Music, Not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy

High-resolution music has been in the news over the past few days. Neil Young’s Pono, recently announced, is a new music player designed to play high-resolution music files.[1] Pono will also have a music store; users will be able to buy high-resolution music files and sync them to the Pono Player, in a process that could be as seamless as using iTunes and an iPod.

High-resolution music files cost more than other digital downloads, and cost more than CDs as well. But are they worth the money? Can you hear the difference between a CD and a high-resolution music file?

The answer is most likely no. While there may be a small number of people who have the necessary audio equipment and good enough ears to hear this difference, those people are few and far between. Most people cannot even tell the difference between a high-bit rate MP3 or AAC file and a CD, let alone a high-resolution file.[2]

But digital music purveyors market high-resolution music in an attempt to make purchasers think that they are special, that they may, indeed, be one of the few people who can hear the difference between CDs and high-resolution audio files.

So what exactly is high-resolution music? Why couldn’t it sound better than CDs? And why doesn’t it? You can’t test the subjective experiences of listeners, so how much of that experience is just an expensive placebo effect?

Some Terminology

For any discussion of high-resolution music, it’s important to clear up some terminology. When you see high-resolution music files, you may see them described as, for example, 24/96. This means the music in the files is 24-bit, and 96 kHz. While high-resolution music comes in a number of different levels of quality[3], I’m going to focus here on the most common high-resolution files, which are 24/96.

Let’s begin by explaining the specifications for audio CDs. The Red Book standard[4] specifies not only how CDs are manufactured, but also how recorded music is formatted for them. Audio CDs contained two-channel linear PCM audio [5] at 16-bit and 44,100 Hz; this is commonly abbreviated as 16/44.1. There are two elements here: the bit depth, which is 16-bit, and the sample rate, which is 44,100 Hz.[6]

Bit depth affects the dynamic range of music as well as the signal-to-noise ratio. The dynamic range of music is the difference between the softest and loudest parts of the music. A good example of music with a very broad dynamic range is Mahler’s third symphony. Listen to the final movement, and you’ll hear some very soft sounds as well as an extremely loud sounds. Or listen to Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven; it starts with a soft acoustic guitar and builds up to a fuzz-box crescendo.

The bit depth is essentially the number of variations a recording can choose from in a given slice of time. 16-bit audio allows for a range of 65,536 possible levels; 24-bit audio increases that to 16,777,216 levels. However, between the threshold of hearing and the threshold of pain, humans cannot distinguish enough of these volume differences for this to be noticeable.[7]

The second number in our pair is the sample rate: this is the number of “slices” of audio that are made per second, and are measured in Hz (Hertz). 44.1 kHz means that the music is sampled 44,100 times a second; 96 kHz means it is sampled 96,000 times a second. The sample rate primarily affects the range of frequencies that can be reproduced by a digital music file.

And the combination of the two determines the size of audio files. A CD can contain up to around 80 minutes, but if it were encoded at a different bit depth or sample rate, it would contain less music. A four-minute piece of music on a CD takes up 41.1 MB; at 256 kpbs (AAC or MP3), it takes up 7.5 MB. But jump to a 24/96 file and it is around 138 MB, though, using lossless compression, it can be shrunk by about 1/3 to 1/2 of its original size.

Is Bigger Better?

This is where the marketing comes in: bigger is always better. It could seem logical that higher numbers would result in better sounding music, but this isn’t the case. Let’s take the bit depth. 24-bit music, according to the marketing department, sounds better than 16-bit music. Yet 16 bits are more than enough to cover what human beings can hear.[8] Too broad a dynamic range can be harmful; if you set the volume to hear the quiet parts of the music, the loud sections could burst your speakers, and hurt your ears.

And that sample rate? Interestingly, CDs use a sample rate, as we saw above, of 44,100 Hz; not a random number at all. This number was chosen because the highest frequency that humans can hear is around 20,000 Hz. According to the Nyquist theorum[9], the sample rate of music must be at least twice the maximum frequency that humans can hear. Since it’s best to leave a little bit of wiggle room, audio engineers took 20,000 Hz, multiplied it by two, and then added bit of padding, just in case.[10] Most of us don’t even hear up to 20,000 Hz: and, as we age, our hearing deteriorates. I can’t hear above around 12,000 Hz; you can test your hearing here.

Yet high-resolution audio files at 96 kHz can reproduce sounds up to around 48,000 Hz. Dogs can hear sounds that high; but not humans. In fact, it’s very likely that your stereo system cannot reproduce sounds at such levels. Most standard stereo equipment reproduces sounds from 20 to 20,000 Hz. So for ultrasonic sounds to be reproduced, every element of the audio chain needs to be able to reproduce these sounds. If your amplifier can go up to 40,000 Hz, but your speakers or headphones cannot, no amount of voodoo or magic can make high frequencies audible.

While it is certainly possible to have stereo equipment that can reproduce ultrasonic frequencies, you’ll never hear them. Yet, very high sample rate music files can actually cause distortion. As an article on[11] says, “If the same transducer reproduces ultrasonics along with audible content, any nonlinearity will shift some of the ultrasonic content down into the audible range as an uncontrolled spray of intermodulation distortion products covering the entire audible spectrum.” There are a lot of $10 words in a sentence, but what they mean is that very high sample rates — in this case, 24/192 – can actually make music sound worse; harmonic distortion can occur when the ultrasonics intrude on audible frequencies.

On top of that, hardly anyone can distinguish music at high sample rates from CDs. A number of blind studies have proven this, time and time again.[12]

“Music as It Was Intended to Be Heard”

One of the biggest marketing arguments for high-resolution music files is that “this is how music was intended to be heard.” Pono Music says, “[Musicians] want their music heard and experienced the way they brought it to life with great care and commitment, in the studio.”[13] This is how the music was recorded; this is how engineers heard it when they edited the music. Therefore, this must be better.

Two elements separate the recording studio – or, more correctly, the engineer’s control room – and home listening spaces. First, control rooms have high-quality monitors (speakers) which are neutral, and which are designed to provide the best possible audio fidelity. Second, control rooms are completely soundproof rooms with no parallel surfaces and completely absorbent walls. Again, they are designed to have no obstacles to reproducing the music as it was recorded. But you won’t have that at home, unless you have a very expensive listening room (and there are some people who go to this expense).

Some websites sell high-resolution files under the moniker “studio masters.” And, in fact, these files are studio masters; what engineers used in the studio. But that doesn’t mean that these are files that we should use when listening to music, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they’ll sound the same on home audio systems.

There is a very simple reason why engineers use high bit depths and sample rates when recording music. Digital music involves a lot of calculations; when you make changes to music, with equalization, speed changes, etc., you are multiplying and dividing numbers. When mixing and mastering an album, an engineer performs thousands of operations to alter sound. Each one of these calculations — to simplify — leads to numbers being rounded off. The bigger the numbers, the less of a chance there is for rounding errors to affect the music. But this doesn’t mean that we, as listeners, need the same types of files. We don’t manipulate these files; we may change volume, or even use some subtle EQ, but that’s it. Nevertheless, many vocal audiophiles will provide a number of reasons why they need to listen to music files that contain sounds that they simply cannot hear.

However, if someone really wants to provide “music as it was intended to be heard,” they’d do a lot better to look at the mastering process that’s been destroying music in recent decades. Colloquially known as “the loudness wars,” music producers, prodded by record labels, use dynamic compression to increase the overall volume of music, making it sound horrendous. Since, in general, louder sounds better, or brighter, when you compare two songs, producers have been cranking up the volume to make their songs stand out. But string together an albums worth of overly loud tracks, and it’s fatiguing. But it’s a war of attrition, and our ears are the losers. No high-resolution files will make this music sound better, ever.[14]

Also, mastering is often done by someone other than the recording engineer, and someone who may not have been involved in the recording process. So is this music truly the way the artists and engineers intended you to hear it?

Listen Better

As I said in the title of this article: music, not sound. There is a small minority of music listeners who are obsessed by the idea of obtaining “perfect” sound. They go to great lengths, and great expense, to try and reproduce the sound that one hears in a concert hall. By focusing on sound quality alone, it can be easy to neglect the music. Such people may get frustrated if the music doesn’t sound good enough, and find it hard to become immersed in great music.

I’m a music fan. What I want most of all, is good music. Some of my best listening experiences have come on tinny record players or booming car stereos. If the music is good, then the sound quality is less important. This said, without getting obsessive, there are a number of ways you can make your music sound better without maxing out your credit card.

For portable listening, start by getting rid of those white earbuds in a bundled with your iPod or iPhone. Get better earbuds, or get proper headphones. With headphones, you get what you pay for, up to a few hundred dollars. After that price point, it gets a bit iffy.

If you listen to music on your computer, get rid of those little desktop speakers and hook up a real stereo. I strongly recommend getting a good DAC — a digital-analog converter — because the sound card in your computer is probably not great. (Though no DAC will help if your amplifier and speakers are poor.) I have a DAC between my Mac and my amplifier; I find that it does make a difference, providing a more detailed soundstage.

And if you’re listening to digital music — you’re reading this article, so I assume you are — make sure it is at sufficiently high bit rates. Apple’s iTunes Store sells music at 256 kbps, which, for nearly everyone, is indistinguishable from uncompressed music. If you use MP3 files, go for 320 kbps; it should sound just as good as CDs as well.

But unless you’re willing to spend as much money on your stereo system as you do on your car, and set up an acoustically-controlled room, there is simply no way that high-resolution files will make any difference to the music you listen to. Lots of people try and convince you that there is a difference, but most of these people simply want to take your money. And you have to ask yourself: of the ones who aren’t asking for your money, how many are desperately seeking validation for the very large sums of money they’ve spent on something modern science tells us they cannot hear.

  1.  ↩

  2. I consider high bitrates to be at least 256 kpbs for AAC or 320 kpbs (or VBR V–0) for MP3 files. Check whether you can hear the difference:  ↩

  3. The most common high-resolution music files are 24/48, 24/88.2, and 24/96. Pono will offer files up to 24/192, and some companies sell files up to 24/384.  ↩

  4.  ↩

  5. Linear pulse-code modulation:  ↩

  6. One must not confuse bit depth and bit rate, which is used to describe how much data is in a music file per second. For example, 256 kbps means that there are 256,000 bits of data per second of music.  ↩

  7. See Is Bits Really Bits?. And, how about a test? Check whether you can hear the difference between music at 16 bits, and the same music downsampled to only 8 bits: The 16-bit v/s 8-bit Blind Listening Test. I got 7 out of 10 when I did the test; that’s better than random.  ↩

  8. Dynamic range is quite complicated. See this article for more detailed information than you probably want.  ↩

  9.  ↩

  10. There are also some other technical reasons why that specific sample rate was chosen. “Professional video recorders were originally used to prepare CD master tapes because they were the only recorders capable of handling the high bandwidth requirements of digital audio signals. Because 16-bit digital audio signals (and error correction) were encoded as a video signal, the sampling frequency had to relate to television standards’ line and field rate, storing a few samples per scan line. […] With three samples per line, 490 x 30 x 3 = 44.1 kHz, it is just right. […] Therefore, 44.1 kHz became the universal sampling frequency for CD master tapes. Because sampling-frequency conversion was difficult, and 44.1 kHz was appropriate, the same sampling frequency was used for finished disks.” Principles of Digital Audio, Sixth Edition, Ken C. Pohlmann. (, Amazon UK)  ↩

  11.  ↩

  12. See, for example, The Emperor’s New Sample Rate.  ↩

  13. Or Try for yourself.  ↩

  14. See The Future of Music and, for a more technical explanation, ‘Dynamic Range’ & The Loudness War. And The Dynamic Range Database is a list of more than 50,000 albums, showing their relative loudness.  ↩

63 thoughts on “Music, Not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy

  1. I had the pleasure of visiting a friend who had a full-fledged high-end system. (Tetra speakers, etc.) and a lovely collection of hi-def recordings. It was very impressive and, yes, in that circumstance, there was no doubt as to difference in sound. And I didn’t really care. I don’t listen much in that kind of environment. It’s like a fine wine. Occasionally is nice but nothing I can use regularly.
    I much preferred the sound I heard as my band played a live concert that night. Acoustic instruments but much more lo-fi in real life.

  2. Dear Kirk McElhearn

    You are trying to confuse the readers.

    You need to understand the difference between

    1) the sampling frequency (how many samples are taken per second from the recording microphone signal – the higher the better up to limitation of the equipment used)

    2) and the audio output frequency of the DAC going to the amplifier then to speakers.

    If you do not understand, you are ignorant and dismissed as such.

    If you know the above, and still trying to deceive people, you are a fraud.
    You may be speaking on behalf of somebody who is paying you.

    Take two music files sampled from the same master tape at 44.1/16 and at 48/24.
    Play them in a half decent music system (say costing around $2000 total, DAC+amplifier+speakers) the difference is clear to nearly everyone.


    • He!He! Love the ‘Bah! Humbug!’ attitude.
      Yes, the DAC is the key and the better you can feed it, the better will be the results.

    • Explain how I am confusing the two. Because if you cannot, you are ignorant and should be dismissed as such. And didn’t your mother tell you that politeness is a virtue?

  3. Recently I discovered the HDTracks site, bought a couple, and acquired a new player with a really fine DAC. I may be being won over! 44.1/16 does seem to be more than fine (I’m mostly playing alac), all other things being excellent, but, even with my mediocre system, those HD tracks do seem to have ‘more’.

    • So what you need to know is whether those tracks you bought from HDTracks are remasters. Because many high-res files are remastered, which certainly improves the sound compared to existing versions. And, of course, you could convert them to CD quality, and try a blind test, and see which one sounds better…

      • I’m pretty sure I’m on safe ground. 1 Alan Parsons @176 which is the only album he has issued in HD. 1 Steven Wilson ( who claims not to ‘master’ at all)y and 1 ECM. Reputable sources, I believe.

        • I’m not saying that they are not reputable. But doing anything with the original masters involves some sort of remastering, even if it is not a thorough change of the music. So it’s very possible that any quality difference comes from this process, rather than from the actual resolution difference. I’m just saying, it is useful to rule out any spurious differences when comparing such things; that’s why I suggest creating 16/44.1 copies and blind testing. But if you’re happy, that’s what counts.

  4. I absolutely cannot agree that Mp3 is a listening format we should recommend to end users. I can hear the difference on an 8 dollar pair of Nady cans on an iPod between an Mp3 and a 44.1 .wav. I think as a middle ground we can encourage 24 bit .wav or flac flies sold to listeners no matter the sample rate. Honestly, what does it gain the recording industry and those of us who try to earn a living working in it if we have blogs that cut down efforts for widespread 24 bit, high sample rate delivery? I am so excited that Pono is now out in the world with it’s awesome and flexible Pono players. I’ll definitely be buying one for listening to the work of Morten Lindberg and 2L, who was nominated for 3 of the 4 best surround sound recordings for this years Grammys.

    • “I can hear the difference on an 8 dollar pair of Nady cans on an iPod between an Mp3 and a 44.1 .wav.”

      That is simply ridiculous. $8 headphones have a severely compromise dynamic range, and undoubtedly poor audio fidelity overall, so if you do hear such a difference, it can only be the result of confirmation bias.

    • I’ve heard a lot of good things about that device, and I’m tempted to try it out. Fiio is an interesting company. They make very good audio hardware at (generally) low prices.

    • There is no magic. If the original sound is not good it is impossible to turn it good. A bad drums recording never will be transformed in a good drums sound…

  5. Hi res is about sequence of time.
    It’s about space information not frequency…
    96/24 is still not much different than 44.1/16
    384/24 is the point where (if you have equipment and record on this level) you can’t recognise what is more real more natural than real sound environment…

  6. an mp3 thats been encoded from a song with dynamic range will sound way better then a flac file thats been encoded from a modern cd.

  7. Pick the Pixies album “Doolittle”. Has it a good recording? I think it is not. I have the LP, the CD and the 25th aniversay edition . I think the sound is weak in most of the tracks. The problem was in the studio recording? Or in the masterization? It is just an example.

  8. “Some websites sell high-resolution files under the moniker “studio masters.” And, in fact, these files are studio masters”

    They might be masters that have come from a studio, but the problem is they infer by “studio masters” that you’re getting the original stereo master from the studio and in many cases we have seen this to not be the case, the recent “studio masters” of Bob Marley albums have lost almost half their dynamic range and sound nowhere near as good as the original Barry Diament CD masterings or original vinyl from the 70s.

    One of the few things I think is technically incorrect in your article is that you’ve stated the bit-depth affects the dynamic range of the music, and this is 100% incorrect as I’m sure you know, what you mean is that the bit-depth represents the potential dynamic range, music will have the same dynamic range whether you record at 16, 20, 24 or 32 bit.

    Where high resolution is not a marketing ploy is when the 24-bit high resolution options contain fully dynamic masterings that have been slammed for CD and iTunes and other 16-bit download options. There are several examples of this, but a good one is the 2013 Dream Theater release. The CD’s dynamic range when measured by the DR Meter is DR6 whereas the 24/96 stereo mix available via both Pono and HD Tracks is DR12. It’s a huge difference, surprisingly the high resolution 24/96 track on the DVD-Audio disc is the same slammed mastering as the CD, whereas the excellent 5.1 mix is fully dynamic.

  9. Personally, a FLAC file with 16/44.1 satisfies my needs when it comes to hi-fi quality. Then I can pick those files and transcode to MP3 VBR V0 for on the go listening, and preserve the FLAC archivals. Maybe the idea of 24bit files for hd music can be a great add-on because you can really see diference in dynamics, but above 44.1 for me is a total waste of resource. The researchers at Sony / Philips couldn’t make a better choice for hi-fi digital music (well, the red book specifications for CD has become standard since 1979). And even Tidal, which seems to appeal to audiophiles, are not waving the flags of over-sized streams. Fourty four point one khz / sixteen bit sounds enough. Even their downloads at Tidal Store aren’t more than CD quality FLAC / ALAC files. And I sleep well with those tracks when I want hi-fi.

    Great article, and I want to give +1 for that’s points about sticking with well dithered masterings at CD quality.

    • someone said audiophiles don’t listen to music with their equipment, they listen to their equipment with music.They’re so obsessed with sound quality that they’re no longer really enjoying music at all. Like a man making love to his beauty queen wife and all he can think about is how jealous other men would be if they could see him with her.

      • ? Just because they say it doesn’t make it true. As in many fields, the better the gear, the better the results. Well recorded music with Hi Def files on a fine system is an experience you want to have and repeat.

  10. I have to take issue on your conclusion, Kirk, while being grateful for your work for Take Control Books. It is my reference for iTunes and I’m very glad to have bought it.

    You write,
    ” … unless you’re willing to spend as much money on your stereo system as you do on your car, and set up an acoustically-controlled room, there is simply no way that high-resolution files will make any difference to the music you listen to.”

    The corollary to this is also true : if you’re willing to go to all that trouble, it will make a difference to the music you hear, even if you’re not listening to high-resolution files. That also is worth saying, I think.

    You write,
    “Lots of people try and convince you that there is a difference, but most of these people simply want to take your money.”

    That’s a pretty damning general statement. I have to ask, who exactly are you tarring with the one brush? If there were a contrary example, it would be Barry Diamant of Soundkeeper Recordings. I bought the high-res version of one of the five or so files he sells. (They’re all his own recordings.) With his permission I downsampled that file, using professional-grade software. Using pro gear, I could hear a difference between the two versions.

    Barry does sell the hi-res version of his music for more than the MP3 one. I suppose he wanted my money, and if so, he must have chuckled as he banked the extra $18.25 he got off me.

    He could be fooling me, if not fooling himself. But just perhaps, he sincerely believes that there is a worthwhile difference. Just perhaps, there is a difference to be heard.

    You write,
    “… you have to ask yourself: of the ones who aren’t asking for your money, how many are desperately seeking validation for the very large sums of money they’ve spent on something modern science tells us they cannot hear.”

    To ask the question is to answer it: of course some of the spenders are seeking validation. There would have to be at least one, just as there would have to be at least one case in which there really is a worthwhile difference.

    And you have to ask yourself too: why am I trying to convince the world that there is no point going after high-res digital audio? Who cares what the rest of the world listens to, if I’m happy with my own music? Why should it matter to me if others fool themselves in great numbers? The truth will out, eventually. If the Emperor really has no clothes, then when someone finally dares to say it, nobody will be able to go on denying reality for long.

    Meanwhile, if you do take a little trouble over your stereo system, you will hear a difference in your music. That’s a sure bet.

    • Great comments.

      I recently bought my first hi-res download (24/96) of Wadada Leo Smith’s “America’s National Parks” and compared it to a download of the same recording at 16/44. I had hoped to discern no difference in order to save money on future downloads.

      My listening room is a converted steel garage with no acoustic treatment and my two speakers only cost $3,000 (US) and DAC $2,500 (US). However both are used in professional recording studios.

      For this all-acoustic-instruments recording the 24/96 offered an improved listening experience. The separation between instruments was improved as was the resolution in general. In particular the trumpet sounded more like a real instrument with a sweetness of tone and a fuller more complex timbre that the 16/44 sound lacked. The piano also sounded more like a real piano, again with a richer timbre.

      I think the ultimate value of the higher resolution was that the music was more physically and emotionally thrilling and involving – many times I found myself deciding to listen to the end of a piece after originally deciding to switch back to the lower resolution mid-piece to compare a particular musical passage. Never the other way round.

  11. I find this article rather patronising, and, suprisingly for someone who claims to be into music for “the music” rather than just “sound”, it is rather boneheaded and simplistic.

    Yes, as far as most of the physics of sound goes, the writer is correct – except that he doesn’t seem to understand what bit depth really means.

    What he doesn’t understand is the magic that happens between the physical world and the psychological world that begins once physical vibrations pass into our brains.

    No one yet has the werewithal to conduct scientific experiments about the way music sounds once inside our minds, so please ignore the writer’s rather arrogant claims that “no one can hear the difference” or “no one can tell blah blah”.

    Other areas he has not considered are the fact that so-called “blind tests” are the worst possible conditions for a musical experience. How on earth someone is supposed to have a proper musical listening experience under “scientific” conditions is beyond me.

    We don’t ask scientists to verify their experiments by conducting them in a living room, so how come we can’t trust the opinions of people about their own listening experiences until they have been verified in a totally non-conducive space? Why does the writer privilege science over experiences of a psychological nature, which are really beyond the scope of empirical science anyway?

    Getting back into the realm of the physical and measurable, there is research to suggest that higher frequencies not only have a pitched sound to our ears, if we can hear them, but they also affect the presentation of the frequencies below them, and are involved with how we appreciate the shape and size of the acoustic spaces they were recorded in. Our bodies also are affected by sound, quite apart from the ears!

    Sorry I can’t provide a direct link to the research, but I think another person has mentioned it above, I will hunt it down after posting and come back here if I don’t fall asleep first!

    Suffice to say, we don’t even fully appreciate the physical, empirical side of sound yet, let alone the psychological, so don’t let someone pushy tell you that it’s all a done deal and that sellers are out to hoodwink you – it’s the self-appointed smartarses that are more of a danger, those too enchanted by physical science, too materialistic to appreciate fully the open-ended nature of a musical experience!

  12. I’ve read of some people pointing out details they could identify only at higher resolution; a specific example I recall was an odd sound they couldn’t identify at CD resolution, but at a higher resolution they could tell it was a squeaky hinge on a guitar effects pedal.

    Not a normal case, clearly. But I’ve also heard it said that one has a greater sense of “presence”, of being there, at resolutions that more accurately capture what we may not hear as a difference of sound as such, perhaps phase relationships.

    For another purpose, high def does have some uses. Any processing tends to degrade a signal, and while it’s different, that’s generally true with digital processing as well as analog processing – with just about any sort of effects processing, sample rate conversion, etc. For editing, remixing, and so on, a higher-than-final quality (some of which will be sacrificial) is presumably useful, esp. if the work version is at a sample rate that’s a low integer multiple of the desired end result. That’s not of interest to your average listener, but more people do attempt to do tweaks on existing tracks, so the market for that may not be limited to professionals.

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