How much does audio quality matter when buying music?
In a recent conversation via Twitter I came across the site mp3ornot.com which uses an A/B test to see if you can find the difference in the files. It's an interesting test to take and see if you can actually notice the difference; mind you it's still not the best since they're not local files and sources may vary.
It did get me to thinking about music quality and perhaps some peoples obsession with having the best quality when they may not even notice. If you're using your phone, laptop, or car to listen to music there is a very good chance that you will not discern the difference in Spotify's low quality vs high quality streaming options. There is also a really good chance that playing a 128kbps file and playing a 96Hz FLAC file will not be noticeable -- if you have an amp on your devices, your not who I'm speaking about.
So the question to be asked here is, does quality really matter when getting your music? Spotify and Rdio offer high streaming options, Apple provides AAC lossless files, and Amazon files come in a variable rate of 256kbps. The higher the quality, the more bandwidth or storage that is going to get eaten up.
I personally get higher quality files but will only go seeking FLAC for specific albums; Steely Dan's AJA for example. And those I'll only listen to locally, I would never stream that large of a file. With Rdio I don't worry about high quality streams and my Subsonic server down-samples everything to 192kbps when streaming. Quality matters to me, but not at the expense of bandwidth.
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My collection starts at 320kbit mp3s and some are in FLAC or Apple Lossless. I use very expensive custom in ear monitors daily to listen to music on my commute and have studio monitors on both my work and home computers. I'm definitely not the average listener.
At this point, I've never downloaded music from iTunes/Amazon/etc. Their audio files just don't fall into the quality range that I want. If they had a 320 CBR or lossless option, I'd be a customer, but I currently still buy CDs and rip them with Exact Audio Copy.
I've done double-blind testing of different quality audio files and can always hear the difference. That said, it relies heavily on the quality of the headphones/speakers you are listening with. Buy yourself even the least expensive pair of www.jhaudio.com in ear monitors (not affiliated, just a happy customer) and you'll instantly hear the low bitrate songs in your collection.
For example, I had initially ripped my entire CD collection at 128 a few years back and put it on my Zune. When I ordered my current truck (a 2008 Ranger with the optional Pioneer stereo upgrade that came with better speakers, a subwoofer and an aux input) I took it for a test drive and immediately loaded "Seven jam" by Clutch on my Zune (yup)(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxQigGSJ6KY) because not only is it a killer track, but it has a rad bass line throughout.
I cranked the volume knob to the max, turned the bass up and, well, there wasn't anything there. On my crappy pack-in earbuds it sounded fine, but as I've realized, hooking up low bitrate music to decent speakers usually just hurts. I rip my music at WMA lossless, still buy CDs and most often listen to my tracks through my home theater system so I'm not representative of the general population.
However, I'm demoing a pair of high end headphones right now, and I can't tell a huge difference between them and my Klipsch S4i or my Astro A40s -- even with lossless files. So, who knows at this point.
I have a Topping TP30 dac / amp and a $500 set of speakers from Madisound. Low quality MP3's (128) are pretty easy to detect, they contain a gravelly-nous in the vocals. High bit-rate MP3's are very, very close to CD quality, it takes a lot of A-B to hear a difference.
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If we have the right gear, everyone can hear the difference. They might not care. But they can hear it !
These days storage is not a problem. We don't need mp3s so you can fit as many songs onto 1gb as we can . Even phones have 16Gb these days .
If this was a poll ? I would vote full quality-no compression !
Besides, if you sing along loud enough, you can't distinguish the quality anyway. :D
To the people with gigantic headphones, tube amps, and turntables, congrats, you're better than me.
That said, there's a law of diminishing returns here, and I've never expected live concert-quality sound from a pair of $100 earbuds, or a set of high-end monitors. I've expected "good enough" and I've gotten it in spades. Simply enough, with most consumer-level equipment, you're absolutely on-point: Your average audio stream IS going to sound "good enough" for the equipment that you're using, and to get a significant improvement, you're going to have to pile on a disproportionate amount of money on better speakers/headphones (NOT earbuds,) amps, and storage for your lossless-encoded files, to say nothing of the potential need for source audio optimized for 5.1 systems and beyond.
If you're trying to fill a study with music, yes, you might very well need high quality audio sampled at 48kHz with 32 or more bits per sample. You'll also need quality amps, low-impedance speaker cabling, precisely located speakers, etc., just so that you can hear some subtle shifting of a bow across that one violin string from that one performer in the second row, three to the left.
Most people don't care about that, shouldn't care about that, and won't care about that. For them, myself included, just invest in a decent pair of midrange headphones and call it a day.
Now, that said, if you're building up a collection at home, and can spare the cash for a RAID array, go with a big and slow option and store everything lossless in a main library and re-rip every couple of years to the newer standard: You'll get better quality for your 192kbps as the codecs improve. I've got a friend who does this, so he gets the absolute best of both worlds: Ultra-high quality for when he needs it, and consistently acceptable portable versions for when he doesn't.
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