More Evidence That the Average Listener Can’t Hear Differences in Audio Quality

How’s your hearing? Can you tell the difference between a high-quality audio recording and another that isn’t as good? More to the point, do you even care? If you’re a typical music fan, the answer to both those questions appears to be “no.” This is from RAIN:

In this set-up, participants listened to audio clips from Tidal, Spotify, and Apple Music on the network’s Genelec speakers. Tidal represented hi-fi audio, while Spotify streams at 320 kbps and Apple has 256 kbps streamed with more efficient compression. From a total of 48 songs, the hi-fi one was correctly identified 16 times, the same rate as you’d theoretically get from random guessing. In at least four instances, the listener said they couldn’t hear any difference and didn’t try to ID the hi-fi recording.

Interesting. Could it be that people aren’t being trained to listen the way we used to during the Golden Age of Stereos? When powerful amps and big speakers ruled, flaws were easier to hear. But when so many people grew up listening on cheap earbuds…


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

7 thoughts on “More Evidence That the Average Listener Can’t Hear Differences in Audio Quality

  • August 9, 2016 at 8:04 am

    The study does not offer nearly enough information to support their conclusion. Among the biggest misperception, is that all hi-res music is equivalent. Far too many of the supposedly “audiophile quality” tracks sold online today, are only upsampled CD music….meaning the result never had a chance to be efectively different or better than the CD. As to the inferior quality of mp3’s, some forms of music don’t require hi res to sound close to optimal, while others do. And some people listen critically–while those that typically listen with cheap earbuds would be expected to be the opposite of a critical listener, and unlikely to care or notice the differences between mp3 and 24 bit/96 hz.

    The high end music system to dream about if you are an audiophile, still needs 24/96 recordings that had good providence….that came from a great original recording, and were maintained at optimal quality in production. This only happens with a tiny percentage of newly recorded music today…possibly as little as 1 percent.

    • August 9, 2016 at 4:13 pm

      Absolutely! And who said any streaming service is hifi.
      If there is a 24bit/96kHz service without compression I might sign up. My opinion is that CD is lossy compared to what the original recording if done properly. Too bad SACDs fell off the face of the earth. So happy vinyl is making a comeback.

  • September 6, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    Way late on this one too … but I’m just not convinced “high-def” music is a thing that anyone can truly perceive. There are physical human-ear reasons the CD format was chosen and designed the way it is, at 16-bit and 44.1 KHz.

    And what I find strangest, is that the people that claim they can hear subtle differences from high-def music, tend to be the oldest who should have the most hearing-loss.

  • September 30, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Let’s say a band is really good, and they practice for years to create a very specific sound. They have a massive investment in music gear to complement their skills, and to output the music with exactly the sound they want, to their audience. The same is true for their recordings…they have put in huge time and effort, to gain a very specific sound.

    If you like this band, wouldn’t it make sense to listen with gear that allows you to hear what the band created for you, rather than a corrupted and distorted version of it… But with the typical listening experience of a guy listening to mp3’s on cheap earbuds…the “music” is not going to sound the way the artist intended.

    It seems to be a cultural phenomenon now prevalent in the mp3, earbud crowd( the masses)….
    Today’s mp3’ers are unlike the music lovers in the 70’s and 80’s – who listened to high end stereos, playing records that were close to the original performance in sound quality … This phenomenon now, has transformed music into something very superficial. Even though the Mp3’ers immerse themselves into with their low quality earbuds, apparently there is very little focus on the details of the music….a big part of what makes great music.

    Maybe so much of the new music is so overly corporate, so devoid of creativity due to the music industry’s insatiable need for revenue by sticking to their own formats for success, that there is no reason to listen to the specific details. You might say that this is a justifiable reason to play poor background music like this with low end gear. But when good quality music plays, it is still sad that the resulting sound for these people is largely missed.


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