What is high-resolution audio and what are the best hi-res players for classical music?
BBC Music Magazine's audio expert Chris Haslam guides us through the ins and outs of hi-res audio quality, frequencies and the best streaming platforms to use for high-resolution classical music recordings. Plus, he recommends the desktop and portable hi-res players that are worth your money
While music streaming from services such as Spotify or Apple Music offer an unlimited music library in our pockets, what we gain in convenience we often lose in audio quality. The MP3 music file has revolutionised the way people consume music, but compared to a CD it just doesn’t have the same level of detail in the recording, and if you’re listening on a half decent hi-fi you’ll really notice the difference.
High-resolution digital recordings have been available for decades, but with just a few albums clogging up your hard drive they weren’t a practical solution. Thankfully, with data storage now much cheaper and wi-fi speeds improving, hi-res audio is finally hitting the mainstream, offering studio-quality recordings at the click of a mouse.
What is hi-res?
Hi-res is generally regarded as audio that has a higher sampling frequency than CD, which is 16-bit/44.1kHz. Sampling frequency (typically 96kHz or 192kHz at 24-bit for hi-res) refers to the number of times samples of the signal are taken per second during the analogue-to-digital conversion process. The more bits, the more accurately the signal can be measured. A 16-bit CD recording sounds great, but you’ll notice the extra depth and detail from 24-bit.
If you value convenience over sound quality, MP3 are brilliant, but they just don’t have the same detail as a CD or hi-res music file. When they’re created, the files are compressed and data is lost. Hi-res ‘lossless’ audio aims to replace the missing data.
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The highest quality MP3 has a bit rate of 320kbps, a hi-res 24-bit/192kHz file manages 9,216kbps, while CDs are 1,411kbps. And yes, vinyl can sound better than them all, but that’s a debate for a different time. If you’ve got premium speakers and headphones, there’s a world of difference to be explored.
Where can you buy and try out these files?
HDtracks (hdtracks.com) is an established hi-res download store, with a vast classical library available in FLAC, ALAC, WAV and DSD, but for a combination of streaming and saving, Qobuz Sublime (£250 per year, qobuz.com) has millions of CD-quality FLAC titles plus downloadable 24-bit hi-res audio files. For £7.99 per month Primephonic (primephonic.com) boasts over 3.5 million classical recordings at lossless 24-bit FLAC streaming, while subscribers to Tidal’s HiFi plan (£20 per month, tidal.com) can stream CD quality and enjoy the pioneering new MQA format, which gives listeners four times standard resolution.
What are the best portable and desktop hi-res players for classical music lovers?
FiiO M11 Pro £599
An exceptional portable player that sounds as good as many costing twice the price. It can handle all file types up to 32-bit/384kHz, and has the power to drive virtually any headphones. fiio.com
iFi Audio hip-dac £149
Impressive battery-powered DAC that upgrades headphone sound quality from your smartphone or laptop. It’s happy streaming hi-res files including DSD and MQA, and perfect for enhanced listening on the move. ifi-audio.com
Audiolab M-DAC+ £800
A personal favourite that’s always on in my office, this desktop DAC boasts a naturally expressive sound that will elevate your listening enjoyment no matter the file style or size you choose to feed into it. audiolab.co.uk
Chris Haslam is a freelance consumer technology journalist, specialising in tech, audio, lifestyle, health and interiors. He is the monthly audio columnist for BBC Music Magazine, rounding up the best audio equipment on the market for classical music lovers. He is also a contributing editor for Wired UK.