But when digital audio debuted, it sounded harsh and tinny, souring a lot of us on the new format and making us long for our old hi-fi stereos. Fortunately, you now can get that hi-fi sound — and fun — back.
Newer, more advanced digital music formats can capture the dulcet tones of Brian Wilson's voice, the subtle trills of Itzhak Perlman's violin and even the clarion call of Miles Davis’ horn. It means the latest so-called high-resolution audio is not only good enough for rock ‘n’ roll but also great for classical or jazz, and it makes oldies but goodies sound a whole lot better, too.
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Better still, you don't need a whole new stereo system to enjoy high-resolution audio, although plenty of expensive components are available to buy if you must. All you need to improve your home entertainment is an inexpensive accessory or two and access to a streaming or download service with hi-res audio.
So what is high-resolution audio?
MP3 music solved a ’90s problem
Originally, the digital MP3 music file format came about in the 1990s because of the paltry computer storage and tardy internet connections available 25 years ago. MP3 files compressed the music to save space but in the process made it sound like it was being blasted out of a tin can.
Now, terabytes of storage are available on drives that can fit in the palm of your hand, and high-speed internet connections are available even on smartphones. So today it's easy to store or stream CD-quality songs (at a 16-bit sample size and a 44.1 kilohertz sample rate for the technically minded).
That's fine, but most of us recall that when CDs were introduced in the 1980s, they also diminished sound quality. Many listeners complained that CDs sounded cold and many discs sounded worse than the vinyl originals.
Hi-res audio is supposed to address all of those sound quality complaints. With a typical 24-bit sample size at 192 kHz, it goes several digital steps beyond CDs, delivering more dynamic range and revealing subtle details of sound that will be, well, music to your ears.
Just to warn you, hi-res audio comes in several formats, such as FLAC, MQA and lossless WAV. Several groups have created an official “Hi-Res Audio” label to make offerings less confusing.
Fortunately, you don't need to remember the acronyms or learn the differences among them — unlike the 1980s Sony Betamax vs. VHS video wars. What's important are the hi-res audio services themselves.
3 places to find hi-res audio
To get higher-quality music tracks, you have to pay for a subscription. The monthly cost is usually less than the price of a single CD if anyone still buys them anymore. The three dominant high-resolution streaming music services are Amazon, Qobuz and Tidal.
• Amazon Music HD boasts it has “millions of songs in the highest quality audio” format, which it calls Ultra High Definition but is in the FLAC format. Amazon's interface isn't as aesthetically pleasing as Tidal or Qobuz, but it works.
Like other services, it touts some “immersive” tracks in so-called 3D Audio. People having been pushing such formats since the days of expensive quadraphonic sound systems in the 1970s. Monthly prices for unlimited streaming are $12.99 for Prime members, $14.99 for everyone else.
• Qobuz (pronounced KOH-buhz) started in Europe and came to U.S. shores last year. It, too, offers excellent music quality and includes many of the same new albums as Tidal, such as the latest Pretenders record. (Chrissie Hyde still sounds sultry.)
It has a dedicated app for your smartphone or PC, as does Tidal. Qobuz uses the Hi-Res Audio logo to label its streaming high-resolution files, which are in FLAC format.
We found it often delivered the best selection of jazz titles, compared to other services, with more Thelonius Monk classics, for example, in hi-res. A basic monthly subscription for unlimited hi-res music is $14.99.
• Tidal started out focusing on popular music and expanded its library to cover an ever-growing selection of classical and jazz. It offers millions of songs in a hi-res format for streaming that it calls “Master” in the MQA format.
The Master tracks sound sublime and scintillating. Most of Tidal's music is in the lesser, CD-quality format, but that's still a big improvement over standard services. Tidal offers several different monthly plans, but unlimited streaming of hi-res music costs $19.99.
Splurge on speakers, headphones
You can listen to each of these streaming services through apps on your smartphone. But to properly hear the music in all of its hi-res glory, you need stereo equipment that recognizes the digital format.
Fortunately, you don't have to buy a whole new system.
For playing songs through your PC, you can capture the pure digital feed with a USB dongle known as an outboard digital-to-analog converter (DAC), in the range of less than $100 to $200. These thumb-size gadgets plug into a USB port on your laptop or PC and then into a pair of headphones or into a set of powered speakers you already may have.
Alternatively, any audio equipment with a line input will work, although you will want to use the best speakers or headphones to appreciate the sound quality. The $99.95 AudioQuest Dragonfly Black is a USB DAC that works with all the online services reviewed here and won't break the budget.
If you want to set up a modest system from scratch, the easiest and least expensive route is to buy a powered speaker or two compatible with hi-res audio. Several models can play music from the services mentioned here, but for a true hi-res experience, the Bluesound Pulse Flex 2i speaker, $299, tested well and is designed to play to play 24-bit/192-kHZ streaming audio, including the MQA format Tidal uses.
The Bluesound speaker has a full, well-rounded sound, and even though it is rated for 25 watts of power, it was able to fill a very large living room with music. The speaker tends to emphasize the midrange, where an acoustic guitar typically sits in the music, but it's a pleasing sound overall. For example, Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain produced pure piano work and Davis’ crystal-clear horn.
To set it up, plug it into a power outlet, download the app and follow the instructions for connecting it to your home Wi-Fi network. Get two, and you can use it in stereo.
And the speaker has button controls on top so you don't have to use the app. In other words, not only does it sound better, but it's easier to use than your old stereo system.