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What is hi-fi? High fidelity audio explained

The word “hi-fi” is probably a term that you’ve heard get thrown around before when someone is referring to music. Hi-fi, or high fidelity, is a term used by audiophiles to describe the level of accurate sound reproduction that high end stereos and other devices provide.

This article aims to clear up the confusion about hi-fi audio and provide valuable information that may even get you on board with high fidelity audio. Keep reading to find out more!

What is hi-fi audio?

Hi-fi audio, also known as high fidelity audio, is simply audio that is very high quality.

The factors that play into this level of quality are a high accuracy at reproducing the audible frequencies in audio, and extremely little distortion in the original audio signal. This in general is what “high fidelity” means.

Let’s break this down in another way. You’ve likely heard of lo-fi music before; if not, it’s a genre that is often mixed with elements of jazz or hip-hop. The instrumentation is not relevant for this example, however; let’s focus on the general sound.

Lo-fi music is characterized as having a low quality, almost underwater type sound, usually with crackling and warping sounds from a vinyl record, to add to the ambience. Instruments are usually “broken” sounding or boxy.

With hi-fi, it’s simply the opposite of lo-fi. If lo-fi audio is described as being old, broken, and fuzzy sounding, hi-fi is accurately described as sounding clear, clean, crisp, and free from distortion and other unwanted sonic artifacts.

A more technical answer would be this:

Music files that have a higher sample rate and/or bit depth than CDs are what high fidelity audio is considered to be.

CDs have a sample rate of 44.1 KHz and a 16-bit bit depth, so as long as at least one of these numbers is higher than those of a CD, audio is considered to be hi-fi.

Sample rate and bit depth

If you’re not already familiar with sample rate and bit depth, they’re related to the digital to analog conversion process.

When digital audio information is outputted by an audio source and sent into a digital to analog converter, or DAC, the DAC takes snapshots, called samples, of the information in order to convert the audio from its digital form and compile an analog waveform.

The frequency at which the DAC takes these samples is known as the sample rate. A CD’s sample rate is 44.1 KHz, which means there are 44,100 samples taken per second.

Bit depth is a bit more difficult to understand. Analog audio has various amplitude values in a single waveform.

Bit depth determines how many possible amplitude values can be recorded each time the audio is sampled. 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit are the most common bit depths.

As the bit depth increases, more amplitude values can be recorded. A 16-bit bit depth can record 65,536 amplitude values.

As bit depth and sample rate go up, this creates a more complete, accurate, and smooth reproduction of audio, reconstructing the analog waveform more precisely as the original digital information.

By definition, audio is considered to be hi-fi if it is lossless and capable of producing the full frequency range from recordings that were mastered from music sources that are better than CD quality.

Hi-fi audio doesn’t have one specific standard as far as what is considered to be hi-fi, just as long as it’s over the standard for CDs. Hi-fi audio commonly has a sample rate of anywhere from 96 kHz to 192 kHz at 24-bit depth, and even higher in some cases.

Pros and cons of hi-fi audio

Like anything in life, there are pros and cons to hi-fi audio. Take a look at these if you’re unsure whether or not switching to hi-fi audio would be worth it to you.

  • Increased general quality of audio: Hi-fi audio files in general sound crisper, clearer, and you may be able to hear details much better than lower to average resolution audio.
  • Improved accuracy: Analog audio is extremely accurate to its original sonic characteristics and soundstage compared to audio of a lower resolution.
  • Leads to a better listening experience: The listener is able to enjoy music how the artist intended it to be heard due to the transparency and accuracy of the audio.
  • Less common: Not widely available through major music streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music; limited to specific hi-fi platforms like Tidal.
  • Less compatible with popular music library software: You will have to download special software to play audio at higher sample rates and bit depths as software like iTunes doesn’t do this.
  • Takes up file storage fast: Audio files are large and can take up space on your computer’s storage drive or file storage methods very quickly depending on what file format you choose.

How do I get hi-fi audio?

In order to have access to hi-fi sound, you’ll need a hi-fi sound system. Your average computer sound card won’t be good enough quality to pump out hi-fi audio, so you’ll need to purchase a few things before you’ll be able to listen to hi-fi music.

Firstly, you’ll need a DAC, or digital to analog converter. A DAC will take the digital audio information from your audio source and convert it to analog while also slightly improving the signal.

Some DACs have a built-in amplifier, and if you’re on a budget or if you’re a beginner audiophile it can be a good idea to purchase an all-in-one DAC/amp combo, but I recommend purchasing a standalone DAC.

Standalone DACs and amps are known to have better specifications, more power, and usually have better responsiveness than all-in-one units.

There are different types of DACs, ranging from ones that will need to stay sitting on a shelf or your desk, to ones that will fit in your pocket and will work with your smartphone.

If you purchase a standalone DAC, you’ll need an external amplifier as well because external, standalone DACs don’t have a built-in amp.

Be sure to refer to our articles on DACs and amplifiers in order to figure out which DAC is right for you and help you understand what exactly it is that they do.

An amplifier boosts the audio signal once it has been converted from digital information to an analog waveform.

You’ll need an amplifier because the audio signal that is outputted by the standalone DAC is very low level in volume, and because of that, the audio won’t be loud enough to come out of speakers or headphones properly.

An amp takes care of this by sending plenty of power to the speakers or headphones you’re using, and it also boosts the signal from the DAC.

DACs and amplifiers are so important when you want to listen to hi-fi audio because they help shape the overall sound as well.

The DAC will help with cleaning up the signal and removing any electromagnetic interference or feedback like humming or hissing that you might get if you were using a computer’s sound card instead of a DAC. The amplifier may add a bit of color to the signal depending on what amp you choose to get.

Along with a DAC and an amp, you’ll definitely want audiophile headphones. These are headphones that have a wide soundstage, a flat frequency response, and do not add coloration to the audio signal.

Many popular companies like Sony, Sennheiser, and Beyerdynamic have some great headphones for audiophiles across different price points, so you’ll be able to find a pair of audiophile headphones with ease even if you’re on a budget.

You may also want to get a pair of audiophile quality speakers.

Understanding hi-fi audio file types

There are several different audio file types, some of which you may already be familiar with, like MP3, AAC, or WAV.

Certain audio file types (specifically MP3 and AAC) are lossy, which means they have lost quality during the encoding process, and are farther from the original studio sound than what was intended.

Lossless files, however, do not lose this quality during the encoding process, and therefore are considered to be high resolution/high fidelity audio file types, and are a very accurate representation of the original sound that was recorded in the studio.

Let’s go over the audio file types that will allow you to listen to hi-fi audio without any issues.

  • WAV (Waveform Audio File Format): CDs are encoded in this format. WAV files are uncompressed, which means that the sizes of these audio files are huge, taking up a ton of storage space on your devices. Despite the large file size, however, WAV files sound great in terms of sound quality.
  • AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format): This is the Apple version of WAV files, commonly used on Apple’s Macintosh computers. The audio quality here is uncompressed just like WAV files, and they also take up a lot of file storage space, even more so with high resolution audio files.
  • FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Compression): As the name states, FLAC is lossless, and the file type supports hi-fi audio. Luckily with FLAC, the file sizes are about half as big as WAV, so they don’t take up as much space on your devices. Most audiophiles seem to prefer FLAC files for their hi-fi audio because of these factors. Unfortunately it’s not compatible with Apple devices, so keep that in mind.
  • ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec): ALAC is the Apple version of FLAC. It stores metadata, is lossless, and takes up half as much space as WAV files take up. ALAC is an Apple friendly alternative, so it will work fine with your iOS devices and you’ll also be able to play them with iTunes.
  • DSD (Direct Stream Digital): A single bit, high fidelity format used for Super Audio CDs. It’s not very commonly supported on computers and smartphones for playback. File size is very large due to the high sample rate. Depending on the source file, you can compress DSD files up to 60% and be able to reverse it without any fidelity loss, if you need more space.
  • MQA (Master Quality Authenticated): A lossy audio file format that is actually better quality than FLAC and even smaller than it, too. Although the files are not as small as MP3s, they definitely compete. Tidal Masters hi-fi streaming uses MQA file format, so it’s not very popular yet, but it’s getting there.

Hi-fi audio files take up a ton of storage space, so I highly recommend that you purchase an external storage drive or consider uploading your purchased hi-fi audio files to the Cloud in order to save space on your computer.

Where to get or listen to hi-fi audio?

You can use the hi-fi audio streaming service, Tidal, which has only high resolution audio, and allows users to stream in up to 24-bit, 96 kHz quality. Amazon Music is also gaining popularity with audiophiles for their hi-fi audio as part of their HD tier of music.

Other great websites for purchasing hi-fi audio include:

  • HDtracks: You can purchase WAV, AIFF, FLAC, and ALAC files, and the highest resolution of audio available is 24-bit, 192 kHz. It has one of the most extensive libraries.
  • Qobuz: File formats include WAV, AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, MP3, WMA, and AAC, with the highest resolution also being 24-bit, 192 kHz. You can buy music here, as well as stream it.
  • Chandos: File formats available include WMA, WAV, FLAC, ALAC, FLAC Surround Sound 5.1, and AIFF. It’s definitely the best hi-fi site for classical and jazz music. There are also plenty of rock and pop tracks available, but the website primarily focuses on calmer genres.
  • Acoustic Sounds: File formats include FLAC, ALAC, and DSD, and the highest quality available is 24-bit, 192 kHz. Unlike the website’s name, there are a multitude of pop and rock tracks available with a few funk tracks here and there, not just acoustic and indie tracks.

If you’re an audiophile or just passionate about music in general, being able to listen to hi-fi audio is well worth spending the money on the proper hardware to achieve this.

Everyone deserves to listen to hi-fi audio, and hopefully this article will have you exiting the webpage more informed and excited about understanding what exactly hi-fi audio is.

For more easy to read articles on music technology and more, be sure to check back with us soon!