Certain questions arise when we want to enjoy the highest possible quality of sound (rather music) within a particular budget. This article is intended to explain the complicated technical phrases around the music files for playing on these devices. This article is intentionally kept as simple as possible.
Commonly, these are our available hardware with a budget of $1500:
- An entry-level to mid-range digital audio player (DAP) such as the Android-based devices from FiiO
- Alternatively, a flagship smartphone such as Samsung S22/S23 Ultra with or without a DAC (Read Get Audiophile-Grade Music on Your Smartphone)
- Usually an entry level to mid-range in-ear monitor, such as FiiO FH3
- A music player application such as PowerAmp (Read tips for PowerAmp)
Why we have mentioned FiiO? FiiO has not sponsored us. Among the China brands (Audiophile grade things of the same quality from the European countries are costlier. Of course they are better). It seems that FiiO maintains certain standards around the connectors. Brands such as KZ Acoustics sell excellent in-ear monitors (such as KZ AS16 Pro) at a lesser price than FiiO. But whenever you want to upgrade the cables to get the balanced output, you’ll realize that it is not easy to get their cables with 4.4mm balanced connectors. It is not that FiiO solves all the problems. The price we are paying is too small to build a high-end portable audiophile setup. PowerAmp has profiles for FiiO in-ear monitors. So, presently buying things from FiiO builds a kind of Poorman’s audiophile setup. Of course, you should read and watch various discussions while selecting brands and models.
If you use S22 Ultra directly (without DAC) to play music, PowerAmp will support Samsung UHQA PCM. (Details written here – https://www.samsung.com/uk/support/mobile-devices/what-are-scalable-audio-codes-and-ultra-high-quality-audio-options/). But the output is not 100% similar to that of a dedicated music player. I guess that Samsung does not use any dedicated chipset for audio processing. This setup will force you to use 32-bit music files, otherwise, you’ll not feel it is high-end at all. Unfortunately, at 32 bit the loudness will decrease. You have to increase the volume to 80-85%. Apart from that, recent Samsung flagships are unreliable. They fail, become hot etc.
So we had to write about hardware because the next thing would not make any sense without proper hardware and settings. Our next question starts with the audio files itself.
The CD is a standard, the audio on the disc is uncompressed. Usually, the bit rate of the files is 1411 kbps. Pulse-code modulation (PCM) is used for CDs and DVDs. Before DSD came, PCM was thought to be the closest to capturing complete analogue audio quality.
Direct Stream Digital (DSD) is an uncompressed, high-resolution audio format. These use pulse-density modulation. They require top-notch audio systems.
WAV (Waveform Audio File) retains all the original data, which makes it a great format for sound engineering.
PCM, DSD, and WAV are uncompressed formats and are as good as analogue audio.
Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) offers lossless compression, and it’s free and open-source.
When we convert them to FLAC format files (it is lossless), the bit rate can go down from 353 kbps to 845 kbps without any negative effect in real. So now you have learned about what bit rate you should look around. Of course, a higher bit rate is better. A 128 kbps file will have less data. However, it is a complex thing to mention a particular number which indicates a better quality.
Next is resolution. The CD contains 16-bit audio files at the sample rate of 44,100 Hz. Any file that exceeds this value is “high-resolution audio”. As the bit increases, the sampling rate is supposed to increase. At the sample rate of 44,100 Hz, usually, we can hear all the sounds.
For S22 Ultra, I have pointed out that 32-bit 44,100 Hz sounds better. That is actually for overcoming the hardware issues. Normally you should avoid 32-bit audio. 16-bit to 24-bit audio at 44,100 Hz to 96KHz sampling rate is sufficient for a good player.
Of course, for other formats and certain players the higher parameters may sound better. That is for processing, data loss etc.
In one sentence, FLAC files of 16-bit to 24-bit audio at 44,100 Hz to 96KHz sampling rate with 353 kbps to 845 kbps bit rate can be said to be suitable for audiophiles. If you do not feel a huge difference with MP3 then it is about experience. It takes time to understand the finer details. For example, at 32 bits you can hear too much detailed sound of bass guitar.
For audiophiles who want the best possible sound quality in their music playback systems, DSD is a popular choice. Next is PCM format, and then is FLAC. We have talked about FLAC in detail because not all the songs on this earth are available in DSD format. Can you play DSD files on S22 Ultra with PowerAmp? Yes, but I feel the sound is like FLAC. There is a discussion around a related topic:
The FiiO M11S can decode up to DSD256 and 384kHz/32bit PCM. Which is enough great at that price tag.