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What is Hi-Fidelity music? And why does it matter?

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Is Hi-Fidelity music worth the higher costs?

That is the question.  But, it can’t be answered the same way by everyone.  To some, it is worth it.  to others, it’s a waste of money.  Especially since services like Google Plus All Access, Apple Music, Spotify, Deezer and others are streaming decent quality music for less that the higher prices that Tidal is charging.

Full disclosure here.  I have been a long time user of Tidal.  So I will be referencing them more so that anyone else.  Having said that, let’s dive down into what is Hi-Fidelity music and why it is important.

What is Hi-Fidelity music?

First let’s look at the definition as provided by Wikipedia. High fidelity—or hi-fi or hifi—reproduction is a term used by home stereo listeners, audiophiles and home audio enthusiasts to refer to high-quality reproduction of sound to distinguish it from the lower quality sound produced by inexpensive audio equipment, or the inferior quality of sound reproduction.

So what does this mean.  It loosely means sound that has greater breadth and also better clarity and scope.  The general idea is that if music has greater scope, breadth and clarity that the experience of listening to the song, or musical will be greatly increased and also more immersive.  But for some, they aren’t able to hear the difference between what is “normal” and “Hi-Fi”.  So for those people, paying more for music really doesn’t make sense.

Audio spectrum

We humans have decent hearing.  We are able to hear the frequencies from 20 to 23,000 Hz. Depending on who you are speaking with.  Which isn’t to bad.  But dogs can hear frequencies 67-45,000 Hz.  A Hertz is the SI (International System of Units) for frequency.  It is equal to one cycle per second. If you look back at the article about the HTC 10, I explain a bit more about sound there.

So we know that we humans can hear pretty low frequencies and also pretty high ones.  Which is good. This helps us hear those low bass sections and then the nice high tones brought on by say a violin or even a flute.

Specifications for sound

I know that is a little ambiguous for a sub-paragraph, but I want to go over and explain what all the numbers mean that the streaming services are throwing out there to get your attention. Okay, So get your brain on…because here we go.

Sample Bit Rate

Bit-Depth

Bit Rate

Example

Audio Quality

64 kbps

Streaming Audio (Pandora Free)

Ridiculously Stupid

128 kbps

Original iTunes

Just Stupid

256 kbps

Apple Music

A bit better

320 kbps

High Quality MP3 (Spotify Premium & Beats Audio)

Pretty Good

44.1 KHz

16 bit

1411

CD Quality (Tidal Hi-FI)

The Standard

96 kHz

24 bit

4608

DVD-Audio, HD Audio, HD DVD

High-Definition

192 kHz

24 bit

9216

DVD-Audio, HD Audio, HD DVD

High-Definition

The chart above lists pretty much the standards for music.  First thing we are going to do is go over what each column is and explain how it is the sum of the parts that makes the music.  Not just one thing or another. If you want to read an article strictly on sound quality, then go here.

Sample Bit Rate

The sample bit rate or sample rate is the rate at which the number of samples are done in a second interval.  So this is expressed in the form of Hz (Hertz).   Signal sampling representationIf you look the sine wave is actually split up into smaller parts.  This reduction of the signal is the sample.  So the more samples you have for any given second the better the quality.  The formula to calculate this is: fs = 1/T.  Where fs is the sampling rate and it is equal to the time  divided by 1.  So in a nut shell, the higher the number of samples per given second, the better the quality the sound.  In theory.  I mean crappy in = crappy out.  No matter the sample rate.

The sample rate is expressed in a kHz format.  So if you see a sample rate of 44.1 khz, then this means that in one second the sound was samples 44,100 times.  There are discussions that higher than 44.1 kHz doesn’t really have any perceptual gain for the listener.  And there are arguments that a higher sample rate allows the listener to “hear” everything that the artist or producer wants the listener to experience.  This includes all the ultrasonic sounds that we can’t pick up. For some think that adding this last bit into the sound, improves the overall effect of the item your listening to.  I’m not going to argue that point.  Just know that there are different views on it.

Bit-Depth

Bit depth is only applicable with digital audio format. And specifically with pulse-code modulation (PCM).  Bit depth had a direct correlation to the resolution of the audio sample.  So the more bits means better resolution.  Or better sounding, if you will.

If you want to read more up on it, then go here.  So in the case of Tidal, they are streaming music at 16-bit.  Which gives us more resolution of music, so that helps contribute to the overall sound quality.

Bit Rate

Bit rate refers to the amount of data that is transmitted at a given second.  So a higher bit rate also means a bigger file size.  More data means more space required to contain it.  Just like when you take a picture with a 4 MP camera and a 20 MP camera.  The 20 MP has a bigger file size.  Because there is just more “stuff” there.

So what is a bit?  Well it is either a 1 or a 0 (one or zero).  This is how our computers and digital machines interpret data and information.  It takes 8 bits to make 1 bite.  A bit is represented by a lowercase “b”.  And a byte is represented by an uppercase “B”.  This is important because this is how file sizes are represented.  So a 1Mb file size equals 1,000,000 bytes. But a 1MB file size equals 8,000,000 bites.  So a HUGE difference.

So when we look at the table above you can see that Spotify Premium and Beats Audio are streaming at 320 kbps.  That is 320,000 bits per second.  While Tidal is streaming at 1411 kbps.  Or 1.4 Mbps.  That is 1,411,000 bits per second.  That means Tidal is streaming roughly 4.04 times greater information that Spotify and Beats.  More information also means greater Bit depth and better sample rate.  Which in turns means you are hearing more of what the artist intended you to hear.  Also means better clarity in the music. And that is a good thing.

Side note: Because of the larger file sizes of the higher quality music, if you are streaming over a cellular network, you will see the amount of data usage skyrocket.  So bear that in mind when listening to Tidal that way.  If you aren’t on WiFi, then make sure you watch your data and don’t go over your cap.   Don’t say I didn’t warn you 🙂

In Conclusion

So now that I have gone over all the fun stuff that makes up the basics of streaming audio, the real question is, is it worth it?

Well to be honest that is entirely up to the person who is listening to the music.  If you can hear the difference between music that is being delivered at MP3 levels and the high quality lossless or higher bit-rate, then it is what you want.  To be able to hear all the subtitles in music and performances is truly a good thing.  Then and only then do you get the full breath and meaning of what you are listening to.

But having said that, if you can’t hear the difference then there isn’t any need for you to subscribe to high quality streaming services like Tidal.  You are better off saving some money and going with a service like Google Play All Access, Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer.  Even the free streaming services are putting out decent music.  So that is a plus if you don’t care to much about quality and just want to listen to music.  And there isn’t a damn thing wrong with that.

I pay the $19.99 per month for Tidal, because I can hear the difference.  But I also pay for the family plan of Google Play All Access.  That is simply because of the data consumption issues I spoke about earlier.  And when I’m in the car and doing the family stuff, streaming with Google is a better choice. My family can’t tell the difference between high fidelity music and what Google Play is sending to us.  So why burn up the data?

I won’t tell you which service is better or worse.  Each service has it’s pros and cons.  But what I will tell you is if you can hear the difference that high fidelity music brings, then it is definitely worth it to get a service that gives you the better stuff. High fidelity music is very important to the music industry and also the video industry as a whole.  The makers of the stuff we listen to, want us to hear all the subtleties that they put into the sounds we are hearing. So having the higher quality not only does justice to the artist, it also makes the experience that much better.  In my humble opinion!

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