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Should you care about high resolution audio? Sony hopes you will

Opinion: Toddy deliberates over the validity of high resolution audio and Sony’s push to make it the next big must-have in mobile.

Are you happy with how your music sounds? I’m not talking about whether or not 5 Seconds of Summer is a better band than The Dillinger Escape Plan here, but rather whether or not you, as the listener feel like the aural experience on offer is up to snuff.

The advent of digital music downloads and mobile music streaming have raised a generation of music lovers who for the most part have missed out on the superior fidelity CD and Super Audio CD affords. Sony’s trying the bring that high resolution listening experience back to mobile users across the board with its latest devices – most recently, the Xperia Z3+.

The shift from CDs to lossy, compressed digital file formats such as MP3 was a necessity instigated by the infrastructure in place at the time the industry started to focus on delivering music over the internet. Limited bandwidth and to a lesser extent, device storage pushed for smaller files sizes and as a result compressed audio files. This meant a lot of the original detail and depth was cut out of the recording in the conversion and lost.

Since then lossless codecs like FLAC, ALAC LPCM and DSD (all of which are supported by the Z3+) have grown in popularity, but some of the most popular streaming services and digital download locations like Spotify, Apple Music and iTunes still favour lossy music formats, which in turn means users are stuck with lacklustre quality tunes. Whether they’re aware of this fact, is another matter however.

Here’s how audio from some popular music services looks like:

  File format Bitrate
Apple Music AAC 256kbps
Apple iTunes AAC 256kbps
Spotify Ogg Vorbis 96kbps,160kbps or 320kbps
Tidal AAC/FLAC 96kbps (AAC), 320kbps (AAC) or 1411kbps (FLAC)

The challenge is convincing listeners that they’re missing out on a superior aural experience. The arrival of subscription streaming service Tidal and its star-studded relaunch went some way to highlighting the subject of high resolution audio, but didn’t drive the point home with any real depth.

Sony’s marketing angle thus far has pushed the idea that with the help of the Z3+, the listener gets to hear elements of the music that most others can’t. The biggest misconception with high resolution audio is that the music will unquestionably sound better, but that shouldn’t be treated as gospel.

Versus your garden variety low bitrate audio files, it’s true that high resolution audio will sound markedly more pleasing on the ears, but the distinction becomes harder to spot with files that sport higher bitrates and that includes select lossy codecs as well as lossless ones.

Sony #ICan

Steve Rollins is just one celebrity ambassador Sony is calling upon to help promote Hi-Res audio, along with the likes of Jools Holland and The Foo Fighters.

High resolution audio doesn’t automatically mean better sound quality, it more appropriately translates as more accurate audio; retaining greater depth and elements of the finer details otherwise lost during the original recording – essentially it can make for a more immersive experience, but by how much is dependant on the listener’s ears and the equipment they’re using.

Even with a device like the Xperia Z3+, using a pair of £5 earbuds will negate any benefit high resolution audio files might offer. It’s not dissimilar from buying a phone with a high resolution camera on the back. You might be able to take 20-megapixel photos, but if the lens is tiny, it can’t readily compare to the results produced by a DSLR with the same sized image sensor.

Sony thinks smartphone users deserve a better audio experience; it hopes to lead the way in this regards and from a hardware perspective it already does, but it’s almost doing things the wrong way around. Without a robust, accessible means of acquiring high resolution audio content in the first place, there’s little incentive for the consumer to lay down cash or care about whether or not their smartphone has the tools to listen to it in the first place.

The same conundrum can be seen with the push for 4K televisions. In the last few years the technology has become more affordable and accessible, but the amount of available content on offer is still comparatively slim and as such uptake of actual TVs has been slow.

The answer then, is for Sony to spend more time investing in the infrastructure behind high resolution audio creation and distribution first, leveraging its Sony Music arm or the existing partnership with Spotify to offer up high quality music to its listeners.

As I’ve already said, Sony is at the head of the pack in the space when it comes to high resolution audio on mobile, but it’s currently trying to run this race going in right direction, but facing the wrong way.

What do you think? Do you care about high resolution audio and more importantly, would you be willing to lay down extra cash to access it, or would you rather wait until the benefits trickle down to market as the new standard?

Note: Sony has more information on high resolution audio on its own website.

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