'High-Definition' Music Explained: Can You Really Tell the Difference?

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A woman relaxing at home listening to her phone.

Delusion? Bliss? Waste of money? Sound investment? A look at what exactly high-definition audio is, and whether it matters.

In the past 48 hours, a story has trickled out of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that has many internet pundits asking: "what is Sony thinking?"

Fortunately for the Japanese giant, this has absolutely nothing to do with shadowy cadres of malicious hackers, vainglorious dictators, the Obama administration or embarrassing leaked emails and trade secrets -- things the company would love to leave behind (SO 2014!).

No, the news out of CES concerns Sony's NW-ZX2 Walkman, a high resolution audio player with a sticker price that has people gasping: the new device will retail for nearly $1,200.

High resolution audio has become something of a movement lately. During a panel discussion at the SF MusicTech Summit in November, audio engineer Dennis "Wiz" Leonard summed up the goal of the Musicians for Audio Quality Initiative, a group of which he is a member:"In the time between 1980 and now we have made all these advances in technology but we are in fact listening to lower resolution than the CD standard. And what is at stake here is our sanity, seriously," Leonard said.

He and co-panelist Bob Weir, founding member of the Grateful Dead and another leader of the initiative, detailed the subliminal affects of listening to the sort of low-resolution music that we get from our smartphones, claiming there was scientific evidence demonstrating that such music causes stress. The holy grail, Leonard said, is high resolution audio that is streamable, downloadable and shareable.

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Last fall, both Deezer and Rdio waded into offering higher resolution streaming. Last spring, Neil Young's Pono Player became the third highest-funded Kickstarter campaign of all time, raising over $6 million on the site. That device is significantly heftier than this newest Sony release -- it has a triangular Toblerone shape -- and is set to retail at about $400, putting it roughly in the same price range as the NWZ-A17 "hi res" Walkman that Sony released in September.

The new NW-ZX2 Walkman features a 4-inch touchscreen, a new built-in amplifier, and enhanced-quality Bluetooth streaming. It supports a wide variety of high resolution audio formats, both through its headphone jack and wirelessly. Sony claims its DSEE HX technology can restore lost detail to MP3's and other compressed files. The device also has 128 GB of storage and a battery that can support 33 hours of continuous "hi res" playback.

So far, a lot of the hubbub regarding the ZX2 has focused on the fact that it runs on an old version of Android -- 4.2, which was released in 2012 -- and the shock of its exorbitant price tag.

The Android concern is probably irrelevant, as the device is not intended to replace a user's smartphone, even though it can access the Google Play store and supports apps and games. The user interface may look outdated to some, but that won't likely matter much to its target audience, for whom the enhanced music quality conquers all other considerations.

And who is that target audience? While the price tag may be shocking to some, it looks like a steal once one begins browsing the audiophile hardware universe -- $15,000 speaker cables, anyone? It also has price point parity with other "hi res" pocket devices, such as the Astell & Kern AK120. Like other such devices, this latest Sony offering pairs with headphones, headphone amplifiers and other high end accessories, many of which Sony produces.

The ZX2 is almost at the threshold of a mainstream product, and is certainly competitively priced within the niche, hardcore audiophile market.

A more troubling problem is inherent throughout the high resolution audio movement: while new technology can deliver audio with remarkably high sample rates and bit depth to our ears, can listeners reliably tell the difference? This is a question that has consistently stirred up flame-wars in online audio forums over the years.

Ethan Winer, an audio engineer and frequent contributor to these sound-nerd throwdowns, has aroused a lot of anger with his insistence on empirical testing and his conviction that CD-quality sound is absolutely adequate.

I spoke with Ethan by phone this afternoon. He said that any claims to restore lost frequencies to MP3s are scientifically bunk, and strongly suggested that the ZX2 is a reboot not of the Walkman franchise but of the much older tradition of snake oil salesmanship.

"The hi-res movement is based on delusion," said Winer. "It has been proven time and again with proper blind tests. The problem is that most people don't do proper tests or understand how digital audio works and rely on theoretical arguments instead."

There have been a number of high profile tests over the years to uphold Winer's position. Here are just a few for your wonky reading pleasure. Suffice it to say there is not a strong scientific consensus that even the most perceptive human ears and minds can appreciate the enhanced quality of sound at ever-higher resolution. It should be noted, however, that traditional MP3s and streaming do fall short of the circa-1980 industry standard for "CD-quality sound," so there is room for improvement there.

So is the ZX2 Walkman just the latest foray in an industry attempt to resell its back-catalogues yet again, the way it did with introduction of the CD or the Blu Ray DVD? Or is there a genuine demand for higher quality audio that is finally being met by unprecedented proprietary technology? The answer, as always, is in the ear of the behearer. 

Either way it's clear that many of the biggest players in the music industry are elbowing for position to be the go-to source of that "hi-res" sound.