QUIZ: Can You Notice The Difference in High-Definition Music Streaming?

This week, an announcement at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference heated up the battle between music streaming services. Now music lovers have more choices at the same price point: for about $10 a month, we can stream Spotify, Tidal, or the new Apple Music. To complicate matters, we can also select Tidal’s high-definition streaming of uncompressed audio files for $19.99 per month.

But is high-definition streaming worth the extra money — and the hit to your mobile data plan?

Possibly not.

NPR created a quiz to put the question to the test: How well can you hear audio quality?

I sent NPR’s quiz to a random sample of colleagues and friends. The results? We’re better off keeping the extra ten dollars in our pocket each month.

Of the ten of us who took the quiz, none of us answered more than 2 out of 6 correctly. (And some – yours truly included – used some lucky guessing.) Yet most of us are audio amateurs, lacking the gear or the ear to truly discern subtle differences in audio quality. What about the pros, listening on the good stuff? Could they hear a difference?

I sent the quiz to Jim McGivney, a professional video editor (and coincidentally, my husband) who took NPR’s quiz while listening on professional audio speakers running through an amplifier. His results? Two out of six correct, guessing only the Jay-Z and Neil Young songs correctly.

What about Bruce Scott, serious audiophile and WDAV’s production manager? He, too, guessed two of the six correctly. But he cautioned against the quiz as a true indicator of audio quality:

“I’m basically distrustful of evaluating audio quality on the basis of internet streaming, as the technology of the streaming process itself may well have more to do with what we hear than the quality of the files being delivered,” Bruce says. “I would not pay extra money for a hi-def streaming service, as there are simply too many variables involved in that process to be sure you’re actually getting increased quality.”

Bruce made another good point: we don’t always prefer the best quality file. Some compressed files may be made more pleasing to certain tastes through EQ or other processes. But as a true audiophile, Bruce prefers to eliminate all variables created from streaming. Instead of Spotify and such, Bruce opts to download uncompressed files from HDTracks.

What about WDAV’s sound engineer extraordinare, Joshua Sacco? He guessed just two correctly on the NPR quiz as well, offering some interesting observations about the quiz:

“The ones I got right were the ones I spent the most time listening to. My quick first impressions were wrong each time,” Josh said. “In my experience I tend to find that lower resolution sound files tend to fatigue my ears much faster than uncompressed files. However sometimes the low-res files are more gratifying initially. Is there a life lesson here?”

And a note for classical lovers: Of everyone in the group, none of us could discern a difference between file compressions of the Mozart piece. So perhaps classical fans may want to choose something else to do with that extra $10 each month; for that, we at WDAV humbly offer an alternative option.

Take the quiz and let us know how well you scored. How many did you guess correctly? Which ones were easier to notice a difference in quality?

Update 6/12: I received an insightful email from Jammrock, who shared his experience with the quiz. Interesting stuff here:

So, there’s HD audio and then there’s “HD” audio. Services like HDtracks and Pono music release HD music. High bit rates, high sample rates, uncompressed, beautifully recorded music. Often taken directly off the master recording.
“HD” audio is anything better than what you’re used to. WDAV is HD radio capable, which is about CD quality music, and it is far cleaner and clearer than analog radio. So relative to its analog counterpart, HD radio is … “HD” (not complaining here, I love listening to WDAV on my HD radio).
If you read closely, the HD service from Tidal is not high resolution HD, it’s uncompressed CD quality music. That makes discerning the difference between MP3 and uncompressed WAV rather difficult. The amount of original information is relatively the same. As such you need to use some really good audio equipment and really focus on the music, without distractions, to hear the difference.
My results point this out pretty well. I got 0/6 on my $10 headphones I use at work. Couldn’t tell the difference at all. Not even a little.
I scored 3/6 on my stereo at home.
Then I used my gaming headset, a $150 set of decent quality headphones with a nice inline DAC/AMP. I scored 5/6, but I had to listen really close to the music. Even then I had to focus on audio cues that give away MP3’s more than the song as a whole.
The one I missed was the Coldplay song. I blame that on poor audio engineering. And the fact that I dislike Coldplay… and they make my ears cringe.
I have a friend with a very expensive set of IEMs (In Ear Monitors). He took the test from his iPhone in a busy airport and scored 4/6. I’m pretty sure he would have gotten them all under the right circumstances.
HD audio is awesome. Just don’t be fooled by marketing fluff. And know what you’re getting into so you can get the full experience from it.