Whereas TVs have change into 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. However it doesn’t should be that means. 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 the standard 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’ll play nearly any sort of music file, they’re actually designed for the codecs and codecs that ship better-than-CD high quality.
Up to date February 28, 2020 so as to add our Astell&Kern SA700 evaluation. This high-priced participant gained’t slot in everybody’s funds, however the beautiful piece of equipment simply knocks our earlier favourite participant—the Astell&Kern KANN Dice—from its perch as our favourite high-res digital audio participant.
Greatest high-res digital audio participant
When you can afford its excessive asking worth, the A&Ok SA700 will ship elegant audio performances with any sort of music, squeezing the perfect efficiency from high-end headphones and earphones. It additionally boasts elegant industrial design and can be utilized as an exterior DAC and headphone amp with a private laptop.
It’s a one-two end for Astell&Kern. In case your funds can’t help the $1,499 KANN Dice, contemplate the corporate’s Astell&Norma SR15. It substitues twin Cirrus Logic DACs for the ESS Sabre elements within the Dice, and it doesn’t have that participant’s five-pin mini XLR balanced headphone output, nevertheless it does help aptX HD and it’s able to dealing with 24bit/192kHz PCM audio and DSD64 recordsdata. Better of all: It prices half as a lot because the KANN Dice.
Greatest budget-priced high-res digital audio participant
You’ll be able to pay an entire lot extra for a high-resolution digital audio participant, however this mannequin from Activo delivers virtually every little thing you’ll get in a significantly costlier mannequin for simply $299, together with MQA and aptX HD help.
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 Wi-fi, and B&W C5 (Sequence 2) headphones in a wide range 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 recordsdata to 64GB microSD playing cards and used them with all three gamers. Check recordsdata have been encoded with 24-bit decision at sampling charges starting from 48- to 192kHz. Among the music recordsdata we used have been provided by the producers; others have 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 similar albums on CD and from the iTunes retailer (the latter as lossy AAC-encoded recordsdata) for comparability.
Options to search for if you store
Deciding on a high-res DAP could be daunting. They arrive in all shapes, sizes, and worth factors. I’ve outlined some function you need to look out for.
Audio codec help: This spec is essential. You want lossless, high-res music recordsdata to take full benefit of a high-res DAP. We suggest that you just search for a participant that helps, at a minimal, ALAC, DSD, and FLAC recordsdata since these are the commonest codecs that high-resolution obtain websites use. These are the commonest 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 typical 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 standard, however much less frequent 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
Person interface: Other than bodily traits, variations between consumer interfaces could be dramatic, and so they 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 consumer interfaces with a touchscreen, a click on wheel, or navigation buttons. The participant’s consumer interface can affect what you’ll be able to and might’t do on the participant (comparable to searches) and the way simply you’ll be able to carry out sure duties (comparable to creating playlists).
Font sizes and legibility fluctuate 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 you need to contemplate a mannequin that runs the Android OS, which can present font-sizing choices and different accessibility choices.
Quantity button location: The situation and dimension of the amount controls are surprisingly essential. The situation 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 way in which a DAP handles copying music recordsdata to its inside 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’ll be able to drag-and-drop copy; others require software program on the host laptop (and in some instances, that software program is perhaps accessible just for Home windows). Examine the specs rigorously.
Storage capability: Excessive-res DAPs have each inside storage and expandable storage by way of microSD card slots. As a result of high-res music recordsdata are considerably bigger than MP3s or iTunes AAC-encoded recordsdata, we suggest having a minimal inside storage of 32GB and not less than one—ideally two—microSD slots.
DAC (digital-to-analog converter): The DAC is likely one of the most essential parts in a digital audio participant’s design. That is the hardware that converts a digital sign into an analog sign that you could hear by means of headphones or loudspeakers linked to an amplifier. Some DAPs also can function a high-end USB DAC in your laptop, maintaining the sign within the digital area till it emerges from the noisy surroundings inside your laptop.
Two specs measure a DAC’s capabilities: Decision (expressed in bits) and sampling charge (expressed in hundreds of cycles per second and notated as kHz). We suggest that you just search for gamers whose DACs help not less than 24-bit/192kHz, which can allow it to decode a digital sign encoded with as much as 24 bits of decision at a most sampling charge of 192kHz. Word 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 recordsdata in the identical means.
Most gamers convert DSD into PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) for playback. Some folks object to the notion of changing DSD to PCM. When you share this concern, then search for a participant that performs DSD recordsdata natively. Whether or not or not you’ll be able to 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. When you plan on utilizing Bluetooth wi-fi headphones together with your digital audio participant, we suggest 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 recordsdata 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 providers: If you wish to entry streaming providers comparable to Tidal (one in every of few that stream FLAC and that additionally helps MQA recordsdata), take observe: Not all high-res DAPs are geared up with Wi-Fi adapters, and even fewer have integration with streaming providers. If streaming providers are essential to you, you’ll want to purchase a DAP that may connect with Wi-Fi networks.
Distant management: Many (if not most) of right now’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 rigorously.
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 emblem, 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 must expertise high-res music?
John Siau, Vice President of Benchmark Media Techniques, wrote an excellent summary of what high-res music is—and is not. It’s a fantastic introduction to the subject. For sure, so as to expertise the audible advantages of high-resolution music, you want a high-quality element at each stage of the sign path. For the needs of this dialogue, meaning 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 pretty much as good because the weakest hyperlink in your system.
Headphones: Whilst you may take pleasure in your Apple earbuds for strolling down the road, they gained’t ship the total advantage of high-res music performed by means of a high-res DAP. You’ll wish to spend money on a high-quality pair of headphones—ideally the over the ear sort—which have bigger drivers, larger dynamics, and the additional advantage of decreasing the noise ground as you hear. Excessive-quality headphones could be discovered for a number of hundred dollars, with premium audiophile fashions simply costing greater than $1000.
Excessive-res music-download websites: The tracks you’ve ripped from CD aren’t excessive decision, and also you gained’t discover high-res music recordsdata on the iTunes, Amazon MP3, or Google Play shops, both retailer both—not less than not but. Upconverting these music recordsdata gained’t magically rework them into high-resolution tracks, both—you’ll be able to’t put in what was by no means there within the first place. Your greatest sources for buying high-res music recordsdata 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 despite the fact that they have 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 rigorously, 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 cellphones.” Saying high-res is best than MP3 is not 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 observe for that matter). Assume you’ll be able to? Try this online test from NPR.org (you’ll want to hear on the best-quality headphones or speaker system you will have).
Now issues get muddier in terms of the variations between CDs and high-resolution music recordsdata (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) examine their stuff to MP3. So what’s the underside line right here? Correctly recorded and mastered high-res music is the actual deal, however don’t be shocked should you or your folks usually can’t inform the distinction between CD and high-res tracks.
Hello-res audio, 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 aren’t the identical factor. Hello-Res Audio is a correct noun defining playback hardware, whereas high-resolution music refers back to the precise music recordsdata. The 2 phrases are typically 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 danger of oversimplifying the main points, simply know that “excessive decision” is being outlined by the audio business as something exceeding CD high quality. For a lot of, that definition merely isn’t ok. If that’s you and also you wish to be taught extra about a number of the points surrounding high-resolution recording and playback, try the Real HD-Audio blog by Dr. Mark Waldrep of AIX Information. Pleased listening.