant multi-room music provider Sonos resolutely refuses to embrace Hi-Res Audio – because it says it's not mainstream enough – but others including the likes of Bose do.

But the barriers are starting to crumble. Fueled by increasingly more affordable storage, better-quality playback hardware and faster, more affordable broadband and 4G downloading, HRA is arguably no longer prohibitively too expensive, nor are its files too large to download and store when compared with MP3.

Of course, it's important to choose your equipment carefully and to understand what it is that makes HRA different.

Oh, and if you're put off by the nay-sayers who claim humans can't hear anything beyond 20kHz just take the opportunity to listen to some HRA tracks and see – or hear – for yourself what a difference it makes.

Which files are Hi-Res Audio?

As Hi-Res Audio is an umbrella term for lossless audio, there are a number of file formats that can be used to house a song. 

Here's a list of the main ones:

ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) are studio-quality lossless digital-audio formats of similar size and take up less room on a computer than AIFF and WAV files. ALAC is compatible with iTunes and other players, and is the recommended lossless format for iTunes.

APE is a free and very efficient lossless codec from Monkey's Audio.

DSD (Direct Stream Digital) The high-resolution codec that originated with SACD (Super Audio CD) and commonly used for classical recordings.

MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). A new lossless codec of about one-third the size of FLAC. It applies a digital fingerprint to guarantee a file was sourced from the original master recording. MQA files are backward-compatible with FLAC decoders but require MQA decoders to unlock their full benefit. There's a new version of MQA coming too, and it sounds very impressive.

WAV is an uncompressed studio-quality file, compatible with different players including iTunes, Windows Media Player and Winamp.

What difference does Hi-Res Audio really make?

Let's look at some numbers: the highest quality MP3 track has a bitrate of 320kbps, CDs are transferred at 1,411kbps and a 24-bit/192kHz file is transferred at a rate of 9,216kbps - the latter being the level now considered HRA.

The increased bit depth of HRA improves the dynamic range, basically giving you a greater breadth of things to actually hear from the recording.

The best way of describing it is to imagine looking at a beautiful countryside scene on a sunny day through a smeared window. That's the MP3 version. 

Clean the windows and you have the CD with much greater detail and clarity. But open the window and you’ve got the Hi-Res version, where the eye can pick out pinpoint detail that you didn't realize was missing with the windows shut.

Once you're equipped with some decent Hi-Res gear the thing most likely to spoil the party will be poorly recorded or mastered music, like a great black cloud blocking out the sunshine.

Play your favorite tracks however and expect to be taken to unprecedented levels of enjoyment and make emotional connections you never imagined possible.

How can I stream/download Hi-Res Audio?

There are more options for streaming and downloading HRA than ever, and while these subscriptions and files will cost more than standard audio, the difference in quality is astounding. 

Click through the gallery below to see some of the best places to stream and download HRA:

What equipment do I need to play Hi-Res Audio?

Which headphones style is best for you?

Check out TechRadar's exhaustive guides to the best headphones, including the best over-ear headphones, best on-ear headphones and the best in-ear headphones.

For some more specialist pairs, take a look at our guides to the best wireless headphones, best true wireless earbuds, best wireless earbuds, and the best noise-cancelling headphones.

Need a specific brand? We have guides to the best Sony headphones, the best Bose headphones, and the best Audio-Technica headphones.

Looking for some headphones you can work out with? Check out our guide to the best swimming headphones and the best running headphones

Choosing the right file type/streaming service for you really depends on how you listen to your music. For example, an Apple Mac can play most HRA files in iTunes but it won't accept FLAC. 

For this you need audio player software like VLC, which is free to download and, according to Home Theatre Review, it's "capable of 24/96 and 24/192 native Hi-Res output".

If you're looking for something less 'bare-bones', check out Audivarna Plus, which costs $74 (about £55 / AU$100) and comes with Tidal, Qobuz, and other Hi-res streaming services integrated. 

Using a PC? Check out JRiver Media Center, which costs around $60 (£45 / AU$80) and works on Windows, Linus, and Mac OS. 

If you’re taking your music on the go, you’ll need a Hi-Res supporting smartphone or portable music player. The Samsung Galaxy S9, S9 Plus and Note 9 all support HRA, as well as Dolby Atmos.

iPhones unfortunately don’t support Hi-Res Audio out of the box, but you can get around this by downloading a Hi-Res Audio app like Onkyo Music and using an external DAC (digital-to-analogue converter).

DACs (digital-to-analogue converters)

The Chord Mojo Image credit: TechRadar

Any device that outputs music contains a DAC in some form. This is what allows your digital music file to be converted to the analogue signal that ends up driving your speakers or headphones.

But in order to get the most out of your music, you'll want to buy an external DAC to replace the low-quality audio chip contained within your device. This will need to be 'asynchronous' if you want your hi-res audio to really sing.

Without an asynchronous DAC the chances are you'll have timing errors, or jitter, present in your audio.

Good examples include the Chord Mojo ($599 / £399 / AU$899), which bypasses the computer's built-in DAC and converts the files to analogue at high resolution to massively improve your computer's tinny output. For smartphones like the iPhone, try the Chord Hugo 2 .

Portable music players

The HiFiMan SuperMini Image credit: TechRadar

If your phone doesn't support Hi-Res Audio, you could get yourself a portable music player. While MP3 players aren't as popular as they were a decade ago, that doesn't mean the technology is outdated.

In fact, modern MP3 players do a significantly better job at storing your entire music library at a higher bitrate than your 2009 iPod Shuffle ever could. One of the best portable music players is the Onkyo DP-X1A, which supports a range of music formats, including FLAC, OGG, WAV, MP3, ALAC, and more.

 In terms of hardware, the device has two chipsets, one to power the overall device, and one to handle the DAC and amplifier – resulting in a noise-free experience.

It's by no means cheap however, and the $799 (£559 / AU$649) price tag may be enough to put off even the most seasoned audiophile. 

If you're looking for something cheaper, you could try the HiFiMan SuperMini. With a price tag of $399 (£400 / AU$399), it doesn’t have any onboard storage – you’ll have to buy a microSD card separately. It does, however, support a pretty huge range of audio formats, including FLAC, DSD, WAV, MP3, and AIFF, and audio with a sample rate of up to 192kHz.

HRA Headphones

The Sony WH-1000MX3 Image credit: Sony

If you're taking your Hi-Res Audio out and about, you'll of course need a fantastic pair of headphones. Currently, our favorite pair are the Sony WH-1000XM3, a dominant noise-cancelling headphones that can beat out anything Bose has with both arms behind its back. 

That’s because, while Bose has done a tremendous job working out its noise-cancellation algorithm over the years, Sony has spent that time perfecting audio playback while simultaneously creating an adaptability algorithm that doesn’t just create a single sterile sound barrier, but multiple kinds that can adapt to whatever situation you’re in. 

Beyond being exceptional at keeping external noises at bay, these Sony headphones are Hi-Res Audio-ready, sporting aptX, aptX HD and LDAC codecs, plus offer will offer Google Assistant support right on-board. If you need a headphone that can live up to any challenge and excel in any environment, these are them.

They are a bit more expensive than your average non-noise cancelling headphone at $349 (£300 / AU$499), but they do make great commuting headphones.

The Grado GW100 Wireless headphones Image credit: TechRadar

If you do most of your music listening at home, you could try some open-back cans like the Grado GW100 Wireless headphones

The GW100s feature an open-back design, which means the grilles are completely exposed on the outside of the earcups, allowing the drivers to direct sound both in and out of the cups. 

In closed cup headphones, this sound is trapped inside the cup, which is fantastic for noise isolation, but can lead to a narrow soundstage that makes it feel as if your music is coming directly from your own head – not exactly a natural mode of listening. 

In contrast, the free movement of sound in and out of the cups of open-backed headphones means the soundstage feels far wider, as if you’re listening to a musician play in a normal room. This is heightened by the supra-aural design of the GW100s, which further reduces the closed-off feeling you can get from closed-back headphones. 

With the GW100s, the effect of the open-backed design is to deliver a stunningly natural representation of your music, with a warm, expansive soundstage - and with aptX Bluetooth, the audio is of high quality.  

Again, they aren't cheap at $249.99 (£199.95 / AU$365), but they are less expensive than the Sony WH-1000MX3s.

HRA stereo speakers

The KEF LSX Wireless System Image credit: KEF

Now onto speakers; while there are lots of fantastic smart speakers on the market right now, you can't beat a stereo speaker setup for high quality sound.

You can of course spend $4000 dollars on our favorite stereo speakers, the Definitive Technology BP9080xs. Right off the bat we want to make it clear that this stereo pair is a luxury item that is made only for the most avid audiophile on the market – most of us will likely be looking for something a little cheaper.

One fantastic set of stereo speakers is the KEF LSX Wireless System, which is available at a recommended retail price of $1099 (£1000 / AU$1895). When we tested them, we were impressed by the separation among the different frequencies , and the well-balanced sound.

If you're really looking after the pennies, check out the Edifier R1280T speakers. These compact desk/bookshelf style speakers back an impressive sonic punch and look good doing it, all while keeping the price tag under $100 (£90 / AU$140) for the pair.

HRA Streamers and Hi-Fi Systems

The Ruark R5 H-Fi System Image credit: Ruark

If you're really dedicated to high quality audio, you could invest in a state of the art Hi-Fi system like the Ruark R5, which features a multi-format CD player, DAB/FM and internet radio tuners, as well as support for aptX HD Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi streaming.

 You can even hook it up to your turntable thanks to a dedicated RIAA turntable input, or charge your devices using the USB playback/charging port.

There’s no word yet on an official release date, but Ruark says the R5 will be available to buy in the next few months for £999 (around $1300 / AU$1800 based on current conversion rates.)

Another option is to get yourself a dedicated music streamer like the Cambridge Audio CXN. 

A review of the streamer by What Hi-Fi? says "All digital inputs on the CXN are capable of playing high-resolution files of up to 24-bit/192kHz, and they can be upsampled to 384kHz, too. That includes the USB type B input for your laptop, and the optical and coaxial inputs. There’s also a pair each of RCA and balanced XLR outputs, along with two digital outputs."

Like the Ruark M5, it doesn't come cheap at $899.99 (£700 / around AU$1275), so you might want to stick to streaming from your laptop, smartphone, or tablet – which, thanks to the increasing accessibility of Hi-Res Audio, can still sound fantastic.