I tried for two hours and couldn’t do it.
Tidal Premium ($20/month) streams in lossless high fidelity sound quality at 1.4mbps. Spotify Premium ($10/month) streams at 320kbps. I’ll convince myself lossless sounds better when I know which I’m listening to, but I can’t consistently guess which is which. Neither could another person I was with.
Playing the same track in different formats on a pretty good sound system (Sonos Playbar, Sub, and two Play:1), I couldn’t reliably tell the difference. Trying Tidal’s high fidelity test on my iMac speakers was hopeless.
It’s not just me. Most Verge staffers couldn’t do it on $80 headphones. Many NPR and Reddit readers failed, too. Create Digital Music’s Peter Kirn failed multiple times and came away with a new appreciation for 320kbps.
Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) preserves every frequency of sound when encoding music. Most other audio formats shave off frequencies here and there.
Some people can tell the difference on any speaker. Says an NPR commenter: “I’m a casual pianist and I got all six right using cheap headphones and a laptop. My trick was not to listen to the sound, but to listen to the transitions between sounds. We’re better at picking up edge effects than at distinguishing between values.”
Perhaps I could learn if I practiced. Even then, I doubt it would matter much, at least not on my speakers.
Android Police editor David Ruddock makes a convincing case that lossless is a waste for most people on his blog Warm Leftovers: “Unless you’re using an audio setup that reaches into the thousands upon thousands of dollars, sorry, I just refuse to believe you can hear the difference unless you’ve got pitch-perfect ears or have spent years and years doing professional audio work and know exactly what to listen for. Even many of those people will tell you that, if the difference is there, it doesn’t matter — your ears aren’t an audio-measuring supercomputer, much like your taste buds aren’t a mass spectrometer.
“How many musicians and audio engineers do you see boasting about the sonic superiority of FLAC audio?” Ruddock asks. “Basically none. Because they know that the difference between FLAC and 320kbps MP3 is utterly irrelevant to 99.98% of what you hear in a recording.”
Commenter Dave Bryan on YouTube argues the same: “I think lossless formats are like fine bottles of wine, and 320 kbps mp3 files are like fine bottles of wine with one tablespoon of water replacing one tablespoon of wine. The frequencies you’re missing out on with 320kbps are so minuscule and barely take away from any of the original quality when they’re removed. Unless these audiophiles have canine hearing and $1000+ headphones, I really think they’re making a big fuss about nothing. The music is almost always equally enjoyable with either format.”
Nishual Saperia on Quora says the difference is subtle, even on his $1,000 in-ear headphones: “I have shure se 846 headphones and the difference is there. But is it night and day? Not at all. When walking around I don’t notice it and don’t really care. But sometimes I just want to sit and listen to the music focusing on it – that’s when it makes a difference – the bass is tighter (the biggest difference for sure), the high-end is better and the guitars more edgy.”
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