What Is Hi-Fi Audio, and Should You Pay More for It?

Plan on using wired headphones to do your high-quality music listening. Bluetooth headphones and earbuds just don’t support the higher fidelity in any meaningful way.

Just to be clear, spending more money on better headphones won’t fix the issue here. Even buying Apple’s $550 AirPods Max headphones and then wirelessly listening to songs using Apple Music on your iPhone will not deliver not high quality, lossless audio. It will sound good and you’ll get the fullest picture of that 256 KB AAC audio stream, but that’s it.

Also, a lot of phones are jackless now (although there are still some left). There’s nowhere to connect wired headphones. In this case you need a digital-to-analog converter, known as a DAC. These can start at about $60 and go up from there.

Another option is to bypass the phone entirely and use Wi-Fi speakers. Brands like Sonos, Bluesound, or KEF, to name a few, will support lossless streaming. In this case, the speaker will pull in the music from the internet itself without using Bluetooth. Make sure the speaker you select supports the high quality streaming service you want to use.

Where Can I Stream It?

The music is the next piece of the puzzle. The number of streaming music services that offer high-quality, lossless streaming is growing. That’s great. Spotify adding a hi-fi streaming tier in 2021 means that most major music platforms offer this option to listeners.

Tidal is one of the most well known lossless streamers because it used high audio quality to differentiate itself from the beginning. A Tidal hi-fi subscription provides access to stream 70+ million lossless tracks, along with Master tracks (high-resolution audio) and immersive audio (Dolby Atmos or 360 Reality Audio).

Amazon Music chooses to use the same terminology as video, ideally to help consumers differentiate between higher and lower quality. “HD” is the lossless level that includes more than 70 million songs with a bit depth of 16-bits and a sample rate of 44.1 kHz and above. “Ultra HD” or UHD, is even better, streaming up to 24 bit/48 kHZ (or 96 kHz to 192 kHz). “3D audio” is the immersive one and includes Dolby Atmos and 360 Reality Audio formats.

Qobuz is a new entrant to the US, but has been a long time pioneer in high quality streaming. It mostly simplifies things around a Studio Premier subscription that offers 70+ million lossless songs with FLAC 24 bit up to 192 kHz.

Reading between the lines, Spotify HiFi, available in late 2021, will offer a comparable catalog of 70+ million songs for lossless audio listening.

How Much Does It Cost?

Assuming you’re still interested in streaming crystal clear, robust, and full audio, you need to pay for it—each month. It’s more expensive, sometimes double that of the standard streaming music plan.

Tidal breaks down its costs to show that it makes a gross profit of $5.30 for its $19.99 a month hi-fi plan, compared to making $2.30 for its standard Premium plan. Similar to streaming video, it takes more bandwidth to stream higher quality music. The service is paying more to host these files and send them to each listener.

The price of Amazon Music HD varies on whether you are also an Amazon Prime subscriber. If you are, it costs $12.99 a month versus $14.99 a month for non-Prime subscribers.

Qobuz’s Studio Premier plan is $12.49 a month if you pay annually or $14.95 a month if you would rather not commit that far in advance.

Spotify has not announced its pricing for its Spotify HiFi tier yet. Chances are it will be competitive and fit right in with the rest of these other services as well.

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