High Definition Audio: How much quality do you need?

High definition music (also referred to as high fidelity or high resolution) is having a bit of an upswing at the moment. Tidal, the music streaming service recently relaunched by Jay-Z, is the latest company attempting to sell consumers on the benefits of high definition digital audio.

It joins Deezer and Neil Young’s PonoMusic in offering customers audio files of a higher quality than those available through existing digital music services such as iTunes and Spotify.

There is clearly consumer interest in the area – PonoMusic and the PonoPlayer, a high resolution digital music store and media player, garnered a flurry of attention last year when it became one of the most successful Kickstarter projects ever, receiving over USD$6.2 million in contributions.

But when it comes to digital audio how much quality do you need?

Tidal is touting the lossless CD-quality audio offered on its high-end subscription plan as a key point of difference to rivals and boasts that it offers "a fully detailed, richer sound" and that "lossless sounds perfect".

This quality doesn’t come cheap however. The high-end plan offered by Tidal will set you back AUD$23.99 per month, double the cost of Spotify’s premium plan which comes in at AUD$11.99 per month.

Is the extra quality worth the expense for you? If you’re an audiophile with a taste for the finer things in life as far as music is concerned then Tidal’s high end plan may be worthwhile. However, if you’re simply a casual listener with average speakers or headphone you may not even be able to hear the difference.

Tidal is offering a test on their website where you can compare the difference between a high quality compressed audio format (AAC 320 kbps) and their high fidelity lossless format (FLAC 1411 kbps) to see if your sound system (and ears) are ready for HD audio. You can find the test here.

So if you do have decent quality equipment and are interested in streaming music in a higher quality format, what are your options?

Here’s a breakdown of how some of the leading music streaming services on the market currently stack up.

The quality of a digital audio file is dependent on a number of factors including sample rate and bit depth but to simplify matters we’ll be looking at the bitrate. A higher bitrate means there is more audio data present which generally translates to a more accurate sound. For reference, the bitrate of a CD is 1411 kbps.

Provider Plan Audio Bitrate/Format Cost per Month (AUD)
Tidal Premium 96 – 320 kbps (AAC) $11.99
Tidal HiFi Lossless 1411 kbps (FLAC) $23.99
Spotify Free Mobile – 96 – 160 kbps (Ogg Vorbis) Free (with ads)
Desktop 160 kbps (Ogg Vorbis)
Spotify  Premium Desktop and mobile – up to 320 kbps (Ogg Vorbis) $11.99
Pandora Free Web – 64 kbps (AAC +) Free (with ads)
In home devices – 128 kbps
Mobile devices – up to 64 kbps
Rdio Free 64 – 192 kbps (AAC) Free (with ads)
Rdio Unlimited 64 – 320 kbps (AAC)  
iTunes Radio Free 256 kbps (AAC) Free (with ads)
Deezer Free Up to 128 kbps (MP3) Free (with ads)
Deezer Premium+ Up to 320 kbps (MP3) $11.99
Deezer Elite Lossless 1411 kbps (FLAC) $23.99
Google Play Music All Access   Up to 320 kbps (MP3) $11.99
Xbox Music Xbox Music Pass Up to 192 kbps (WMA) $11.99

If you’re looking for the ultimate quality digital music on offer then you may need to look beyond streaming to PonoMusic and the PonoPlayer  – a download only music service that offers tracks up to a massive 9216 kbps.

As for what quality audio you should be listening to? At the end of the day it all comes down to personal preference. If you value high quality digital audio there are now a number of options available to suit your needs.

My advice? Try signing up for a free trial of a variety of services and see what sounds best to your ears. Unless you find that you have a need for the lossless formats then you may be best sticking with one of the more affordable options.

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