The Time Is Now for Better Aural: Hi-Res Audio
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it’s all about that bass — and hearing new levels of it.
By Simon Cohen
Not at all digital audio is created equal. In fact, the MP3 files that make up your music collection represent some seriously outdated tech. Slowly making its way into the aural universe: high-resolution (hi-res) audio, a format that allows listeners to hear songs “in the same manner that the artists intended,” according to Karol Warminiec, Sony of Canada’s regional manager, product training. Why? It preserves much more of the original recording’s sound. You can’t just re-rip your CD collection to get hi-res, though, and there’s a good chance your current music player can’t handle hi-res files. Here’s a look at the tech you’ll need to take your listening to the next level.
First off, your trusty iPod can’t play 24-bit encoded hi-res files like FLAC, ALAC or WAV. Alternatives include FiiO’s budget-minded X1 ($109), Sony’s NWZ-A17 Hi-Res Walkman ($299), the HiFiMan HM901 ($999) or the extravagantly priced but beautifully designed Astell & Kern AK240 ($2,499). All four can play hi-res files, but the AK240 takes the prize for versatility. Owen Kwon, president of Iriver Inc., which makes the AK240, says the high cost is “all because of the sound” and the fact that it can double as a hi-res file converter for your home computer. For inherent street cred, there’s also Neil Young’s Pono Player ($399), with its Toblerone shape and vibrant color options.
For hi-res at home, you’ll need some specialized gear. The good news: If you already own a kickass hi-fi system, you don’t need to throw anything out. But you’re going to need a piece of tech known as a digital-to-analog converter — and only certain DACs can process hi-res files. Pioneer’s N-50 ($699) is an add-on component that lets you stream hi-res music from your network or any Internet radio station. Meanwhile, Sony’s Hi-Res Music Player System ($999) contains an amp in addition to a high-quality DAC and a 500GB hard drive for storing all your hi-res files, which means you can connect your favorite speakers directly. A very simple option: Bluesound’s Node ($449) is a wireless all-in-one speaker system that you can place anywhere in your house. Like a Sonos system, but it can play hi-res files.
The newer wide-frequency range headphones allow listeners to “hear a wider overall soundstage,” Warminiec says, plus “dynamics in the music that you may have never heard before: tight deep bass, balanced midrange and comfortable, sharp high frequencies.” But you won’t need a second mortgage to buy hi-res headgear. Priced at $170, Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x headphones have had great reviews. For a slight step up in both sound and comfort, the Grado’s SR325e set comes in at just under $300. And if you want to experience hi-res music and stick with your iPhone or iPod Touch, Sony’s MDR-1ADAC ($399) headphones let you bypass Apple’s built-in DAC by reading hi-res files straight from the Lightning port.
The good news: If you already own a kickass hi-fi system, you don’t need to throw anything out.
There’s one big downside to hi-res: Some people can hear a difference, and some can’t. So before you pour your cash into new gear, you’ll want to take an aural test drive. And if you do make the leap, your next stop is finding hi-res versions of your favorite tracks: Kwon recommends checking out HDTracks, ProStudio Masters and NativeDSD.
Sound good? Exactly.