There’s been a lot of talk of “hi-def” or “hi-res” music recently, a lot of it thanks to the introduction of Tidal, Jay Z’s streaming-music platform that promises to bring high-quality versions of your favorite songs to Internet airwaves in exchange for a monthly slice of your paycheck. Those who gave Tidal a try had to choose if they wanted the HD package or the more affordable standard one, at which point, we imagine, a lot of people curious about the hype said to themselves, “Wait, music can be high-definition?” Well, yes, it can be.
One of the easiest ways to think of HD audio is as the music industry’s own version of Blu-Ray. Interestingly enough, while the way we consume music has evolved from physical media (records, tapes, CDs) into bite-sized—and affordable—MP3s and Internet streaming, we’ve actually lost quality along the way. Streaming files and MP3s are compressed—meaning, much of the original music data, like bass and treble, is stripped away so that they’re smaller, and we can fit more MP3s on our hard drives with less space, and stream music to smartphones without eating away our data plans. Those files typically don’t match the sound resolution that came with good ol’ compact discs, which clock in at 16bit/44kHz. But with $15 earphones, who’s going to notice the drop in clarity, right? That was true during the reign of the iPod, when hard drive space was hard to come by. But now that gigabytes and Internet data are as plentiful as Beys in the BeyHive, the time may have come for hi-def audio to go mainstream.
HD audio aims to turn resolution up—and get it closer or better—to the CD-quality that musicians originally intended for their music to be heard. HD means more bits and more data. You’ll find that many HD-audio files are measured at a 24-bit/96kHz encoding, which could be hefty in size and can typically run 100MB per song, or 1GB an album. Just like watching your movies in high definition, listening to your music in a greater quality than an MP3 (music’s equivalent of a VHS tape) is a one-two punch that involves the right kind of source file and the proper equipment—and not to mention a complementary environment where the music is being listened.
If you download a hi-res music file and then stick on the earbuds that came bundled with your smartphone, you’re not going to hear the enhanced sound. Just like a Blu-Ray disc needs corresponding Blu-Ray equipment, a high-quality sound file calls for the right hardware. And, vice versa, getting better equipment and listening to a standard MP3 won’t do the new gear any justice (unless you're stepping up from bargain-bin headphones).
The concept of HD audio is a heated issue for audiophiles and music enthusiasts alike—some say the difference is minimal, while others say there’s no other way to listen to music than in HD. But HD may end up being the future battleground for streaming companies, so you’ll likely hear more about it in the coming years as the equipment drops in price. If you’re a country music fan, you are probably already familiar with HD music since Neil Young announced that he’s going to remove his catalog from all streaming platforms that don’t offer an HD option—a likely effort to get more people to sign up for his own HD service, Pono. Well, if you’re thinking about taking a trip down the HD rabbit hole, we’re here to get you started with the basics.