As of 2023, it’s either magnetic tape running at 15 IPS, an excellent vinyl playback system, or the best hi-resolution digital files played back through seriously good DACs.
People are often upset to learn that their favourite digital files were originally recorded onto analog tape, but there is more obscuring of the provenance of digital files than just about anywhere else in hi-fi. Why? Because there is money to be made by people NOT understanding this point. Do I need to mention the Mofi lawsuit to jog people’s memories..?
Digital sound involves sampling, whereby resolution is lost when a digital copy is made of an analog file. The highest resolution source you can access is the highest quality non-sampled analog source file. The highest-resolution analog medium is high-speed reel-to-reel tape, closely followed by vinyl.
Reel to Reel Tape – The Ultimate #1
Not cassette tape, I’m talking proper reel-to-reel tape running at high speed. Let’s not forget that most of your favourite recordings were made on tape and the very best recordings of all time were made on tape. Anyone who’s ever heard a good reel-to-reel tape played on a good machine will know what I’m talking about. There’s a richness, fluidity and power in the tape that has to be heard to be believed. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll immediately understand.
Herein lies the problem though – how do you hear this? You need a high-quality reel-to-reel tape machine and some extraordinary and very expensive Tape Project tapes, or similar. There are very few tape releases available and really, this is almost a dead end unless you can access the tapes. So for most people, this is a dead end.
Vinyl – the Ultimate #2
The second top-tier source is vinyl. Vinyl is another analog medium, ie it presents a copy of the original file, not a sampled version. Good vinyl played on a great turntable, arm and cartridge is close to reel-to-reel in terms of resolution and detail retrieval. The limiting factors are the hardware and pressings. With analog sources and gear, you get what you pay for and it’s a sliding scale. The resolution possible with a good vinyl set-up though is incredible.
Hi-Res Digital – the Ultimate #3
Some readers will be bemused by the fact that I’ve listed this as the third level of ultimate, but that’s only because source files are so variable and their provenance so guarded that one often doesn’t know what one is getting. It’s also because the sound of these files is very hardware-dependent. That being said, high-resolution digital files can sound excellent or even outstanding and hard on the heels of analog. By high-resolution, I’m referring to files with 24-bit/192kHz, DSD, SACD resolution or greater and MQA encoding for example.
Lossless is a misused term, however, because all digital methodologies involve some loss, through how they sample the original. Most streaming services like Apple have switched to lossless for their entire catalogue and many files are now also offered at high-res lossless quality. Whilst it’s unclear what constitutes ‘high-res’ over at Apple, we can assume it to mean source files where the data is encoded at greater than Redbook CD, ie 16-bit 44.1kHz resolution.
Next comes Redbook CD. Not quite an ultimate source, CD still has a lot to offer and I’m amazed by how much one can get from 16-bit / 44.1kHz files. I have some superb-sounding CDs and played on a good transport and DAC, they can sound fantastic. Many would argue, myself included, that CDs played back via a really good CD player and or DAC sound better than many/most streamed hi-res files. If you haven’t done so, this is worth investigating and CDs are becoming quite collectible for this and other reasons.
Cassette & FM Radio
Compact cassette tapes and analog FM radio are probably the last in terms of being real hi-fi. Both offer good to excellent performance but are very hardware-dependent. A good FM tuner can sound fantastic though.