Since olden days (and of course with the help of various Hi-tech magazines), the home cinema (and sound quality in general) 'trend' got my and some friends of mine. Our attempts to get the best sound possible, have to do with tests on various amplifiers, various "patents" and tricks to improve the sound, buying good speakers (but also build them with the best materials), god quality cables and connectors and generally we tested any idea, at a time when the information was shared by people who knew their stuff or the magazines.
Next, we got Amazon, iTunes and recently, Spotify. However, these services compress their files, resulting in a loss of sound quality (256kbps AAC on iTunes and 320kbps MP3 on Spotify). For your mobile or your portable player or even for PC, these files are of course the best you can have, but if you are a soundphile then these files are not for you (especially if you have invested in an expensive audio system).
Technology has gone a long way, and now you can have the best sound quality at a minimal cost and I refer to the high-resolution sound that became mainstream in 2015, thanks to the devices and the software that is available.
What is Hi-Res Music?
High-Resolution Audio refers to a collection of digital processes and formats that allow the encoding and playback of music using higher sampling rates than the standards used in CDs. ~ Sony
The term "high resolution" or "high-res" (HRA) refers to coding and playing music at a higher sampling rate than the standards used on CDs. The most common specifications are 24bit/96kHz (transmission of 3.2x more data than CDs) and 24bit/192kHz (transmission of 6.5x more data than CDs).
High resolution files are in different categories, such as the Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) and the Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC), which are theoretically compressed with nothing lost. Other files are WAV, AIFF and DSD, but FLAC is the most popular file system, and on their site you can find a list of the right players, the necessary programs and codecs.
Below are the types of high resolution audio files you can find on the stores. CD quality = 16 bit, 44.1 kHz PCM. Hi-res = 24 bit and 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96, 176.4 or 192 kHz PCM files. DSD = Direct Stream Digital. SACD files, which require special software or appropriate DAC to run. DXD = Digital eXtreme Definition. 24 bit, 352.8 kHz PCM files. Few DACs can reproduce these files. 5.1 = Dolby Surround Sound (multichannel).
Where you can find Hi-Res files?
On the internet you can find many sites selling whole albums or even single tracks at very good prices, and there are many free audio records for your tests (some of which will be mentioned below). There are also pirated sites that contain many albums in high quality (of course you should look for these sites for yourself). More sites with free files can be found at FindHDmusic.
HDTracks One of the best known sites for selling high resolution records, such as Blues, Country, R&B, Classical, Pop, Electronic, New Age, Soundtrack, Historical, Industrial, Rock, Jazz, Latin, Reggae, Hip-Hop and Rap. It also has free audio files to get into the idea of high-resolution music.
2L-THE NORDIC SOUND On this site you can find many free high resolution files in 24BIT/352.8kHz, 24BIT/192kHz, 24BIT/96kHz, 16BIT/44kHz and multi-channel such as 5.1 Surround.
Gimell Here you can find free files in different formats, such as ALAC, WMA and FLAC (Stereo and Surround 5.1).
Blue Coast Records And here you can find free trial files (requires registration).
Anadyomene' Secret Rec. Fantastic music files from a group of music lovers with studio quality. Contains 24bit/96kHz files only.
eClassical Free classical music files. Such classical tracks, you can also find at 2L (see above).
Play on PC
For PC, you can find several programs that can play hi-res files, but the best is the foobar2000. You can also try Winamp and Windows Media Player.
More Programs for the PC
JPlay. JPlay can improve sound quality from programs like ROON, foobar2000, AIMP, Qobuz etc. It also turns the PC into a hi-res network player, is aimed at music lovers and contains similar audio settings. Note that this player is not free.
TEAC HR Audio Player. TEAC's player is also a high quality music player for Windows and Mac and is provided for free.
HYSOLID. HYSOLID is also a network music player for hi-res files, with the exception that it supports an app on smartphones for easy handling, while it is designed for perfect sound reproduction.
Set up your PC and foobar2000 for Hi Res Music
The best player in terms of settings and requirements is foobar2000, which is available for free. The following settings are for Windows 7 and 8 and not for 10. Also, the settings are for using a DAC instead of onboard system sound card (unless you already have a good sound card). A good and relatively cheap DAC for the PC is Firestone Audio's "iLove TW", while with a quick search you can find many good and cheap DACs.
Changes that need to be made at the hardware level can also be done through the Windows panel, but it is a good idea to disable some features of your motherboard's Bios menu. If you are going to build a media player exclusively, it's a good idea to make these settings before installing the operating system so your system does not install additional drivers.
Start by turning off all the onboard audio devices from the motherboard, the COM/LPT communication ports and WLAN (unless you need them). Also, disable the "Power-Saving" and "Speed Test" functions for the CPU.
From the operating system you will use as a hi-res player, you will need to disable some of its features to improve system's performance.
Disable the following services ("Control Panel -> System and Security -> Action Center -> Change Action Center Settings")
- Disable all options from "Action Center -> Change Action Center Settings"
- Disable the "Windows Firewall" if you are not going to connect to the Internet with this PC.
- Disable automatic updates from "Windows Update" and choose to install them manually.
- Disable power options from "Control Panel -> System and Security".
- Select "High Performance" from "Power Options".
- From "Power Options -> Change plan settings -> Change advanced power settings", go to "USB-Settings" and disable the "USB selective suspend setting" option.
You can also deactivate many Windows effects settings, which for sure, you do not need all of them. Go to "Control Panel -> System and Security -> System" and from there to "Advanced system settings". In the window that appears, select "Advanced" and select the settings you want to disable from "Performance -> Visual Effects". From there, you can also enable "Adjust best performance of: Background services".
You should also disable all Windows sounds from "Control Panel -> Hardware and Sound" and disable those you do not need from "Control Panel -> Programs and Features". You should also enable "Remote Assistance" from "Control Panel -> System and Security -> System" by selecting "Remote/Allow Remote Assistance connections to this computer".
DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) Installation
Now your PC is ready to install the DAC. Connect it on any USB port and install the drivers if required. For your convenience, you can set foobar2000 to start automatically every time Windows starts and can be done simply by putting a program shortcut icon inside the "Start -> All Programs -> Startup" folder.
Also, in the "Control Panel -> System and Security -> Power Options -> Choose what the power buttons do -> When I press the power button" menu, you can set it as "Shut Down", so when you press Power button on your PC, to shut down Windows.
Install and configure foobar2000
It does not need anything special at this point. Just download and install the program as you normally do. Run the program and set it for bit perfect playback. To do this, download the foo_out_ks plugin and from the "File -> Preferences -> Components" menu, select "Install" and find the zip file you just downloaded. The program should look like this:
You also have to set the DAC and this can be done from the menu "File -> Preferences -> Output". There, from the drop-down menu you can select the DAC depending on your drivers, eg "ASIO" (by using its drivers), "DS:" (Windows DirectSound), "WASAPI" (Windows Audio Session API) etc.
You can also use foobar2000 from your iPhone/iPad, by downloading this plugin (install it in the same way as mentioned above).
Play Hi-Res file with Raspberry Pi
If you do not want to use your PC as a Hi-Res Player, then you can use Raspberry Pi, using an appropriate DAC that matches your Raspberry Pi model. For most Pi models you can choose Pi-DAC+ or mamboberry, while for older models and for a lower price, you can use this HIFI DAC Audio Sound Card Module together with a matching case for it (in the last two links, you can find the systems I used for my tests for this article).
Suitable programs for Raspberry Pi
The suitable programs for Raspberry Pi (using DAC and not the sound outputs of Raspberry Pi itself) are volumio and Kodi. Using Kodi or OpenElec, you can do more things with your Raspberry Pi and that's what I tried.
DAC Installation On OpenElec
To use a DAC on Raspberry Pi, you need to set it using Putty (SSH). To do this, download Putty and connect to Raspberry Pi via its IP, which you can find in the OpenElec settings. By default, the username is root and the password openelec. You must have SSH enabled, something that can be done from the openelec's settings.
Before we continue, you need to convert the partition into writeable. To do this, give the following command to the SSH console:
mount -o remount,rw /flash
Now, you have to edit the "config.txt" file, where you will define your DAC. To do this, give the command:
Finally, depending on the DAC you have chosen, put the following at the end of config.txt:
Save the changes and restart Raspberry Pi. Now the sound will be heard from the DAC outputs and not from the Raspberry Pi outputs. If you do not have a sound, then give the following command to the console to see the log:
vcdbg log msg
My impressions of the Hi-Res music files I have tried are excellent. The sound of these files is unique. Generally speaking, the musical instruments are rendered with very good accuracy, while the musical tracks are sound full and alive. Of course, each music file is different, and it must be emphasized that for the highest possible quality, the analog amplifier and speakers (or headphones, most of the DACs are also have headphones output) are also required. For more information about, I will refer to a later article.