Another survey shows average listeners can’t hear audio quality distinctions

headphones red background canvasThe topic of audio quality in streaming has mellowed out of late, but CNBC re-opened the question with a survey into whether listeners actually pick up on the differences. The results seem to echo several other assessments in finding that for the average person, there’s not much impact.

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.

Proponents of high-quality audio will often dispute claims that there’s minimal, if any, noticeable difference in how compression, bit-rate, or file type impact what you hear. One of the latest investigations into the topic revealed, happily, that both sides of the debate may be correct. With extensive training and a set of controlled circumstances, listeners will pick up on the difference. But if you’re sitting on a crowded bus while listening on cheap earbuds, it’s probably impossible to hear the distinctions.

Anna Washenko


  1. Agreed in general, but…there are limits. Pandora sounds fine to me. So does Spotify and Apple Music. And no, I can’t hear the difference with Tidal. But (herein mixing apples and satellites) you can hit a lower limit. SiriusXM via satellite sounds awful, full stop. The streaming service is fine though. So it is possible to compress, trim, algorithmically torture a piece of music beyond its limits. When it happens, it’s not pretty, or subtle.

  2. The average listener is too busy running errands, etc. to pay attention to difference in audio quality.

  3. My wife can’t tell when a song is playing in stereo or mono. There’s your stinkin’ research LOL

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