Believe it or not, stepping up your audio game to get into high-resolution music is not that hard. It doesn't even have to be very expensive, either. Now more than ever, there are hundreds of great hi-res titles available, a multitude of high-quality players to fit every budget, and ample storage to make all of this a feasible reality in your life. If you're ready to step into hi-res, here are seven things you'll need to get you on your way.
1. Invest in a Good Audio System
Think of your audio system as the race car that you will be fueling with HD music files. You're going to want to do your listening over a decent – if not excellent – home audio system. Given that you are here reading HomeTheaterReview.com, it's likely that you already have some sort of higher-quality home audio playback system up and running. However, if all you have is a boombox, an iPod dock with speakers built in, or even one of those decent all-in-one Bose units, you'll want to get something more robust. Explore the Bookshelf and Floorstanding Loudspeaker categories at HomeTheaterReview.com, as well as the Preamps and Receivers categories, for the latest and greatest in high-fidelity products in your price range. These days, you don't need to break the bank to get some good-quality products.
2. You Likely Need a Nice Computer
Your computer is likely going to be the hub through which you download and play back your new collection of high-resolution digital audio files. So make sure you have a decent, modern computer – something from the last few years will serve you best. If you haven't maxed out your memory (RAM) capabilities, that is probably a wise thing to do, as it will help make your high-resolution digital audio experience smoother and more hassle-free. If you are buying a new computer, get one with a sizable hard drive and the speediest processors you can afford – this will not only make your high-resolution audio experience better, but it will help to future-proof your computer for some time. Your choice of PC or Apple Macintosh computers is a personal one. I am a Mac enthusiast, but I know people who prefer and use PCs very successfully for hi-res audio storage and/or playback.
Alternately, if you are a computer techie and want to repurpose an older computer into a "music server," you can do that, as well. It's your call, but that is a whole other can of worms that's well outside the scope of this article (we may tackle it in the future, though).
3. Get Some Backup Hard Drives
You will be buying and downloading a lot of high-resolution audio files, so you'll need some place to store them safely. These files are much bigger than your MP3s or even the files you ripped at full resolution from your CDs.
Let's talk bluntly for a moment about the logic behind bigger files because I know a lot of people find MP3s adequate for most needs, thus the notion of buying bigger files may sound counter-intuitive. Now, I'll admit that what I'm about to write here is a crude approximation, but I am doing so to make a point: size does matter (wink wink, nudge nudge)! Really folks, the bigger files can hold (potentially) much much MUCH more sonic information than the smaller compressed files found on CDs and MP3s. More data captured per song (especially for those albums being transferred from analog sources) roughly translates into a better listening experience.
So, if you are accustomed to having 10,000 songs stashed away on a one-gigabyte thumb drive, you will need to make new accommodations for your sizable new digital music collection. Fortunately, hearty terabyte hard drives are commonly available for reasonable prices these days, so you shouldn't have to panic here. And, while you are out shopping for a hard drive, you might as well buy two. Yes, two backup drives are better than one. Here is why: if one drive crashes, you will always have a safety backup. Drives DO crash, so it is best to do some research on hard drives that are designed for handling lots of music. I keep a certain amount of music on my main computer hard drive, then I have two redundant backup drives (each is one terabyte in size) for stuff that is not in regular circulation. Everyone is different, so you may want to design your playback and storage process differently. I use drives by Western Digital, but you may find others you prefer.
4. Consider the Cloud
An alternative to using your own hard drives is to purchase storage space on a cloud-based storage service. Basically, these companies manage enormous computer "server farms" that lease out (and maintain) storage space far away from your home, accessible via the Internet. There are numerous advantages to this process, but I admit it's something that I am only now growing more comfortable with. Options abound, and your computer manufacturer may even offer you very usable storage space for a reasonable fee. For you Apple fans, the iCloud service may be a no-brainer choice since your computer, iPhone, and iPad are all likely synced up to it already (whether you even know it or not). Do your research and find one that suits your needs and budget.
Click over to Page Two for information on software players, DACs, and other hi-res devices, as well as a few music recommendations...
5. Choose a Player for Your Computer
Currently, iTunes does not support high-resolution audio in a native manner (i.e., within the iTunes software program). However, you can buy and install other software programs that work in tandem with – or on top of – iTunes. Last year, I experimented and had varying degrees of success with popular programs like Sonic Studio's Amarra and Pure Music by Channel D. Your experience may well be very different than mine based on your computer system and how you like to set up your digital music collection, so don't rule them out. Personally, though, I found the free, open-source VLC player to be very easy to use, and it plays all file formats in high resolution. To my ear, it also sounded the best overall. You can find it here.
I still keep my iTunes going for lower-resolution playback and to sync with my iPhone and iPad. Someday, I hope that Apple will embrace all the different formats, including high-resolution audio, so that we can keep all of our music in one player; but, for now, the VLC player suits me just fine.
6. Choose Your DAC Interface
A DAC (or digital-to-analog converter) is the final element you'll need to play back high-resolution music. I started simply, using a well-reviewed and relatively inexpensive DAC made by Audioengine (I got the model D1, which was very affordable at well under $200). It works great: I simply plug it into the back of my computer via a USB cable, then it essentially overrides the audio output of my computer, enabling me to send high-quality audio streams from the computer to the DAC, which converts the music into signals that the stereo system can play back. Plug the DAC into any auxiliary input (except the phono input), and you'll be enjoying high-resolution audio in no time!
The USB DAC category has grown exponentially. Checking in with some of my associates here at HomeTheaterReview.com, I learned that Dennis Burger is a fan of the Peachtree Audio nova220SE integrated amplifier with a built-in USB DAC and tube buffer. Brent Butterworth lists the Firestone Audio ILTW USB DAC on his equipment list on the HomeTheaterReview.com website. Audiophilereview.com editor and HomeTheaterReview contributor Steven Stone lists several DACs on his system bio, including the Weiss DAC 202, Empirical Audio Off-Ramp 3, Wyred4Sound Dac2, Musical Fidelity M-1 DAC, and The Young Dac. With all the options out there, the first thing to do is figure out what you are willing to spend on this effort and narrow the list from there. Again, I put my toe in the waters with a $200 investment, and for now it suits my needs (and living space) just fine. Choose what is right for you.
7. Now Go Buy Some Hi-Res Music
A number of online music sites now carrying high-resolution audio for download. One of the most robust catalogs is at HDTracks.com, carrying everything from Led Zeppelin to Tony Bennett and Lady GaGa. It is a pretty robust and straightforward website (with a lot of useful information about additional software and accessories you might need). One thing to keep in mind is that some labels offer music in a variety of resolution sizes and formats. Generally, again, larger is better. If there is a 24-bit/192-kHz version of an album, I will choose that over the 96-kHz version. The audible differences may be slight, but my thinking is that I would like to future-proof my collection as much as possible. If the label has prepared a 24/192 file, why not buy it and then make my own conversion copies for use on my portable devices? Some DACs can only handle 96-kHz files, and that is fine. Frankly, most 96-kHz files that I've heard for popular music in the rock and dance genres have been more than adequate in their sound quality. If the company providing the music has done a good job at preparing its high-resolution audio files – using a master tape source and transferring to digital at high resolution using state-of-the-art processors – these sound files can equal and rival the best analog playback systems. Do your research regarding the sound quality of different titles. Check out my reviews on Audiophilereview.com for tips on great-sounding high-resolution titles that I have encountered. Talk with your audiophile friends, and soon you'll be pinpointing amazing-sounding recordings that can knock your socks off and test your system's playback capabilities to its fullest.
Before we wrap up, there are a couple of other non-computer considerations to discuss...
Some of you might not want to use your computer as the central hub for your music. Okay, I get that. There are options for you, too. Generally, you will still have to download the music from the Internet to your computer, but from there you have some choices. You can load it on to a standalone music server/player that supports hi-res audio playback, like the Sony HAP-S1 (or its big brother, the HAP-Z1ES) and the Autonomic Mirage servers.
Or, you can load the audio files on to a hard drive or flash drive that you then connect to a Blu-ray player or perhaps one of those nifty little black boxes like the Roku 3 or Apple TV. Personally, I have two non-computer playback devices: One is by Western Digital, which I like because it handles more file formats than the Roku and in higher resolution (including the FLAC and AIFF files common for high-resolution downloads). I decided to also add an Apple TV to my streaming capabilities, as it offered one distinct advantage in that it allows for easy sync with iTunes – this is really handy if you want to have your favorite playlists streaming as background music through your audio system. Do note, however, that at present the iTunes/Apple TV combo doesn't stream higher-than-CD quality. It does, however, handle Dolby Digital 5.1, which is kinda neat for those exclusives from the iTunes Store. I purchased a live concert by Sigur Ros singer Jonsi and was thrilled to find that, when I played it through the Apple TV, it was in surround sound.
If you've already spent a bundle on a Blu-ray player and don't really want to buy yet another new thing for your system just to hear hi-res downloads, guess what? Chances are, if you have one of the spiffier new players from the likes of Oppo, you might already be good to go for hi-res audio. You see, some of these players have a cleverly concealed USB slot that will allow you to plug in a flash drive (or possibly even a hard drive) from which to stream your hi-res files. While I currently have an early Oppo Blu-ray player that I love, I will probably upgrade to the BDP-105 at some point (when I save up some dollars) because it has a built-in "specially optimized" DAC that enables you to connect your computer directly for playback of high-resolution audio files (it's also a universal player that supports playback of Blu-ray discs, DVDs, SACDs, DVD-Audio discs, and regular CDs). The BDP-105 has many other audiophile bells and whistles that I'm sure will sound awesome, too. You can read more about that player here.
As I learned from Dennis Burger, some newer integrated amplifiers have robust DAC capabilities built-in, so that may well be another option for you if you already own one. Check your owner's manual.
So, there you have it. In seven steps, you can dive into the world of high-resolution digital audio. Let's finish up with a few recommendations of great-sounding hi-res titles. In keeping with the "seven" theme, here are seven of my current favorites, chosen for their sense of dynamics, the recording quality, and of course the quality of the underlying music:
Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder
Chelsea Girl, Nico
Croz, David Crosby
Thankful and Thoughtful, Bettye LaVette
Led Zeppelin II, Led Zeppelin
Helplessness Blues, Fleet Foxes
American Beauty, Grateful Dead
• Can We Sell Hi-Res Audio to the Mainstream Music Lover? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Do You Need to Love Music to Be a True Audiophile? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• The Best Music in High Resolution From 2013 at HomeTheaterReview.com.