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frankspin

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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13 replies
cass

Based on what I've experienced, I'm happy with 128kbps or higher given that I listen to my music on fairly inexpensive headphones. Maybe with certain songs, the right headphones, and some intense concentration on my part I could tell the difference, but I don't think it's worth it.

To the people with gigantic headphones, tube amps, and turntables, congrats, you're better than me.
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Ryrynz

I don't require intense concentration, it's easy to pick out 128Kbps files, you're listening for a tunnel like effect which is especially apparent in complex areas, although this may be hearder to hear in in ear earphones. I would highly reccommend purchasing better headphones/earphones or if that's not required (You have a decent set) listening to how say a 96 or 64Kbps file sounds so you can know what to listen out for. You'll enjoy music a lot more with better headphones and higher quality music, well worth investing in.
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MedicalPartisan

I wouldn't consider myself an audiophile by any means. And I surely don't find it necessary to carry around 20-30 meg FLAC files; 256/320kbps works just fine for me. That said, I can absolutely tell when I'm listening to a 128kbps audio file and I don't like it. Anything 256kbps and above I can't tell really tell a difference. I also don't own any upscale headphones. That, however, is about to change. Can't wait for my Bowers & Wilkins P7 to arrive!
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raptorck

I'd like to think I have pretty decent ears. I pick up sounds at a fairly wide frequency range and at fairly low volumes. I can certainly pinpoint a crappy audio stream in no time, but I've always accepted that as a matter of course.

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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groovechicken

I am torn on this. On one hand I am a music lover who appreciates the experience of sitting in a proper acoustic room with a fabulous set of speakers to listen to full quality tracks to really revel in the experience provided by a top-notch producer. On the other hand, I grew up listening to a battery powered FM portable radio with an 8" antenna, so I have been conditioned to appreciate good music even when the quality is trash. So, while I would prefer the high quality experience, I love music enough to take it however I can get it. One of my most valued mp3 files is an audio recording from a crappy Real Player stream in the late 90s. It was a live performance that I haven't been able to find a better version of since, but the song is so good that I routinely listen to it anyway.

Besides, if you sing along loud enough, you can't distinguish the quality anyway. :D
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TimSeppala

I was able to tell the difference in the audio tracks, but I have pretty okay speakers on my desk. Where the lower quality audio files fall apart is in bass, usually.

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.

1 like dislike
dan11

The Quality of the recording is almost always extremely high when it is recorded in the studio. What we get at the end of the line is (except in rare cases, audiophile reproductions) compressed to fit whatever medium we are using. Personally I would rather have the full master recording quality.
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 !
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Met

16 GB is nothing. I filled over 120 GB of my iPod, yet only like 20 or so albums are in lossless.
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Akari

As a kid amassed a huge library of cassettes recorded from my albums and FM radio. The radio stuff from my 3 head cassette deck sounded about as good as a 96kbps MP3 at its worst. The LP's might have been closer to 128. So when I moved everything over to MP3 in the late 90s, I set everything to 128kbps. The last time I re-converted my analouge music it was at 256 which is plenty enough for my Zune 120. If I really wanted to hear the best possible fidelity, I listen to the original CDs, LPs or even loss less transfers of old VHS HiFi tapes. I always find it amusing that people think they are getting real hifi because they bought some rappers silly bass heavy headphones mated to a iPod.
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voltlover00

I did 4 trials on mp3ornot and got them all correct. Do I win anything? :)

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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kyleblene

I can't say. But between mp3 and RAW the difference is obvious. I doubt one can make sense of the quality of mp3 files using stock headphones
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RyanTV

The terrible audio quality is the main reason I don't use streaming services.

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.
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jbond23

320 or GTFO! Although Lame -altstandard is OK (192Kb VBR).
Now what is this "buying" thing you speak of?

Meanwhile, where's my 1Tb iPod Classic? Come on Apple, it's way past time for this.
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