Pet Peeves: Hi-Res Downloads

In many cases, choice is a good thing. When it comes to hi-res downloads and sample rates, choice, especially when there’s a premium attached, just bugs me.

I’m not picking on or singling out any specific purveyor of hi-res downloads because this practice is nearly ubiquitous—most everyone does it. The basic premise is simple—higher sample rates cost more. But you have to ask yourself, why?

When a record is remastered, which is where we typically see different sample rates on offer, the work in the digital domain is done at a specific sample rate, whatever that may be. Let’s call this the working sample rate. The same working sample rate applies to new recordings of new music—the digital product is mastered in a specific sample rate, whether that be 24/44.1, 24/48, etc. It has been my contention that this working sample rate should be the end product for downloads. Period. Which raises the question—why offer hi-res downloads in different sample rates? The premium price tag is the answer.

Above all else, the quality of the music matters most followed by the quality of the recording.

I suppose you could try to make the argument that higher sample rates sound better but this is not necessarily the case. It’s a marketing myth, nothing more, nothing less. Above all else, the quality of the music matters most followed by the quality of the recording. The fact of the matter is good arguments can be made for lossy on up in terms of sound quality but we’re talking about on-paper arguments, not real life. In real life, different DACs process data differently, playback gear is more or less resolving, different people hear differently, and recordings at a given sample rate are not created equal in terms of sound quality to name just a few fun facts that put any argument for the supposed superiority of a single sample rate to bed.

Of course there’s no stopping the lossy train since major players like Amazon [footnote 1] and Apple [footnote 2] are married to outdated digital music delivery technology and many consumers still believe MP3 defines a digital download. Like Kleenex. Then we have the utter silliness of the 16/44.1 download, a sample rate born out of the need to fit an album on a single physical disc. Since a download has no space to fit into, there’s simply no need to ever see a 16/44.1 download on offer unless that’s the working sample rate. It’s my understanding this is rarely the case these days. And if you want to make an argument in favor of 16/44.1 or lossy formats in terms of space, storage or bandwidth, check your calendar. Just the year will do.

Again, digital recordings should be offered in the working sample rate. There’s no need, and no good reason, to mess with this simple formula. What do I buy when I buy a hi-res download where there’s a choice between sample rates? Should I buy the 24/96 or the 24/192? If only there was a third choice in the middle! The fact of the matter is, I rarely buy hi-res downloads these days, especially reissues, because I prefer buying new music. But when it does, I buy vinyl. The record, something to have and hold. Besides, in my system, the difference between lossless and hi-res streaming or CD-quality and hi-res downloads is much less important than the quality of the recording. And I buy music for the music first and foremost.

Of course, streaming is hammering the final nails into the download coffin so this entire issue only exists in the realm of an ageing audiophile demographic. And even here, for the hardcore audiophile, you can get a month of lossless and hi-res streaming with access to millions of albums for the price of a single hi-res download. That’s a tough act to follow.

1. Amazon charges as much as $11.99 for an MP3 album download. That is a crime against sense. Here’s my MP3 rule—never, ever, buy an MP3 download. Ever. Take that money and put it towards a month of lossless streaming via Tidal or Qobuz.

2. Apple’s Mastered for iTunes guidelines state: “An ideal master will have 24-bit 96kHz resolution.” Yes, Apple has been asking for 24/96 masters for years so they’re sitting on a big pile of hi-res masters.