How to listen to High-Resolution Audio

Man listening to music

High-Resolution Audio is considered anything beyond CD-quality. However, MP3-quality music streaming (Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube Music, etc.), with a paltry 23 percent of the musical information of a CD, is overwhelmingly the choice of the people.

Most folks, when queried or scientifically tested, claim or prove they can’t hear the difference between a low-resolution MP3 and a full-resolution CD. So why even bother with High-Resolution Audio, where files are costly, 29 times the size of an MP3, and can choke a modest Internet connection when streaming? Can you even hear the difference?

Yes, you can. Here’s how…

Proof that people couldn’t hear the difference came from double-blind listening tests, also called ABX testing (listen to Sample A, listen to Sample B, listen to Sample X randomly chosen from Sample A or B, then repeat many times). Folks who think High-Resolution Audio is a crock commonly point to ABX testing being infallible because, you know, science.

The naysayers are correct. With the short snippets of music employed, ABX testing works well. Go ahead, try it with your own CDs versus MP3s (the premium 320kbps MP3s, not the lower-res Pandora or Internet Radio ones). Though you don’t have a scientific rig or an X Sample, it will be near-impossible to hear the difference when flipping between versions of each track for a few seconds.

But that’s not how you listen. The secret to true appreciation of better audio is TIME.

CD-quality audio and High-Resolution Audio absolutely sound better than MP3. For a trained ear such as mine, it’s simple. For an extraordinarily trained ear such as Grammy-winning producer Quincy Jones or legendary engineer Bob Ludwig, it’s even simpler. (It also proves you don’t have to be young.) But even we could be tripped up by ABX testing. A better way to appreciate and compare music is to listen to a favorite album all the way through on MP3. Then listen to the same favorite album all the way through on CD or High-Resolution Audio. The two listening sessions don’t even have to be on the same day, or in that order. The CD or High-Resolution Audio version is going to sound better.

Why?

It’s not from a tonal quality difference. A 320kbps MP3’s bass-to-midrange-to-treble performance is effectively identical to CD or High-Resolution Audio. You won’t suddenly hear stronger bass or highs when switching to the better file. What will happen is that the music — and you — will be more relaxed. Finally I understand what audiophile magazine reviewers mean when they apply terms such as “rhythm” and “pacing” to digital files that already possess the timing accuracy of an atomic clock. It doesn’t mean that the music slows down or changes pace. It means that the music makes you feel better.

And that’s the big difference. Choosing between two versions of a song after listening for 15 seconds is no way to compare. Compare by assessing how you feel after 30-60 minutes of your chosen music. MP3s can sound great, but they don’t make you feel great. That 77% of digital information removed from CD-quality audio to make smaller MP3 files? It’s not only part of the music that’s suddenly missing; it’s the magic within, the alchemy that cuts through consciousness and bubbles up emotion.

Sit back, listen, take your time. I guarantee you will feel better after 30 minutes of music of CD quality or above. You will unlock gifts vastly exceeding tonal quality. Cherished memories will rush forth, stimulated by music’s role in times past: your first love, the first time you drove a car solo, unforgettable sights and sensations. Those two Pink Floyd “Comfortably Numb” air guitar solos you thought you had forgotten how to play will come roaring back to you. Certain songs will deliver that ASMR-like ability to make your neck tingle and your body hairs stand at attention. Your head will bob, your neck will be working, your foot will tap involuntarily. You will emerge from the session less fatigued, less stressed, more peaceful, fulfilled, energized. You will be happier that you undertook the endeavor.

You will discover that 30 minutes is often not enough. This type of deep enjoyment will make you long for more, with the temptation to rediscover music you thought you knew well, deep into the night. The more you listen, the more you relax. The more you relax, the more you hear into the music. That’s when you transcend feeling and genuinely begin to hear the difference. You will perceive the size of the recording space. Echoes will bloom with expansive and lovely delays. More air will radiate around cymbals. Leading-edge transients, such as the snap of a snare drum, will gain definition. Singers will be taller and more out front. You will enjoy, for the first time, the tasty complexities of that third rhythm guitar in that one song. It was always there, and it’s there too in the MP3, but you weren’t relaxed enough or into the music enough to highlight it before.

I wouldn’t have written this article last year. High-Resolution Audio was too expensive for most folks to stream. Even CD-quality files were so large that they strained mobile data plans. But now pretty much everybody enjoys an unlimited plan, and Internet speeds are faster all around. Even if you listen for a couple hours a day, your mobile data speeds are not likely to be throttled. And, led by disruptors Qobuz and Amazon Music HD, high-resolution streaming prices have never been lower. For example, an Amazon Prime member can prepay for a year of Amazon Music HD for $10.75/month, only $0.76 more than measly MP3 quality from Spotify or Apple Music for up to 29 times the musical data. Qobuz doesn’t cost much more and has a significantly more robust ecosystem of gear on which to play High-Resolution Audio tracks. So even if you think at this moment that you can’t hear the difference, go ahead and treat yourself to the good stuff anyway for similar money. In not much time at all, the differences will open up.