We’ve come a long way from those first horrible sounding MP3s from the Napster era, but many of us don’t realize that our digital audio has room for improvement. I’m not one to get all teary eyed nostalgic for CDs or even vinyl, but we’ve traded sound quality for convenience on our mobile phones and iPods. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll gladly take it this way as it allows me to listen to music everywhere. But I’ll definitely accept better…
In a nutshell, MP3 and Apple’s AAC format assume people can’t hear all the music so it doesn’t need to keep it all (therefore its ‘lossy’), and they’re often used with lower quality settings to save space. There are lossless formats like FLAC that keep CD quality, but then there are those that argue CDs aren’t good enough either.
Of course there is something better – High Definition Audio (HD Audio). HD Audio is becoming more available, and not just for the Beethoven set. Many artists like Daft Punk and Green Day are available in full HD glory from places like HDTracks. HD Audio sounds amazing – even with modest gear (see below). HD Audio uses more data (more bits and higher sampling rates: bigger music files) to better reproduce the music. FLAC, which can also handle more data, looks to be the most popular format for HD Audio.
My current setup uses my computer with a Digital to Audio Converter (DAC) connected by USB. A decent DAC will make any music source sound better (even MP3s), but it’s required for the bit rates that HD Audio uses. My Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus is an affordable DAC and sounds great. It can also be used with headphones so you don’t need a full stereo system.
My next step is to find an affordable and convenient way to enjoy HD Audio all around my home until the Apples of the world make it ubiquitous for us all. You can use streamers like Roku, but they don’t allow for full HD Audio streaming. Of course there is audiophile grade equipment available, but my goal is to get HD Audio streaming from network storage at a modest price point. I’ll update with my progress, but in the meantime for those interested I recommend you try listening to your current music through a DAC for improved sound quality and test out a favourite album in glorious HD too.