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The Quest for Hi-Res Audio

Neil Young and Jay-Z make an odd duet. The disparate musical icons are loosely united (with many others) by a quixotic crusade to restore the depth and clarity of prerecorded music. Both are backing a technology known as “high-resolution audio” (a.k.a. hi-res audio or HRA). They’ve come at it from different angles, but their objective is basically the same: to make music sound better.

More about celebrities shortly. In the first place, what the hell is hi-res audio, and why should I care? Ignoring the techno-babble, billions of us now get our music in the form of MP3s and streaming services (Apple Music, Pandora, etc.). Like CDs and DVDs, these technologies rely on a process called “compression” to shrink massive amounts of song data into tiny files that go into smartphones and over the Internet.

It’s a triumph of convenience, but…

Compression squeezes tonal qualities out of master recordings made by artists in the studio. It’s hotly debated whether humans hear a noticeable quality difference between digital recordings. But there’s no question that digital formats from CDs to YouTube compress the living hell out of all songs to deliver them to our devices. You have to wonder what is being lost.

Throw in ear buds and so-so stereo systems, and chances are that the music in your ears isn’t music to your ears. That sucks. Some people refuse to take it anymore. Like Neil Young.

The curmudgeon of classic rock had been tilting at windmills on this issue since the 1990s, without much to show for it. Until 2012, that is, when Young went vigilante. During an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, Young showed the world his Pono player – a new kind of iPod that plays music files at many times the audio resolution of the MP3s we’ve all gotten used to.

Imagine what HDTV does with video, but for your ears. This happens by using audio files with far more information than what we’re getting now. Think of it as anti-compression. Young and his many A-list Pono endorsers claim that the listening experience is miles above what we’re getting with MP3s (and even CDs).

The CSNY singer/guitarist financed a prototype, and launched a Kickstarter campaign so that people could preorder the device. The project also required getting record labels to provide hi-res remasters of big music catalogs. Many did.

He’s pulling it off. The website www.ponomusic.com has thousands of songs in hi-res audio format for download onto the Pono player, which can be purchased (about $400) in certain stores, and on Amazon. The geek press hasn’t totally rallied behind the idea. Some audiophiles say that people can’t tell (or just don’t care) about the better sound quality. Even so, Pono is gaining among gadget freaks and music fans.

Astell & Kerns AK Jr. hi-res audio player

Astell & Kerns AK Jr. hi-res audio player

Pono is hardly the only game into town (or even the best) when it comes to hi-res audio players. Perhaps even more impressive is the selection of sleek pieces from Astell & Kern. A key player in this space, A&K is a champion of “Mastering Quality Sound” (MQS), which strives to reproduce the quality of studio master recordings.

To dip one’s toe in the hi-res audio waters, Astell & Kern’s AK Jr. is a great place to start. Smaller than a smartphone and just as sleek, the elegant touch-screen device comes preloaded with a number of hi-res songs, and more can be purchased online. A major source of hi-res music is HDtracks, with thousands of songs in every genre.

There’s no mistaking it: the AK Jr. sounds gorgeous through headphones. Compared to “lossy” alternatives like the omnipresent MP3, you find yourself wondering why anyone would bother with anything else when this sound just as available. For true audio amazement, attach an A&K hi-res audio player to a great stereo system. We highly recommend the Aura Note V2 All-In-One Music System from April Music. Paired with a great set of quality speakers – our favorites are the NHT SuperOne 2.1 home loudspeakers – the experience of music comes back to life.

 

Finally, there’s rapper and entrepreneur Jay Z. In early 2015, he purchased the hi-res audio web streaming service, TIDAL. This service isn’t technically hi-res audio as defined by true players like Astell & Kern and Pono. What Jay Z has done is at least try to deliver full CD-quality audio via web streaming – and it matters to your ears.

Sampling TIDAL vs. Apple Music on the Aura Note V2 with NHT SuperOne 2.1 speakers, you quickly get the idea. On TIDAL, Ryan Adams Live at Carnegie Hall has a fullness of tone to his lone acoustic guitar that sounds as if he was across the room. I’ve heard “Arabella” by Arctic Monkeys 50 times on my very decent car stereo. The “lossless” version on TIDAL beat the iTunes Mp3 version hands down.

NHT SuperOne 2.1 Speakers

NHT SuperOne 2.1 Speakers

Maybe that’s the true appeal of hi-res streaming audio options like TIDAL: the added resolution recreates the feeling of being in the room with the artist. That’s especially true, of course, when playing back recordings of live performances. But it’s all good.

In evaluating MP3s versus CD-quality streaming  (via TIDAL), and the true hi-res audio versions of the same songs (via the Astell & Kern AK Jr.), there’s a clear difference. As in “clarity.” Instruments swoop in and out more dynamically. There’s more depth and brilliance across the board. Cymbals splash like bursting water balloons, guitar effects sweep, and the bass response is phenomenal. Heard through proper stereo systems (like the one we used), it reawakens one’s musical senses.

The music sounds better. Isn’t that the whole point of hi-fi after all?

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