High-fidelity and high-resolution audio are technical terms often used to refer to quality audio products such as headphones, amplifiers, speakers, and high-end audio equipment. You see it on the web and in ads all around you, but do you really understand what it means?
The concepts of Hi-Res and Hi-Fi are often confusing to people who are not familiar with audio terminology. This article aims to help these people understand the difference between these two audio concepts and what they mean in relation to headphones, that is, the difference between high-resolution and hi-fi headphones.
- Explaining audio concepts: high-resolution audio vs. high-fidelity reproduction
- The difference between high-res headphones and high-fidelity headphones
- Characteristics of high-resolution headphones
- Characteristics of high-fidelity headphones
- Hi-res or Hi-Fi – Which headphones to buy?
Explaining audio concepts: high-resolution audio vs. high-fidelity reproduction
The difference between high resolution audio and high-fidelity reproduction lies in the engineering of the playback device or audio equipment; this section explains the difference so that consumers can make informed purchases between hi-res audio and high-fidelity playback devices.
High-resolution audio explained
High-res or high-definition audio is a term used to define audio files with a sample rate greater than 44.1 kHz or with a bit depth higher than 16-bit. Audio files with these characteristics are often played through a digital audio player or streamed from the Internet. Similar to a high-resolution image, a high resolution audio file enables you to see finer details and more subtle differences between audio samples.
To better understand high resolution audio, it's important to know how the conversion between digital audio and analog audio works. In most cases, the process takes place in two different stages: first, with digital information held in memory, and then, this information is converted to analog signals that are sent to a signal processor or audio DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter).
Hi-res audio refers to the quality of providing complete reproduction of sound down to the smallest detail. The ability of an audio device to convert a digital audio signal into an analog signal with a bit depth and sampling rate greater than 16 bits/44.1 kHz is considered high resolution audio. The sample rate or bit rate defines the resolution of the sample and determines the accuracy of the image – the higher the quality, the better.
High-resolution audio processes data in such a way as to reproduce it with minimal degradation in the conversion of the digital signal to electrical signals. The term is most often used in wireless headphones to describe an attempt to improve playback quality by increasing data transmission using advanced codecs designed for hi-res music streaming.
High-fidelity – What it means
Hi-fi (high fidelity) is the standard of quality for sound systems and audio components. Aside from the obvious difference in definition from high-res, hi-fi also refers to a sound level with a very low frequency noise and distortion.
Hi-Fi headphones work best with high-resolution setups, combined with a quality DAC and a powerful headphone amplifier.
Some high-fidelity headphones reproduce clear, crisp sound, capable of playing high-resolution audio files like FLAC and WAV, but not all high-resolution devices reproduce sound accurately, or with appropriate fidelity. This is why headphones labeled “High-Res”, especially wireless ones, disappoint people with their sound reproduction, and make them think they are listening to a high-fidelity audio device, which is not the case.
Here are a few points to remember about high resolution audio and high-fidelity reproduction:
High-res audio refers to:
- Lossy or lossless audio that is higher in quality than standard-res audio file, and can be played through a computer or mobile device
- Compressed audio file at higher sample rates (over 44.1 kHz) and bit depths (over 16 bits).
- Higher quality consumer grade of wireless headphones can deliver high amounts of data per second.
- Smoother sound reproduction with no data loss.
- A large variety of high resolution audio formats are available, including FLAC, WAV and AIFF.
- High resolution or high definition music playback, necessary for the proper enjoyment of acoustically recorded music.
- Uncompressed audio files (formats that don’t suffer from digital compression artifacts such as MP3, AAC, or AAC+)
- Audible details in the music or speech that are not audible with conventional equipment
- A more natural and accurate representation of sound rendered by the audio equipment (headphones, speakers, soundbar, etc.)
- The ability to reproduce high definition audio with minimal noise, distortion and channel balance at various volume levels.
- Audio device with minimal impact on the fidelity/purity of the sound produced.
The difference between high-res headphones and high-fidelity headphones
Now that you’re familiar with the concepts of high resolution and high-fidelity, it’s easier to understand the difference between high-res headphones and high-fidelity headphones.
High-resolution headphones rely on audio files that have been recorded at high sampling rates to transmit high-resolution or high-definition audio. Conversely, high-resolution wireless headphones rely on wireless technology to enable the transfer of high-resolution file data. In this case, high-resolution Bluetooth codecs are a prerequisite for high-resolution audio quality.
In contrast, high-fidelity audio equipment is completely independent of wireless technology and does not require high-resolution files to provide a superior listening experience. They are able to reproduce music with little or no distortion and few flaws in between. High-fidelity audio devices pair well with high-resolution audio files and can provide a superb listening experience for complex and rich musical genres.
A more in-depth explanation of the differences between high-resolution headphones and hi-fi headphones and the pros and cons of each type is presented below:
Characteristics of high-resolution headphones
The main reason to buy wireless headphones with high-resolution audio is to enjoy a superior listening experience than ordinary Bluetooth headphones. Compared to high fidelity headphones, high-resolution wireless headphones like Sony WH-1000XM3 or ATH-SR50 are not able to offer the same level of audio fidelity and a fantastic range of detail and clarity. But being able to listen to high-resolution file formats enhances the overall quality of the audio experience.
Superior wireless audio streaming using more data per second
High-resolution wireless headphones are also one of the best options for people who spend most of their time outdoors and want to be wire-free. All the latest wireless headsets support the aptX standard, which allows for improved sound quality via Bluetooth. While you can’t enjoy high-fidelity music playback with wireless headphones, you get the convenience of wireless technology and additional features (built-in mic, ANC, etc.).
High resolution integrated DAC
High-resolution wireless headphones have a built-in digital-to-analog converter (DAC). The DAC converts digital audio to an analog signal at the required sample rate or higher. Every set of compatible high-resolution headphones, whether wired or wireless, has a built-in DAC and a Bluetooth transmitter for high-res audio signals in wireless models. If you’re looking for headphones with high-definition sound, Sony offers a full line of high-resolution audio compatible headphones, including both wired and wireless models.
The sound source must be compatible with the Bluetooth codec.
The quality of your wireless music depends on the compatibility established by two devices operating on a mutual Bluetooth codec. Even if you have the best Bluetooth codec available, if your music player doesn’t support the Bluetooth codec used by your headphones, you won’t be able to enjoy high-definition music. Also, whether it’s wireless or analog headphones, the music must be in high resolution quality, otherwise the music will not play in high resolution.
Pros & Cons
- Higher audio quality compared to regular wireless headphones with standard audio resolution (the difference is not significant and plenty didn’t notice any improvement compared to standard-res)
- You can make use of high-resolution music format like FLAC or ALAC (the audio quality can be pretty good if the headphones allow for high throughput transmission and have a quality lossless audio compression technology)
- Some high-resolution headphones, such as the MDR-1ADAC, have a built-in digital-to-analog converter to convert the high-resolution digital signal from your audio source into an analog signal (other headphones require a separate DAC).
- The difference in audio quality is noticeable only when using high-resolution audio files, and is rarely significant.
- Headphones labeled “High-Res Audio” may be overpriced.
- Connection strength may decrease when playing music files at high bit rates (over 320 Kbps); latency or distance may also suffer.
- Audio distortion resulting from intermodulation distortion (IMD) is another noticeable defect in high-resolution audio, although it doesn’t represent a big problem because it only occurs at very high frequencies.
- Big audio file sizes means you have to carry around bigger files (10 MB for an MP3 and 100 MB for a FLAC).
- The playback quality of high-resolution audio files depends on the compression of the Bluetooth codec algorithm (not all codecs are equal in terms of audio quality) and the signal strength of the Bluetooth transmitter.
- You need a High-res MP3 player if your current sound source does not support audio files with high sample rates.
- You can only play music files available in high-resolution music libraries, which can be free or paid, such as iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Qobuz, Tidal, etc.
Characteristics of high-fidelity headphones
Some of the characteristics of high-fidelity headphones are music reproduction with minimal distortion and artifacts, low noise and a precise and rich sound comparable to studio headphones and similar to Hi-res headphones. There are also high-fidelity wireless headphones that use high-end drivers technology and carefully designed housing for the best acoustics to give you the best possible audio experience.
Exemplary audio engineering for excellent sound reproduction
Another difference from high-resolution headphones is that high-fidelity headphones reproduce sound with high precision, accurate timbre, good instrumental separation and dynamics, whereas hi-res headphones are designed to reproduce all the fine details of a recording, down to the lowest level of your music, but without portraying the whole musical experience in a very accurate, natural way.
Provide the best audio performance for the money
High-fidelity headphones are not in the spotlight of mainstream consumers, but they offer the best music reproduction, even for small budgets. Though they are not in the price range of many consumers, many affordable hi-fi headphones offer much better sound reproduction than regular headphones.
Headphones with studio performance but for personal use
High-fidelity headphones are very similar to studio headphones, except that they are more pleasant to listen to and are better suited for personal use than for professional studio work. They are designed for consumer use, but some are more durable than professional headphones and can last a long time with proper care, making them ideal for home and studio use, even if they are not as comfortable.
Pros & Cons
- Low sound distortion, signal-to-noise ratio, artifacts, and static noise due to poor wiring or electromagnetic interference that can affect the overall listening experience.
- High-fidelity headphones have the advantage of being able to improve the music’s clarity and overall definition.
- Compared to high-resolution wireless headphones, high-fidelity headphones are intended to retain the fidelity of the sound instead of playing music with a higher sampling rate (more auditory information). The sound is more pure and organic rather than synthetic and digital.
- High-fidelity headphones are reliant on audio equipment that maintain the purity of the sound (balanced cable, digital-to-analog converter, headphone amplifier).
- High-fidelity headphones tend to be expensive, although there are many affordable options on the market.
- You can only use a pair of high-fidelity headphones at your home, as it’s not portable and convenient to move around.
- They’re ruggedly built and can be quite heavy due to the metal construction, drivers size, internal components for acoustic tuning, whereas many regular headphones are constructed using plastic.
- Hi-Fi headphones likely need a headphone DAC and high resolution audio formats to achieve their best performance.
High fidelity and high resolution can be complementary. High fidelity headphones benefit greatly from good quality recordings at high sample rates and adequate DACs and music players, and can also benefit from a headphone amplifier to improve fidelity for even better sound.
On the other hand, a set of high-resolution headphones with quality drivers, voice coils and a well-designed acoustic enclosure can benefit from higher fidelity sound reproduction. High-resolution wireless headphones with minimal electronics and efficient Bluetooth encoding algorithms results in less distorted sound with greater fidelity.
In the end, hi-res headphones and hi-fi headphones are not necessarily mutually exclusive, as certain headphone models are capable of reproducing high definition audio that is not high fidelity and vice versa.
Hi-res or Hi-Fi – Which headphones to buy?
The important factors to think about when purchasing one of these two types of headphones are lifestyle, sound quality, user experience and performance for the price.
- Lifestyle: Your lifestyle influences your decision more than anything else (wireless high-resolution headphones for on-the-go activities, wired high-fidelity headphones for listening to music at home).
- Sound quality: High-fidelity headphones offer much better sound quality than wireless high-res headsets. They can also be found with an open-back design, more often for classical music lovers.
- User experience: For heavy users who want a versatile headset, high-res wireless headphones are a better fit and provide a much better user experience.
- Performance for the money: Hi-Fi headphones offer better value for every dollar spent. These headphones are made of audiophile-grade materials and can be found with a wide range of well-tuned sound signatures. They also offer superior sound reproduction, and even affordable hi-fi headphones sound exceptional.
Is high resolution audio the same as high fidelity audio?
No, high-resolution headphones have different specifications than high-fidelity headphones that allow them to play music recorded at higher sample rates, but not without the imperfections of average audio tuning or components. High-fidelity headphones emphasize sound fidelity in a different way than high-resolution headphones by providing smooth, detailed sound that is free of artifacts, noise and sound distortion.
Are high-res Bluetooth codecs lossy or lossless?
Most Bluetooth codecs are lossy, which means that the audio data is compressed and not as high quality as lossless audio. This can be a disadvantage for audiophiles, which is why they stay away from wireless headphones. ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) is an exception because it is a lossless codec that promises higher quality than MP3. Some Bluetooth codecs also promise lossless compression, such as LDAC, but do not live up to their promises.
High-resolution headphones and high-fidelity headphones are two different types of headphones. They have unique characteristics and the main difference between them is that high-resolution headphones are designed to play high-resolution audio formats without a separate digital-to-analog converter (DAC) or have advanced Bluetooth codecs for high-throughput transmission, while high-fidelity headphones focus on the quality of sound reproduction through design and engineering rather than on improving the digital-to-analog signal conversion of audio.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal preference. Whether you choose to buy high fidelity or high resolution headphones depends on your lifestyle, the type of user experience you want, the overall sound quality, and the value you want from your headphones.
So far, high-fidelity headphones offer the best sound performance, and the gap between high-fidelity and high-definition audio is not small by any means. In fact, it will remain so until wireless high-res headphones can offer lossless audio. In the case of wired high-resolution headphones, a dedicated digital-to-analog converter (DAC) of your choice is still a better option than the headphones’ internal DAC.