Over the years, we’ve seen tremendous improvements to the process of capturing sound in digital form and then playing it back for human ears. However, lossy compression, which cuts file sizes and ultimately makes music portable, means the lower quality of MP3 audio has become accepted as the norm by the millions who grew up listening to it.
While CDs, with their “standard-definition” audio, offer better sound quality than MP3s, we’re now seeing the development of high-resolution audio. This claims to be better quality than CDs and give music more room to breathe.
Regardless of what path high-resolution audio takes, more of us could soon be switching from MP3 to the middle ground of standard-definition/CD-quality audio, once it’s able to match the convenience of MP3s.
Introducing High-Resolution Audio
Ever since the rise of CDs in the 1990s, people have disagreed over whether digital media can genuinely capture the key qualities of live music. Much of the criticism centers on the lossy files, which have been compressed to enable faster downloads.
This is why some in the music industry are keen to make high-resolution audio a genuine option for portable listening. And while this would be a significant improvement over lossy formats, it’s not necessarily the best thing to do. Given that many people don’t even feel the need to buy music at CD quality (standard definition), is investing in better-than-CD-quality audio a worthwhile investment for the industry?
Understanding Audio Quality
It’s important we understand some key things about audio quality. First, there’s sample rate and bit depth (Fig. 1). The former is the number of times per second that an analog waveform gets captured (sampled) during recording. A sample captures the loudness (amplitude) of the wave. Bit depth, meanwhile, is the size of each sample in bits—the more bits per sample, the more detailed it is. Both are determined when you first record the audio. CDs currently have a 44.1-kHz sample rate and 16-bit bit depth.