How well can you hear audio quality?

Tyler Fisher and Jacob Ganz, writing for NPR Music:

Recently, the rapper Jay Z relaunched the subscription streaming music service Tidal, which includes the option to listen to high-definition audio for $19.99 per month. Tidal’s HiFi, with its uncompressed audio files, promises a better listening experience than any other streaming service on the market.

Many listeners cannot hear the difference between uncompressed audio files and MP3s, but when it comes to audio quality, the size of the file isn’t (ahem) everything. There are plenty of other ingredients to consider, from the quality of your headphones to the size of the room you’re sitting in to, well, your own ears.

Follow the headline link to try your hand at picking the highest quality stream from three different choices. You’ll have six different samples to work through. I did surprisingly poorly. I guess I’m not a good candidate for Tidal’s HiFi service. Are you?

  • I’ll try it later if I have time, but I can pretty confidently tell you now that I won’t do better than random guessing. I can’t hear the difference between lossless and high-quality lossy. Part of it is age and part of it is years of playing with loud drummers. But I think it’s mostly that the majority of people can’t tell the difference.

  • davebarnes

    I am not a good candidate for Tidal as: 1. I have ripped every CD to FLAC. 2. I find new music by listening to 102.3 FM in Denver. 3. I still know how to find Pirate Bay. 4. I would not even pay $1 for service.

  • Brandon

    3 out of 6 through my Macbook Pro speakers (3 I missed I chose the 320kbps version). Difference between uncompressed and 320kbps MP3 is pretty tough to distinguish, but really depends on the song. 128kbps stands out like a sore thumb.

    Don’t see any reason to upgrade if the difference is between uncompressed and 320kbps, but if it is between 128kbps and uncompressed, would be worth it.

    • rick gregory

      Assuming, of course, you usually listen through you Macbook speakers. No one for whom music quality is important listens through their computer, though. Or through their iPhone earbuds, etc.

      • Sigivald

        Even on the best headphones or speakers in the world, audiophiles can’t tell 320k or v0 VBR from uncompressed in a blind test.

        (Upgrading from 128k is a great idea, if you have any.

        But not to uncompressed; to ITMS-level AAC or v0/320k MP3.

        Uncompressed is for people who edit music, not people who listen to music.)

  • GS

    I got them all right, but I cannot hear any difference between them. I just guessed at them all.

  • Sigivald

    Arment is completely right about this.

    All that really, really matters are the speakers (be they standalone or in headphones). Maybe, barely, the amp.

    Not magic super-encoding and not wires.

  • Phil

    Wow, I got 4 of 6 and the 2 I missed I picked the higher bit rate file. This was through Logitech desk satelite speakers plugged into my iMac. Really surprised as I always thought I could never hear the difference after destroying my ears by going to Metal shows for the last 35 years and playing drums in a band back in my “youth” all without hearing protection. I actually have a bit of tinnitus as result. My perception was I couldn’t really hear the difference but when forced to pick one I picked the one that I thought sounded best. 4 of 6 isn’t statistically significant enough sample size to say I didn’t get completely lucky but 4 of 6 makes me wonder if subconsciously there is something I hear differently in the uncompressed files.

  • JohnDoey

    It has almost nothing to do with your ears and almost everything to do with your audio playback system. If you have a 640×480 display, you can’t see the difference between 1080p HD and 4K video, either. Not because there is something wrong with your eyes, but because to the tiny display you are using, HD and 4K are both scaled down to the same 640×480. Same with today’s speakers and headphones. They are designed to be used with MP3/MP4 lossy audio because that is what most people are listening to. They can be cheaper and noisier than they would have to be otherwise.

    So these kinds of articles are just abusing the ignorance of their readers. When Blu-Ray started selling, most people did not have HDTV’s, but Blu-Ray gave people a reason to get HDTV’s. Netflix going to HD provided another reason. You don’t write an article about how a guy with a standard definition TV couldn’t tell the difference between Netflix and Netflix HD, right? He has to get the HDTV, duh.

    There is no joke or controversy here. You just have to start making higher-quality source material available so that consumers have a reason to get higher-quality speakers, headphones, digital-to-analog converters, etc. It is chicken and egg. If a consumer wants higher audio quality, they have to get a better audio playback system, starting with better speakers/headphones, better amp, better converters, and then finally they will be ready to switch to a supply of higher-quality audio streams.

    It’s like, “I’m listening to lossy and lossless through the same tin can and I can’t tell the difference!”