Do I need Hi-Res Audio? Part Two

A while ago, I wrote a lengthy ramble about how I didn’t see the benefits of hi-res audio. In fact, I called it stupid.

But the I met Audio-Technica’s hi-res line of headphones. And now some of my previous ramble is no longer totally accurate, for me at least.

The backside of the MSR7NC, one of several hi-res compliant headphones offered by Audio-Technica.

“Hi-Res” audio is a set of standards for audio reproduction, meant to establish a baseline of quality for high-end audio gear. In the headphone world, it means that your drivers have to be able to produce high frequencies up to 40,000hz.

“But Alex,” you might be saying, “Doesn’t human hearing top out, at best, around 20,000hz?” Yes. It does. But it turns out that hi-res audio might have other impacts on your listening experience outside of just hearing high sounds. And as always, compression and mastering are super important.

My friend Ward pointed out that the dynamic range of standard Redbook (CD) audio wasn’t wide enough to capture everything, and could possibly hamper the listening experience as well. He’s absolutely right, though I think the hi-res spec maybe goes to0 far on that front. But better to go too far than not far enough, right? Especially where the pro world is concerned.

And then a new meta-analysis happened.

As explained in detail by one of my favorite audio reviewers, Lachlan, in this video, a recent study showed that people can sometimes tell the difference between hi-res tracks and CD audio, with trained ears. Interesting! That was the first thing that opened my mind up to at least checking this out again.

The second was hearing a pair of Audio-Technica MSR7NC’s. The detail resolved by the headphone, even in standard CD audio or MP3/AAC files, is quite outstanding given their price. Indeed, I’ve had a similar experience across all of Audio-Technica’s hi-res range.

Previously, I had used two headphones from Sony’s hi-res line, the MDR-1A and 100AAP. (Reading those old reviews just made me cringe a little bit. Oh well!) While both were really good, comfy headphones, neither blew me away with their ability to resolve detail/mids/highs in music. Both of those headphones have a warmer, bassier, easier-listening sound signature, which perhaps wasn’t the best suited to overly-anal listening. They both sound nice and they do both technically meet the hi-res spec. But neither shows as many details and flaws in the material as Sony’s older headphone, the MDR-V6

Am I reversing my stance and saying that I can now hear a profound difference in hi-res tracks? No. Not at all. But I’ve realized how much the equipment used can matter, even when comparing two headphones that have the same “Hi-Res” badge on the box.

The bigger revelation is how important mastering and compression continue to be. A potential issue with Audio-Technica’s hi-res headphones, or indeed even something like the MDR-V6, is that their exceptional ability to render mids and highs sharply and accurately can also expose flaws in the audio that you might not hear on a warmer pair of cans.

It can be frustrating to hear recording errors like clipping in popular songs. It’s annoying to hear symbols that aren’t crisply rendered by the chosen method of compression. It’s fascinating to be able to hear the differences between bitrates and mastering techniques in a way I couldn’t before.

One positive for hi-res tracks: You can at least be sure that you’re not going to suffer from any compression issues. The blemishes you’ll hear were there in the original master. And, there’s something exciting about being able to hear a file that’s the same or very close to the file used in the mastering process…even if they do take up a lot of space on your hard drive.

This whole article is really just a stealth bashing directed at Sony’s hi-res line.. I don’t hate their headphones at all…but if hi-res reproduction/detail is your chief goal, maybe consider Audio-Technica’s products over Sony’s.

Did I run out and convert my whole library to hi-res tracks? No. But I at least have an understanding now of why some people enjoy them so much. Achieving greater understanding of all this was always at the core of my audio journey, and it’s cool to look back and see how far I’ve come.

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