When recording audio, the two crucial factors that determine its quality are audio depth (measured in bits) and sample rate (measured in kHz). The two common standards used to evaluate the quality of audio recording or playback are 16-bit 44.1 kHz and 24-bit 96 kHz. Some may argue that the difference between these two audio standards is minimal and may go unnoticed by the average person.
However, there are differences between these two standards that audio professionals and other audio quality enthusiasts should be aware of. The variance between 16-bit 44.1 kHz and 24-bit 96 kHz lies not only in quality but also in compatibility, audio file sizes, and more. This article will delve into all the differences you need to know about these audio standards.
By the end of this article, you will have a clear understanding of their differences and be able to determine which one best suit your user experience. But first, let’s discuss the two major factors that affect audio quality.
Table of Contents
What is Bit Depth?
Bit depth is one of the factors that affect audio quality, and it refers to the number of bits used to represent the amplitude of an audio sample. In digital audio, sound is represented as a series of discrete measurements, or samples, taken at regular intervals. Each of these samples represents the amplitude of the audio waveform at that point in time. The bit depth determines the number of possible amplitude levels that each sample can have.
For instance, in a 24-bit audio system, there are 2^24 (16777216) possible amplitude levels, ranging from the quietest sound to the loudest. This provides a certain level of dynamic range, which is basically the difference between the softest and loudest sounds that can be accurately represented.
That means that the higher the bit rate, the more the amplitude levels, resulting in a wider dynamic range and the ability to capture more subtle details, particularly in the quieter parts of the audio.
What is Audio Sample Rate?
Audio Sample Rate is the sampling frequency, basically the number of audio samples captured per second. The measurement units of the audio sample rate are hertz (cycles or audio samples per second). Audio Sample Rate determines how often the amplitude of the audio waveform is measured and recorded.
In practical terms, a higher sample rate captures more detail in the audio waveform, particularly at higher frequencies. According to the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, the sample rate must be at least twice the frequency’s value to accurately reproduce a frequency. For instance, to capture audio frequencies of up to 20 kHz (which is considered the upper limit of human hearing), a sample rate of at least 40 kHz is required.
Standard audio CDs use a sample rate of 44.1 kHz, which can accurately capture frequencies up to 22.05 kHz. On the other hand, a sample rate of 96 kHz allows for an accurate representation of frequencies up to 48 kHz, which is usually beyond the recognition of the human ear.
As we will see later on in the article, audio files with higher sample rates may affect the audio quality subtly, but it’s important to note that not all audio systems or listeners can perceive these differences. In some cases, the benefits of higher sample rates may be more noticeable during audio processing and editing rather than in typical listening scenarios.
What is the difference between 16-bit 44.1 kHz and 24-bit 96 kHz?
As stated earlier, 16-bit 44.1 kHz and 24-bit 96 kHz are two common standards used when differentiating the quality of audio recordings and playback. The difference between these two audio formats lies in the bit rate and frequency, which can affect the audio quality in some scenarios.
Regarding bit depth, 16-bit audio provides reasonable quality but struggles with subtleties in complex soundscapes. On the other hand, 24-bit audio offers superior precision, preserving delicate details during recording and post-production tasks. This difference is usually noticeable when using high-quality hardware to listen to the audio.
Regarding sample rate, the standard 44.1 kHz suits most human hearing and everyday listening. In comparison, 96 kHz extends beyond human hearing but might have limited perceptible impact. However, subtle differences may be noticed, especially for professionals in the audio industry and other audio enthusiasts who pay a lot of attention to audio quality.
Streaming platforms like Apple Music and Spotify support audio files in the 16-bit 44.1 kHz format since it is good enough for most listers. For those who need more quality sound, Spotify supports 24-bit 96 kHz, which they refer to as HiFi or High-Fidelity audio. On the other hand, Apple Music supports Hi-Res Lossless (up to 24-bit/192kHz), which is even of a higher quality.
Factors that affect the choice between 16-bit 44.1 kHz and 24-bit 96 kHz
Depending on how you intend to use the audio files in these formats, here are some of the factors you must consider.
Audio Fidelity and Detail
16-bit 44.1 kHz is suitable for most casual listening scenarios since it provides reasonable audio quality and detail for everyday use, including music playback, streaming, and podcasts.
On the other hand, 24-bit 96 kHz is preferred for high-end audio production, professional music recording, and critical listening situations.
This factor matters to audio producers. 16-bit 44.1 kHz is usually adequate for capturing most sound sources but might struggle with extremely soft sounds and intricate audio nuances. On the other hand, 24-bit 96 kHz is the ideal format for capturing delicate details, low-level sounds, and dynamic range, making it a preferred choice for studio recording, mixing, and mastering.
Another crucial factor that you must consider when choosing between these two formats is the storage resources they need. Audio files in the 16-bit 44.1 kHz format are usually small, conserving storage space. For instance, a 3-minute song in the 16-bit 44.1 kHz format can be around 8MB, making it suitable for users with limited storage on their devices.
On the other hand, audio files in the 24-bit 96 kHz format are usually large due to higher bit depth and sample rate. If you choose this format, you will need to have more storage headroom since files can be over 12MB per minute.
Playback Equipment Compatibility
16-bit 44.1 kHz is widely supported by various playback devices, including smartphones, computers, conventional audio systems, and most of the common earbuds that everyday people use. On the other hand, audio files in the 24-bit 96 kHz format are not supported by most consumer-grade equipment.
Files in the 24-bit 96 kHz format can also not be played via Bluetooth unless you have one of the recent devices that supports the latest Bluetooth 5.3 standard. Playing these kinds of audio files on an external audio device requires connectivity via a high bandwidth 3.5mm headphone jack or USB port. It is also crucial to note that headphones and speakers that support this audio format are very expensive.
Editing and Post-Production
16-bit 44.1 kHz is adequate for basic audio editing and post-production tasks. 24-bit 96 kHz provides more headroom for intricate editing, manipulation, and processing without compromising audio quality. That’s why it is recommended for audio producers to record using the 24-bit 96 kHz format and later compress it to 16-bit 44.1 kHz when distributing the files.
The listening environment will also affect your ability to differentiate between these audio formats. 16-bit 44.1 kHz is well-suited for everyday listening environments where the differences might not be discernible. On the other hand, 24-bit 96 kHz is more noticeable in acoustically treated or high-end audio setups and studio environments.
16-bit 44.1 kHz and 24-bit 96 kHz are two popular audio formats with subtle differences that may vary depending on the user and the devices they use to listen to these files. For most users, high-quality audio formats like 24-bit 96 kHz may not make a significant difference compared to the 16-bit 44.1 kHz format they are used to.
However, audio professionals and other audio enthusiasts will likely notice the difference, especially when using supported hardware. Therefore, when making the choice between the two, you need to assess your needs to determine whether the benefits of each audio format outweigh its drawbacks.
What is the main difference between 16-bit 44.1 kHz and 24-bit 96 kHz audio formats?
The differences between these formats lie in their bit depth and sample rate. 16-bit 44.1 kHz provides reasonable quality and suits most casual listening scenarios. On the other hand, 24-bit 96 kHz offers superior precision and is preferred for professional audio production, critical listening, and capturing more details.
Are 24-bit 96 kHz files bigger than 16-bit 44.1 kHz files?
Yes,16-bit 44.1 kHz audio files are smaller, conserving storage. For instance, a 3-minute song can be around 8MB. In contrast, 24-bit 96 kHz files are larger due to higher quality, with files potentially exceeding 12MB per minute.
Are 24-bit 96 kHz and 16-bit 44.1 kHz files compatible with common playback devices?
16-bit 44.1 kHz is widely supported by most playback devices, including smartphones and computers. However, 24-bit 96 kHz files may not be supported by many consumer-grade equipment, requiring specialized hardware and connections.
Which audio format is better for audio editing and post-production?
24-bit 96 kHz provides more headroom for intricate audio editing and processing without compromising quality. Audio professionals often choose this format for recording and then compress it to 16-bit 44.1 kHz when necessary during distribution.