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High-resolution audio backers convinced they have found the "next big thing"

Revolutionary approach to sound gives music lovers a high quality audio experience

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 June, 2015, 9:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 5:33pm

High-resolution audio (HRA) may still be finding its feet, but companies backing the new technology are hopeful that it could be the next big thing.

Their confidence stems from the belief that music lovers will appreciate the higher level of sound quality and the opportunity to discover subtle details and nuances in favourite pieces, which they have never heard before.

Comparisons are drawn with the way the arrival of HDTV “revolutionised” television viewing. It provided a huge leap in picture quality and, once people had seen the difference, they realised what they had been missing.

The experts say that HRA, typically with a sampling frequency at 96kHz/24bit or higher, will do the same for music. The clarity and precision of the sound reproduction is regarded as far surpassing that of an MP3 or CD. This is down to technology which enables “digital lossless capture” of the original analogue audio sources, as opposed to using compressed audio formats. As a result, listeners can experience what the composers, sound engineers and musicians always wanted them to hear.

There are other marked advantages thanks to fast internet speeds for easy downloads plus reducing costs of storage media. It takes only a few simple steps to transfer HRA files bought from a music service. Alternatively, new patented technologies make it possible to stream tunes wirelessly via Bluetooth.

In addition, the range of consumer products coming on to the market includes state-of-the-art choices for the home, and slick portable devices able to deliver the same high-quality audio.

Companies that have launched HRA products in the past year include Sony, LG, Samsung, Astell & Kern, and FiiO. When it comes to file handling and maximum bitrate, there are variations between the devices. Therefore, the advice to potential users is to check the exact specifications and know their own requirements before buying.

With some systems it is possible to play high-res files directly from USB storage devices or from a networked PC via Ethernet. It also pays to research the high-res audio file formats available, even though all support the necessary sampling rates and bit-depths.

The formats include FLAC, ALAC, WAV and AIFF. The debate about their relative merits is bound to continue, taking account of factors such as meta-data support, which ensures downloaded tracks have artist and title information. A crucial point, though, is to check for full compatibility with specific systems and products.

The number of download sites is set to rise as demand increases. Names to look out for include HDtracks, Qobuz, Linn Records and PonoMusic.

It is worth noting that HRA has the support of major recording labels and musicians.

With so many people now listening to music on the move, their first experience of hi-res sound may well be via portable devices. A logical starting point would be the budget-price Walkman-like Sony NWZ-A15. It offers 16GB of storage, a microSD card slot, and battery life of up to 50 hours.

Designed as an entry-level model and promoted as the world’s smallest high-res music player, it weighs only 66g and has a 5.58cm screen. There is file compatibility with most formats and finding content from the main menu is quick and easy, but there are buttons rather than touch-screen controls.

For something more technically advanced, Sony’s higher-end models have Wweb-enabled features, but put the focus firmly on top-quality sound. The NWZ-ZX1 has 128GB of storage, runs on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and allows file transfer by simply dragging and dropping. Besides that, NFC (near field communication) can be used for Bluetooth pairing, while reviewers note that the sound is well balanced tonally with a high level of precision and agility.

Also attracting attention is the Astell & Kern AK100 Mk II, a leading brand of the Korean company iriver. Pitched as an entry-level model for the portable high-res market, its expandable storage can support DSD files, and WAV, FLAC and AIFF formats. The user interface is straightforward and the sound quality gives new life and meaning to even the best-known tunes.