Whereas TVs have turn out to be higher and higher over the previous 15 years, audio has taken a number of steps backwards. Many people have sacrificed constancy in pursuit of comfort and portability, adopting inferior audio codecs comparable to MP3 and making them our new benchmarks. Lossy codecs comparable to that strip music of its dynamics, element, and vitality. Nevertheless it doesn’t should be that approach. Choose up a high-resolution digital audio participant (DAP) and you may have your cake and eat it, too.
Not like old-school MP3 gamers, Apple’s iPod contact, or a smartphone, high-res DAPs are designed with high-end audio circuitry, high-powered digital-to-analog converters (DACs), and amplifiers that may drive a variety of audiophile-class headphones. Their unique function is to play music, and whereas they will play nearly any sort of music file, they’re actually designed for the codecs and codecs that ship better-than-CD high quality.
Editor’s observe: This story was up to date March 28, 2018 so as to add our tackle the Astell&Kern AK70 MKII, which is our new prime choose on this class.
Greatest high-res digital audio participant
Till now, the Astell&Kern AK70 was our prime advice in high-resolution digital audio gamers, so it’s becoming that its successor—the Astell&Kern AK70 MKII—ought to displace it. The older mannequin stays available on the market, however a further $100 delivers a raft of latest options and even larger efficiency.
Assist for MQA information and the presence of a balanced headphone output are simply two of one of the best options in our runner-up choose, Onkyo’s DP-X1. This participant is fantastically designed, simple to make use of, and it sounds improbable. We’d prefer it even higher if it supported aptX HD.
The next desk gives you a side-by-side comparability of the gamers, together with a mainstream media participant—Apple’s iPod contact—as a reference level.
How we examined
We examined every participant with Bowers & Wilkins’ P7, B&W P5 Wireless, and B&W C5 (Sequence 2) headphones in quite a lot of listening environments. Bowers & Wilkins’ P7 was my go-to headphone for all crucial listening.
We copied a set of high-res ALAC, FLAC, and DSD music information to 64GB microSD playing cards and used them with all three gamers. Check information had been encoded with 24-bit decision at sampling charges starting from 48- to 192kHz. A number of the music information we used had been provided by the producers; others had been bought from HDTracks, B&W’s Society of Sound, AcousticSounds, and comparable high-res music-download websites. We additionally bought a number of the identical albums on CD and from the iTunes retailer (the latter as lossy AAC-encoded information) for comparability.
Options to search for whenever you store
Deciding on a high-res DAP might be daunting. They arrive in all shapes, sizes, and worth factors. I’ve outlined some function it is best to look out for.
Audio codec help: This spec is essential. You want lossless, high-res music information to take full benefit of a high-res DAP. We advocate that you just search for a participant that helps, at a minimal, ALAC, DSD, and FLAC information since these are the most typical codecs that high-resolution obtain websites use. These are the most typical audio codecs you’ll encounter (in alphabetical order):
- AAC (Superior Audio Coding) A lossy codec generally utilized by iOS units and on the iTunes retailer)
- ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) Generally utilized by iOS units
- APE A free and really environment friendly lossless codec from Monkey’s Audio
- AptX A near-CD-quality audio codec supported by some Bluetooth units
- DSD (Direct Stream Digital) A high-resolution codec that originated with SACD (Tremendous Audio CD)
- FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) A standard free lossless codec
- MQA (Grasp High quality Authenticated) A backward-compatible lossless codec that applies a digital fingerprint to a file to ensure it was sourced from the unique grasp recording
- MP3 (MPEG audio layer three) A quite common lossy codec
- Ogg-Vorbis A lossy codec that’s common, however much less widespread than MP3
- WMA (Home windows Media Audio) A lossy codec generally utilized by Home windows units
- WMAL (WMA Lossless) a lossless codec generally utilized by Home windows units
Consumer interface: Except for bodily traits, variations between person interfaces might be dramatic, they usually could make or break your general expertise. Some gamers are based mostly on the Android working system and will likely be very acquainted to Android smartphone customers. Different gamers have proprietary person interfaces with a touchscreen, a click on wheel, or navigation buttons. The participant’s person interface can affect what you possibly can and might’t do on the participant (comparable to searches) and the way simply you possibly can carry out sure duties (comparable to creating playlists).
Font sizes and legibility differ significantly among the many totally different DAPs, and a few don’t you to regulate the font sizes. If in case you have hassle studying small font sizes, then it is best to take into account a mannequin that runs the Android OS, which is able to present font-sizing choices and different accessibility choices.
Quantity button location: The placement and measurement of the amount controls are surprisingly essential. The placement of the amount button can decide whether or not or not you need to use a participant with one hand.
Transferring songs: Copying songs to exterior MicroSD playing cards is drag-and-drop easy, however the best way a DAP handles copying music information to its inner storage varies from one DAP to the subsequent. Some gamers, just like the Pioneer XDP-100R, will mount in your laptop like a tough drive, so you possibly can drag-and-drop copy; others require software program on the host laptop (and in some circumstances, that software program could be accessible just for Home windows). Verify the specs fastidiously.
Storage capability: Excessive-res DAPs have each inner storage and expandable storage through microSD card slots. As a result of high-res music information are considerably bigger than MP3s or iTunes AAC-encoded information, we advocate having a minimal inner storage of 32GB and a minimum of one—ideally two—microSD slots.
DAC (digital-to-analog converter): The DAC is without doubt one of the most essential parts in a digital audio participant’s design. That is the that converts a digital sign into an analog sign which you could hear via headphones or loudspeakers linked to an amplifier. Some DAPs may function a high-end USB DAC to your laptop, conserving the sign within the digital area till it emerges from the noisy atmosphere inside your laptop.
Two specs measure a DAC’s capabilities: Decision (expressed in bits) and sampling charge (expressed in 1000’s of cycles per second and notated as kHz). We advocate that you just search for gamers whose DACs help a minimum of 24-bit/192kHz, which is able to allow it to decode a digital sign encoded with as much as 24 bits of decision at a most sampling charge of 192kHz. Observe that these specs measure conversion functionality, not essentially the high quality of the ensuing conversion.
Native DSD playback: DSD is the digital audio format utilized by SACDs. Many high-res DAPs help DSD, however not all do. And never all gamers deal with DSD information in the identical approach.
Most gamers convert DSD into PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) for playback. Some individuals object to the notion of changing DSD to PCM. In the event you share this concern, then search for a participant that performs DSD information natively. Whether or not or not you possibly can hear a distinction between the native DSD file or the transformed PCM is past the scope of this roundup.
Bluetooth: Not all high-res gamers include Bluetooth. In the event you plan on utilizing Bluetooth wi-fi headphones together with your digital audio participant, we advocate that the participant helps aptX, which guarantees close to CD-quality wi-fi playback. Some newer DAPs additionally help aptX HD, which allows the participant to stream digital audio information with 24-bit decision and sampling charges as excessive as 48kHz (i.e., better-than-CD high quality). With each codecs, the participant and the headphones you pair with them have to be able to supporting the codec.
Streaming companies: If you wish to entry streaming companies comparable to Tidal (one among few that stream FLAC and that additionally helps MQA information), take observe: Not all high-res DAPs are outfitted with Wi-Fi adapters, and even fewer have integration with streaming companies. If streaming companies are essential to you, be sure you purchase a DAP that may connect with Wi-Fi networks.
Distant management: Many (if not most) of as we speak’s high-resolution DAPs include their very own analog-style quantity controls. Consequently, most DAP’s don’t work with in-line headphone distant controls. If this function is essential to you, then examine the producer’s specs fastidiously.
Hello-Res Audio brand: Some DAPs bear the Hello-Res Audio consortium’s brand. A DAP bearing this brand doesn’t essentially imply that it outperforms than one with out the brand, it simply signifies that its producer has paid a licensing payment and has agreed to follow a set of product guidelines and performance requirements.
What do you might want to expertise high-res music?
John Siau, Vice President of Benchmark Media Methods, wrote an excellent summary of what high-res music is—and is not. It’s a terrific introduction to the subject. Evidently, to be able to expertise the audible advantages of high-resolution music, you want a high-quality part at each stage of the sign path. For the needs of this dialogue, which means music recorded, mastered, and encoded in high-res; a digital audio participant—the DAC and amplifier parts—that helps high-res playback; and headphones able to reproducing high-res music. Your playback will solely be nearly as good because the weakest hyperlink in your system.
Headphones: When you may get pleasure from your Apple earbuds for strolling down the road, they received’t ship the complete good thing about high-res music performed via a high-res DAP. You’ll need to put money into a high-quality pair of headphones—ideally the over the ear sort—which have bigger drivers, better dynamics, and the additional advantage of decreasing the noise flooring as you pay attention. Excessive-quality headphones might be discovered for a number of hundred , with premium audiophile fashions simply costing greater than $1000.
Excessive-res music-download websites: The tracks you’ve ripped from CD will not be excessive decision, and also you received’t discover high-res music information on the iTunes, Amazon MP3, or Google Play shops, both retailer both—a minimum of not but. Upconverting these music information received’t magically rework them into high-resolution tracks, both—you possibly can’t put in what was by no means there within the first place. Your finest sources for buying high-res music information are on-line shops comparable to HDTracks.com, B&W Society of Sound, Linn Records, AcousticSounds.com, or iTrax.com. However purchaser beware: Some websites classify tracks as high-res although they had been recorded and mastered at solely CD high quality (16-bit/44.1kHz).
Can you actually hear the distinction?
Now that’s the large query isn’t it? Are you able to actually hear the distinction? Learn very fastidiously, as many producers will declare one thing to the impact that their high-res music participant “reveals extra of the unique musical efficiency than an MP3 participant or sensible cell phones.” Saying high-res is best than MP3 isn’t any higher than saying a CD is best than an MP3 file. After all it’s, however many can’t hear the distinction between an MP3 file and a CD (or a high-resolution monitor for that matter). Assume you possibly can? Try this online test from NPR.org (be sure you pay attention on the best-quality headphones or speaker system you might have).
Now issues get muddier in the case of the variations between CDs and high-resolution music information (you can download CD-quality and high-res files as part of this experiment conducted by Scott Wilkinson and Dr. Mark Waldrep on AVS Forum to see if you can tell the difference). That’s why you’ll oftentimes see producers (and even high-resolution music websites) evaluate their stuff to MP3. So what’s the underside line right here? Correctly recorded and mastered high-res music is the true deal, however don’t be stunned in the event you or your folks typically can’t inform the distinction between CD and high-res tracks.
Hello-res audio and high-res music: Not the identical factor
Lastly, we’ll open this will of worms ever so barely. Hello-Res Audio and high-resolution music will not be the identical factor. Hello-Res Audio is a correct noun defining playback , whereas high-resolution music refers back to the precise music information. The 2 phrases are generally used interchangeably, sowing confusion. What’s extra, the time period “high-res” hasn’t been usefully outlined (see Bob Stuart’s article from the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, “Excessive-Decision Audio A persepctive.”
On the threat of oversimplifying the small print, simply know that “excessive decision” is being outlined by the audio trade as something exceeding CD high quality. For a lot of, that definition merely isn’t adequate. If that’s you and also you need to study extra about a number of the points surrounding high-resolution recording and playback, take a look at the Real HD-Audio blog by Dr. Mark Waldrep of AIX Data. Blissful listening.