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.

Free WDAV Apps Now Available

POSTED February 29, 2012 – WDAV Classical Public Radio has made it easier than ever to enjoy classical music – especially classical music made in the Carolinas – from anywhere in the world. The station announced today the launch of Android, iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad apps that give access to live streams and on-demand selections of WDAV classical music programming. The WDAV Classical Public Radio apps are free and available today for download from the Android Market and the iTunes App Store.

WDAV Classical Public Radio appOn all these devices, the WDAV apps offer listeners an easy way to live-stream either of WDAV’s HD channels— WDAV 89.9FM and the Spanish/English Concierto – as well as an ever-growing library of on-demand music and interview selections. This means WDAV fans can listen anywhere to WDAV’s regular weekly programs, as well as specials like the March 30, 2012 live broadcast of the Charlotte Symphony. Using these mobile devices and the WDAV apps, listeners driving outside the Piedmont can enjoy WDAV by connecting to a car stereo via an auxiliary jack.

With the WDAV Classical Public Radio apps, listeners can:

  • Live-stream the HD-1 WDAV 89.9FM programming anytime, anywhere;
  • Live-stream the HD-2 Spanish/English Concierto programming anytime, anywhere;
  • Listen on-demand to selections from favorite WDAV programs, including Carolina Live and Biscuits & Bach;
  • Bookmark special selections or programs for later listening and reference;
  • Use DVR-like controls to pause, rewind, and fast-forward;
  • Share favorite bookmarks via email accounts and apps installed on the device;
  • Wake-up to WDAV using the app’s built-in alarm clock and sleep timer.

WDAV New Media Director Rachel StewartSays WDAV New Media Director Rachel Stewart, “These apps let our listeners take WDAV anywhere they take their mobile devices. And they’re a great way for new listeners the world over to discover the outstanding regional talent we showcase on WDAV. I hope our loyal listeners will soon download, rank and comment on their listening experiences with the new apps – and let us know their suggestions for new features!”


Installing the WDAV Classical Public Radio Apps

For the Android Phone:

  • Go to the Android Market, and tap the “Apps” section.
  • Tap the Search feature (the magnifying glass).
  • Type “WDAV Classical Public Radio,” and tap search. The WDAV app will appear in the search results.
  • Tap the WDAV app link. A description of the WDAV app displays.
  • Tap the “Install” button. Tap the “Accept & download” button.
  • Wait for the WDAV app to be installed. Tap the “Open” button. You’ll see a welcome screen, then the app will automatically take you to the live-streaming page and launch the WDAV 89.9FM stream.
  • You’ll see navigation choices along the bottom of the screen for “Live,” “On-Demand,” “Bookmarks,” “Search” and “More.”
  • Select the stream or on-demand selection, and start listening, bookmarking, and sharing your favorite WDAV moments!
  • Return to the Android Market to rate the app and add any comments about your listening experience.

For the iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad:

  • Go to the App Store, and tap the “search” feature.
  • Type “WDAV,” and tap Search. The WDAV app will appear in the search results.
  • Tap the WDAV app link. A description of the WDAV Classical Public Radio app displays.
  • Tap the “Free” button, and it will change to an “Install” button. Tap the “Install” button. Wait for the WDAV app to install.
  • Select the stream or on-demand selection, and start listening, bookmarking, and sharing your favorite WDAV moments!
  • Return to the App Store to rate the app and add any comments about your listening experience.

About WDAV Classical Public Radio

WDAV Classical Public Radio is one of America’s leading producers of original classical-music programming. In addition to producing 156 hours per week for its own broadcast use on 89.9FM, HD-1, HD-2, and channels, the station produces nationally-distributed programs, including World of Opera, Concierto, SummerStages, and, in partnership with ETV Radio of South Carolina, Carolina Live. A service of Davidson College in Davidson, NC, WDAV’s  mission is to make classical music accessible to everyone. The station’s 89.9FM signal reaches a 22-county region centered in the Charlotte, NC metro area and ranging from Rock Hill, SC to Galax, VA. WDAV’s broadcasts can also be heard live online 24 hours a day at and iTunes, as well as on any Android, iPhone, or iPad device equipped with the “WDAV Classical Public Radio” app, or the “TuneIn,” “NPR Music” or “Public Radio Player” apps.