Why Hi-Res Audio Doesn’t Actually Offer a Higher Quality Sonic Experience

We can blame the iPod and its signature earbuds for this demise

The iPod's classic earbuds helped to ruin sonic quality. Apple
Headshot of Shelly Palmer

Editor’s note: Industry consultant Shelly Palmer is taking his popular newsletter and turning it into an Adweek article once per week in an ongoing column titled “Think About This.”

Steve Jobs killed sonic quality.

In October 2001, Apple introduced the iPod, irrevocably changing the world of recording music. Today, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), about 75% of the recorded music industry’s revenue comes from streaming. Bandwidth keeps getting cheaper and faster. Hardware and software continue to improve at an exponential pace. Surely, there is pent-up demand for high-resolution audio. After all, doesn’t everyone want the “best sounding” audio?

Here’s the thing: The high-fidelity audio we’re generally being sold is an artifact of 20th-century innovation, pushed to the dustbin of history alongside such transformational technologies as the VCR and the cathode ray television set. Audio technology continues to march forward, even though our own biological audio technology (aka our ears) do not evolve as quickly.

The vast majority of people probably don’t have or frequent an environment designed to maximize the advancements of audio recording technology, and the convenience of the lower-sonic-quality files make them good enough. This was Steve Jobs’s key insight. Which is why I believe, as much as I love hi-res audio, it is a solution in search of a problem.

So, how much time and money have you spent in your listening room? Because that’s the only place hi-res audio is going to matter to you—if it matters to you at all. If you’re listening to hi-res audio through AirPods while walking on the street or sitting on a bus or sitting in your house with the air conditioner running or in a motor vehicle or on an airplane, the ambient noise in the environment will make it all but impossible to hear the difference between a pretty good 320 kbps AAC file and a very amazing 9,216 kbps hi-res audio file.

Nerdy? Sure. But it’s worthwhile to explain how we got here.

When you combine lossy compression with 29-cent earbuds, you get the world of recorded music as mass marketed by Steve Jobs. You also get the death of sonic quality.

At the turn of the century, music lovers embraced peer-to-peer music-sharing sites, like Napster and LimeWire. Using the mp3 format, Apple introduced iTunes, its music industry-killing app, with the tagline “Rip. Mix. Burn.”

File compression

When a sound file was ripped from a CD, the highest-quality commercially available audio format at the time, the file was automatically down-converted to either mp3 or the slightly higher-quality advanced audio coding (AAC) format. Small file sizes meant you could carry thousands of songs in your pocket. The downside was that to get all of those songs to fit on your iPod, the sonic quality you enjoyed listening to on a CD was reduced about 29 times.

Earbuds: Final nail in the coffin

The iPod came with the iconic white earbuds. The wired version was prominently featured in the equally iconic ad campaign. As pretty and expensive ($29 if purchased separately) as the earbuds were, the transducers (the little speakers in each ear) probably cost Apple 29 cents. I’m pretty sure Apple spent more on the packaging than it did on the hardware. To say that earbuds offered the least emotionally satisfying audio experience possible would be a compliment.

When you combine lossy compression with 29-cent earbuds, you get the world of recorded music as mass marketed by Steve Jobs. You also get the death of sonic quality.

The funny thing is, nobody noticed.

The real problem

Leaving people’s personal abilities to distinguish high sonic quality from low sonic quality out of this conversation, there is a virtually insurmountable issue with the mass adoption of hi-res audio: acoustic environment.

You cannot solve an acoustic problem with an electronic solution. In practice, this means that sticking earbuds in your ears, no matter how good the earbuds are, will not allow you to hear the track the way the composer, producer or mastering engineer intended.

When recordings are professionally mixed and mastered, the creators generally work in purpose-built control rooms with exceptional speaker systems, not on laptops wearing earbuds.

High-quality (or high-resolution) audio

If you believe that you can hear the difference and have an audio system set up to take advantage of the increased fidelity, some companies are still trying to make a go of the hi-res audio space.

Jay-Z’s Tidal platform separates itself with its high-fidelity (HiFi) subscription tier, which offers access to high-res audio and costs $20/month. It’s twice the price of its base tier, as well as twice the price of Apple and Spotify’s most popular plans. Called “Tidal Masters,” these hi-res tracks are “master-quality recordings directly from the master source.” HiFi audio has good sound, but a limited resolution (44.1 kHz/16 bit); Tidal Masters offer “an authenticated and unbroken version” (typically 96 kHz/24 bit). Tidal offers 60-plus million tracks, including 170,000-plus in hi-res.

If you’re on cellular, you’re going to blow through data much quicker than you would if you’re playing lossy audio from Spotify or Apple Music. Lossless compression goes hand-in-hand with large file sizes.

The bottom line

I am not telling you that there is not a huge difference between mp3/AAC files and hi-res audio files. There is, and it is demonstrable. In the right listening environment, hi-res audio is one of the great pleasures in life. But think about this: Why have a solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist?

@shellypalmer Shelly Palmer is CEO of The Palmer Group, a strategic advisory, technology solutions and business development practice focused at the nexus of media and marketing with a special emphasis on machine learning and data-driven decision-making.