Meta-analysis finds evidence supporting both sides of high-res audio debate

headphones red background 300wAudio quality has been a hotly contested subject for the music industry. Some swear that high compression and low bitrate make for a mediocre listening experience. Others say the distinctions between file type are indistinguishable, at least for the average listener. A new study found data that, impressively enough, supports both sides. The research, which collected results from 18 published experiments into audio quality, was published in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.

A meta-analysis led by the Queen Mary University of London found that people could distinguish between file formats in controlled settings. Variables such as the length of a sample heard could impact the ability to hear differences. But notably, their ability to identify the different formats was better when the participants had received extensive training; those subjects could hear the differences between formats around 60% of the time.

So yes, people such as Neil Young who have been immersed in the minutiae of not just music but also its production, will probably notice differences in file formats. But the average listener may not have that same experience. Also, there’s the weakest-link factor: no matter how advanced a file format is, listening on cheap headphones will negate those details.

Anna Washenko


  1. I believe there is some industry confusion with regard to the term compression. In one sense it applies to lossey codecs compressing the data, the lower the bit rate for a particular codec the poorer the quality. Then there is audio compression which in my mind is what is causing poor audio with todays mastered music. No dynamics on media that has the potential for so much dynamics. It’s as if today’s music is being mastered for ear buds and that is it.

    • Good point John. There is compression to make file sizes smaller, and compression to make music louder and flatter. The latter is part of an ongoing noise war.

  2. I totally agree with John Schaab. People sometimes struggle to hear the difference between codecs, especially at higher bit rates, but the loudness war which is compressing all the dynamics out of the music is clearly audible to everyone and deeply unpleasant. It is deeply ironic that, at a time when digital technology allows us to deliver a wider dynamic range than ever before, we are delivering a smaller dynamic range than we were in the 1970’s.

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