How To: Listen to High-Resolution Audio Files on a Mac

High-resolution audio files have become popular recently. These are files that offer resolution (I’ll explain that in a minute) greater than what is available on CDs. A CD contains music in what is known as the “Red Book” format, 2 channels, 16-bit linear PCM (pulse-code modulation), sampled at 44.1 kHz.

High-resolution files are available at higher bit rates and sample rates than what you can get on a standard CD. These may be 16-bit at a higher sample rate, 24-bit at the same sample rate, or, most often, 24-bit at a higher sample rate. The most common high-resolution audio files are 24-bit, 96 kHz, but sample rates up to 192 kHz exist as well.

Bit and sample rates available depend on how the music is recorded. For example, you may see files at 24-bit, 88.2 kHz; this is because 88.2 kHz offers the most mathematically pure way of downsampling audio to the 44.1 kHz required by the CD format. Some recording systems use a sample rate of 176.4 kHz – four times the sample rate of CDs – and it makes more sense to simply divide that sample rate in half than to downsample it to 96 kHz, which would introduce more artifacts.

(Note that you can also get high-resolution files on optical discs, such as DVD-audio discs or SACDs (Super Audio CDs), but I’m only discussing digital files here.)

Many Mac users listen to high-resolution files using iTunes or other software, and it’s important to note that to get the most out of these files, you need to check some settings. First, iTunes supports high-resolution files, in its Apple Lossless format. (See Why iTunes Doesn’t Support FLAC Files for a discussion of Apple Lossless and FLAC files.) While you can play them in iTunes, you may not be playing them at their full resolution, because the sound card in your Mac may not be working at the correct sample rate.

And there’s the rub. I’ve heard from many people who are delighted with their high-resolution audio files, who actually aren’t listening to them at their full bit and sample rates. And even some vendors of high-resolution files don’t even tell Mac users what they need to do. I looked at HDtracks’ Frequently Asked Questions, and they make no mention of changing the bit and sample rate on a Mac (or on a Windows PC for that matter).

So here’s what you need to do. Go to your Applications folder, then open the Utilities folder inside it. Open Audio MIDI Setup. Click on the output you’re using for your music – in most cases this will be Built-in Output, and may be Analog or Digital. [1] (You may have specific hardware connected to your Mac to play music; if so, choose that in the source list.)

Check the Format settings. If they’re set to 44100.0 HZ and 2ch16bit Integer, then you’re listening to high-resolution files at CD quality. Change these to 96000.0 Hz (regardless of whether your high-res files are 96 kHz or less) and 2ch-24bit Integer. Close the app. Your sound card will now play these files at their correct bit and sample rates. [2]

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(Some people will argue that oversampling will make lower-resolution audio files sound worse; I don’t think so, but if you do, you can make the above change only when you play high-resolution files.)

So, tell me the truth… If you listen to high-resolution files on your Mac, had you already changed those settings? If you’d read my Macworld article of 2011, you most certainly did. But otherwise, this information isn’t easy to find. If you do listen to high-resolution files, then you should make the change now.

(Of course, this is only useful if you don’t think, as I do, that high-resolution music files are just a marketing scam.)


  1. Current Macs have hybrid analog/digital outputs. The digital output is a Toslink connector that is limited to 24-bit, 96 kHz. ↩
  2. If you stream high-resolution files via to an Apple TV or AirPort Express, then you won’t get high-resolution audio; they’re limited to 16-bit, 41.1 kHz. I understand that HDMI may go up to 192 kHz, but I don’t see this on either of my Macs. You may also be able to get up to 32-bit, 384 kHz audio via USB, with certain adapters. iTunes won’t be able to play that sample rate, though; you’ll need other players for this. ↩

25 thoughts on “How To: Listen to High-Resolution Audio Files on a Mac

  1. Would these settings work for AIFF files? I know Apple Lossless makes more sense, but in trying to convert AIFF>Apple Lossless iTunes can’t seem to keep up with my large library.

  2. “I’ve heard from many people who are delighted with their high-resolution audio files, who actually aren’t listening to them at their full bit and sample rates.”

    Says it all, really…

  3. Can one play high resolution files out of an iPhone or an older iPod? If, so, what it the maximum resolutions for these files? If present, is the high resolution available through the headphone jack or only through the USB/lightning adapter output?

    • No, you can’t copy those files to an iPhone. I’ve not tried on my iPod classic; I’ll check tomorrow and post something here.

  4. I remember reading a couple of years ago, that the Apple TV (at least the 2nd generation model) is actually limited to 48 kHz, not 44.1, and that when you stream other resolutions to it (e.g. 44.1 kHz ripped from CDs or 96 kHz high-resolution downloads), it converts them to 48 kHz.

  5. I have a question perhaps Mr. McElhearn could answer: I listen to my cd rips through iTunes with no special amps or dacs, nothing special. They were ripped as AIFF files (44.1Khz/16 bit). On MIDI Setup should I change the default bit rate (2ch-24bit Integer) value to 2ch-16bit Integer for audio accuracy? I read on Apple Support Communities (https://discussions.apple.com/thread/2165497) that I should only use 16bit if both iTunes and system volume are at 100% and anything lower would degrade quality. Is there validity to this affirmation? Could you expand on the subject?

    • Not really. It’s one of those audiophile things that gets bandied about, but really isn’t justified. No more than ripping your CDs to AIFF; use Apple Lossless instead, and save half the space.

      • Thank you. I know these things can get quite controversial. Until very recently all my music was Apple Lossless through iTunes. One day I uncovered a somewhat used and scratched Beatles compilation I had for years. I ripped it using iTunes with zero problems, everything sounded great but I was kind of paranoid still. I learned I could rip that CD using XLD for the accurate rip stuff so I could be sure. What I didn’t know is XLD defaults to AIFF files and out of curiosity I thought I should listen to them. Those tracks sounded better than the ones I had on Apple Lossless. They were not overall better, just a few striking parts, however Paul’s voice throughout the record was remarkably different, more natural. I loaded the CD up and they sound just like those AIFF files. Went back to Apple Lossless and they didn’t sound as good. I went back and forth a dozen times on those tracks re-ripping them to AIFF, Lossless, using iTunes and XLD and I really didn’t wanted things to sound better than Apple Lossless. It is just so more convenient and it would be a pain to go through re-ripping my stuff again. But the damage was done and I had lost confidence on the format. The thing is, I just want CD quality, nothing more. I won’t settle for less. Please, don’t take it as a “war of formats” post. It’s just an anecdote.

          • I meant using iTunes.app for ripping Apple Lossless tracks from Cds. I don’t think iTunes Store offers Lossless files for sale. I just use iTunes to rip AIFF files now.

            • So XLD is even better than iTunes? That’s good news. I will return back to my home to rip all my CDs with XLD to Apple Lossless. The only use I’ve had for XLD so far is converting FLAC to ALAC.

              Many thanks for the tip!

  6. I wouldn’t say that XLD is better; it is more flexible. iTunes gets metadata from Gracenote, and XLD gets it from FreeDB. In my experience, for most albums, Gracenote’s data is much better. But XLD can do accurate rips, if that’s something you want to do.

    • [Couldn’t reply directly to Sverker comment…] I’m going to back up Kirk on this one: I don’t use XLD anymore it was just for cross checking. iTunes is just as good for CD rips (of course using the error correction option on settings) and I prefer Gracenote’s data and easy library integration.

  7. Kirk, thanks for the article. I had been on a headphone buying spree, but some Audio Technica m50 and Sony MDR-1a, and wasn’t thrilled with what I was hearing through my iMac (2012). I found your article and actually found the sound better with 2ch-16bit at 44100. I know it’s subjective, and I’m glad I found your article to even play with the setting, but I’m still surprised at the distortion I hear on very cleanly recorded jazz albums that sound better through my Dynaudio speakers. BUT, my question is this…

    Is there a better way to buy an iMac (or any Mac model) that fully exploits lossless quality?

    I don’t remember an upgraded sound card as an option, but I’d guess (please confirm) the guts of my machine (e.g. sound card, jack, etc.) aren’t high end to maximize fidelity.

    • You can’t do this in a Mac. What people do is connect their Macs to external DACs (digital-analog converters). You can connect either via USB or Toslink (digital audio).

      • So is it fair to say the Apple sound card and/or output jack are known to be mediocre and won’t translate lossless quality effectively? I do have a DAC option for my integrated amp that’s in a room away form my office and desktop.

        • I’ve heard the opposite from my friends who work with digital audio. The standard Apple sound card is in their ears better than the average PC sound card. Of course, if you equip your PC with a ASUS Sound Card Essence STX II it has to sound better for $263.

        • No, it’s excellent. This said, I use an external DAC, and, when I got it some years ago, I did hear a difference between its sound and the Mac mini I had at the time. Some years later, I use it out of habit; I really should do some testing and see if I can dispense with it with my current Mac, a retina iMac.

  8. Thanks for the feedback guys.

    I’ve A/B’d lossless on my iPhone/Macbook Air and iMac. The iPhone/Air are pure, the iMac distorted.. seems I have a defective sound card or jack. I could go the DAC route but if the card/jack are defective, I’m guessing it could carry through the DAC. (May be time for a new desktop).

    Keep up the good work, Kirk.

  9. Thank you very much for this information. I had taken my computer in to the Apple store (IMAC 2011) because I thought the speakers were broken. Now that I changed the settings it sounds great, but at the Apple Store they had no idea and played one track that they said sounded great and tried to sell me new external speakers. Thank you again!

  10. Sir, firstly, thank you for informing us of this. However, it seems my mac does not remember the changed setting after it restarts. How can we permanently set 32 bit as default setting?

  11. Looking at “About this Mac” -> System Information -> Audio -> Output, changing the output sample rate in Audio-Midi-Settings has no effect on iTunes, it will output 44.1KHz on the line out no matter what. Restarting iTunes or rebooting does not help. Using Audirvana or any of the hi-res players, it shows 96KHz or whatever the file’s resolution is (my Mid2011 iMac is 96KHz max).

    Is that just my box doing this, or is hi-res support in iTunes really just possible with an external DAC?

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