Is there really a difference in sound between lower sampling rates like 44.1 and 48 KHz and hi-res such as 88.2 and 96 KHz?
Yes there is but it’s not for the reason you might think. It’s not likely to be the difference in high frequencies that you’ll hear. The range of human hearing is 20 Hz to 20 KHz. A 44.1 KHz sample rate (the sample rate of audio CDs) does reduce the high frequencies a little bit above 18 KHz. Higher sample rates do preserve these ultra high frequencies. Even a 48 KHz sample rate can represent frequencies up to 20 KHz (the limit of human hearing). However the truth is that studies show most people over the age of 30 cannot hear anything above 17 KHz and this reduces further as you get older.
Yet people reliably report that high sample rates like 88.2 and 96 KHz sound better than 44.1 and 48 KHz. The reason for this, as the legendary mastering engineer Bob Katz explains, is in the way currently designed digital to audio converters (DACs) work. When converting from digital to analog for playback, it is very difficult and expensive to produce an undistorted signal with lower sample rates like 44.1 or 48 KHz. There are at present no commercially available systems that can reproduce these sample rates without distortion. However, once you are at a high sample rate like 88.2 or 96 KHz a good converter can produce a completely undistorted analog signal with ease. So the difference people are hearing, is not the high frequency content, but the fact that lower sample rates cause the converters to distort the analog signal. For the tech minded, this is due to ripples in the bandpass filter cased by restricted high pass bandwidth in lower sample rates. For more in formation and detail on this we recommend Bob Katz’s excellent book Mastering Audio: The Art and the Science 3rd edition.
There is another very important reason to record at either 88.2 or 96 KHz. Digital processing tools work much better at 88.2 and 96 KHz than they do at lower rates. This can have a big effect on the quality of the sound both during mixing and mastering.
Also the audiophile market has moved to hi-res audio. Hi-res music vendors require 88.2 and 96 KHz.