I've spent the past month reviewing a pair of smartphones with one thing in common: great audio. First came the HTC One A9, capable of upscaling 16-bit recordings to 24-bit and powering high-end headphones with an especially potent integrated amplifier. Then I spent time with the LG V10, which relies on an ESS Sabre DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and amplifier combo that's widely recognized for its quality. It can play back 32-bit tracks if you have them available, and both the V10 and One A9 support sampling rates as high as 192kHz. That means they both qualify to be considered high-resolution audio devices, and though the experience of using them left me very impressed, I was also curious: how much of my enjoyment was down to those extra bits and hertz?
Thankfully, as usual with the web, there's a person out there who knows and has kindly compiled the answer into an awesome video explainer. Chris "Monty" Montgomery is the man responsible for the Ogg container format and associated Vorbis codec. He started work on Ogg way back in 1993, so it's fair to say that he's well versed on the topic of digital compression. He also has a brilliantly amicable presentation style that belies the exceedingly technical nature of what he's saying. You get sucked in and, next thing you know, you've watched a 30-minute video on something you only had a passing interest in. That's pretty much the fun and joy of watching Bob Ross' how-to-paint videos, which can be technical too, but are a pleasure just for the friendly demeanor of the presenter.
Higher numbers don't mean higher quality
Anyhow, the point made by Monty is an important and valid one. We don't need anything beyond 16-bit / 44.1 kHz audio, which is the standard CD quality we've known and loved for so long. Don't take my word for it, watch the video for the empirical evidence bearing that out (and the nuance of why recording artists might want to go to 24-bit or 32-bit for ease of recording, but you won't be able to hear the difference). My experience agrees with this entirely.
With the LG V10, I found myself enjoying music played via the Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset's built-in DAC just as much as the stuff coming from the so-called Hi-Fi Sabre DAC. LG limits compatibility for the Sabre chip to only a few apps, including its own music app, but the stuff I heard via the unsupported Soundcloud was still excellent. My conclusion? It's the amp and the particular audio tuning that makes the difference.
HTC is slightly different, in that its DAC works universally, irrespective of audio source, but again, the difference isn't about bits, but about the way it's tuned. The Taiwanese company has set an EQ curve that favors bass for modern music, and it also does some fancy processing that "analyzes the source audio and corrects for loss of sonic depth due to compression." Maybe there is some good stuff going on in those invisible algorithms, but in neither case was the pleasure of listening to the phone's output the result of listening to high-res audio. I tried that too and couldn't tell any difference. Probably because there isn't one audible to the human ear.
Don't be taken in by marketing gimmicks about higher resolution: it means nothing if you can't distinguish it, whether we're talking about audio or video. Instead, watch the full pair of Monty explanations of the technical details of when bits and frequencies matter and when they don't.