Hi Res

It’s 40 years since the release of Houses of the Holy – wow! Where did that time go? There was a period spanning less than two decades that spawned some remarkable bands and a treasure trove of talent, music and memories. Bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Supertramp, Yes, Genesis, ELO, Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, Traffic – the list goes on. Not surprisingly this period was also the golden years of Hi-Fi. A Hi-Fi system was a status symbol – the bigger the better. We keenly anticipated the latest release from our favourite bands, and we shared and talked music.

The last couple of decades have not been kind to the ‘audiophile’ industry. This is partly due to our attention being diverted by other interests such as computer games and video, and by a gradual erosion of quality due to the release of poorer performance playback formats. While it is still a controversial subject most people (including myself) still hold that the release of the CD was a backward step in terms of sound quality. There is no argument that MP3 was a giant step backwards. If we continue to release formats that no longer reproduce the emotion and the excitement in music it is only natural that people lose interest and look elsewhere for their entertainment.

I believe that this is all about to change.

We are entering the age of streaming, and of High Resolution download. The last couple of years have seen remarkable advances in this technology. Today it is common for people to store their music on a hard drive in an uncompressed state, usually on a computer. Recent advances in DAC’s (Digital to Analogue Converters) and associated equipment now makes it possible to replay this music at a quality level equalling or even surpassing the performance of the original CD.

More importantly we witnessing the emergence of a better than CD quality offering, delivered via the internet. A CD is 16-bit PCM encoding at a 44.1 kHz sampling rate per channel. It is now possible to download (legally) music which is 24bit, 192kHz, many times the standard resolution of the CD. It is still early days for this technology but there are already dozens of sites offering this service. There is not a lot of new release material on offer, but there is plenty of classic rock etc. available. For example HDTracks has recently released the entire back catalogue of The Rolling Stones in High Resolution.

Despite the bad rap that Apple get for the performance of their iTunes store, this emerging market has a lot to thank Apple for. The sound quality may not have been great, but it was 1) a very easy technology to navigate, 2) easily accessible and 3) opened up a huge percentage of the population to musical genres that they may have never been exposed to. The compromise in performance was easily outweighed by the convenience and scope of their offering. This has opened the door to the early acceptance of Hi-Res downloads. These have all the convenience and potentially the scope of iTunes, but with an unprecedented level of performance. (Yes – many in the audiophile fraternity are conceding that Hi-Res downloads rival or outperform vinyl!)

So what do you need for this new format? In reality very little, and you probably have most of the ingredients. Apart from the obvious – a very good amplifier and speaker system – you’ll need to be able to store large files as you download them. This is no longer a problem, given the relatively low cost these days of capacious hard drives. Ideally, a network attached multi-drive with mirroring (so if one disc fails the other has already backed it up!) is the way to go.

But then you need to be able to play these HD files back via a streamer incorporating a DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) which is not just capable of decoding the 24bit/192kHz data, but does it in to a quality level that’s worthy of the much improved source material. There are now quite a few DACs and streamers on the market that can do this to varying levels of audiophile quality, and they occupy a number of price points. As with most things in the Hi-Fi universe, your choice might ultimately be constrained by price, but rest assured that whatever the quality of your system, we can find a streaming device to match.

At the low end of the price scale there are the Audioquest Dragonfly DAC ($299) and the Meridian Explorer ($385). These can work straight from your PC or Laptop to get you part of the way to HD, at least up to 96kHz but not to the full 192kHz of the bigger boys. Other economical ones which do the higher rates are the Musical Fidelity V-DAC at $399, the Peachtree DAC.IT at $499, and the Musical Fidelity M1-DAC at $799. We have DACs ranging all the way to the Berkeley Alpha at $5999.

But combining a DAC and a streaming device into the one piece may be more what you need. Naim have a number of these starting with the ND5 XS at $3300, which will handle all the streaming formats and up to 32bit/192kHz resolution. For those who want a compact system which can do the hi-res streaming and be your amplifier and radio source as well, the Naim UnitiQute is a bargain at $2000. That’s just a quick sample.

There’s not room here to cover all the possible combinations of H-Fi gear for the modern, high definition, streaming age that is upon us, but hopefully the message is getting out that it brings you both high quality and improved access to all sorts of music, new and old. We’ve seen even our staff members on occasions taken aback by hearing things in the remastered high definition versions that they hadn’t heard before, even from their beloved LPs!

Modern technology is delivering on all fronts now, not compromising. To paraphrase the famous quote by L. P. Hartley (fortuitous initials there!), the past is another country, they did things differently there. But no longer is it necessary to lament that changes to audio reproduction have been retrograde. The hi-res audio future has arrived.

By Len Wallis

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