Can You Hear the Difference Between Spotify and High-Res?
I’ve been a loyal Spotify subscriber for a few years now. But I’ve also listened to high resolution files, and they sounded fantastic. Being an audiophile, I naturally want the best sound I can get. Enter Tidal. A streaming service, much like Spotify, that provides FLAC files with its premium subscription. What the hell, I can dish out $20 a month if it means uncompromised sound. So, with excitement, I signed up for a trial subscription and listened to a song. It sounded great. But just out of interest, I decided to compare it to the same song on Spotify. Hmm. Maybe I heard a difference, but I wasn’t sure. So, I compared another song and got the same result; was I hearing a difference, or was my brain playing tricks on me? After a few obsessive comparisons, I came to the conclusion that I could hear very little difference, if any, between the two files. Can You Hear The Difference Between Spotify And High-Res? Well, there’s a test you can take to give you a definitive answer.
I should preface this article by saying that the headphones I used were my Westone W40’s. Not the best headphones on the market, but certainly an expensive, high quality model that relatively few people would be willing to dish out money for. I also wasn’t using a DAC. Still, was I losing my hearing? I’m a musician, and I review headphones for a living, so this was a terrifying possibility. I went online to see if other audiophiles had this problem. Sure enough, I found a bunch of musicians and audio professionals who were dumbfounded by the same discovery. One Googler directed me to an online program designed to test your ability to differentiate between a Spotify 320kbps file and a FLAC. So, I decided to take a short version of the test myself. After two tries, I received the same result; I came up with the correct answer only 54% of the time. The program concluded that I probably couldn’t hear the difference between 320kbps files and FLAC files. What the Freq!
Utterly destroyed, I sent the test to two other headphone reviewers. One is a sound engineer, and the other a sound designer. Sound is what we do. Both reviewers took the test, and both received around the same result as I did. The sound engineer noted that on certain tracks, she received a 20% success rate, while on others, namely, “Hotel California,” she got a 100% success rate. Still, her overall score across song genres came to about 50%. The sound designer decided to take the test through his studio monitors. He also received the same test result of about 50%. Could this be? Three well trained pairs of ears, for the most part, unable to tell the difference between 320kbps files and a FLAC? I couldn’t believe it. Was it our “cheap” equipment or is there little, if any, discernible difference between a Spotofy file and a high-res file?
The next day, when I got to work, I took out a pair of Beyerdyamic 1990 Pro’s, arguably the most well-balanced and accurate headphones, specifically designed for critical listening and used by the world’s leading mixers and audio professionals. I also pulled out a Chord Mojo DAC/AMP, one of the best-selling and highly regarded DAC-AMP combos out there. Mustering up some courage, I hooked up all the equipment, which all together adds up to a value of almost 12 hundred bucks. I decided to try out the lengthiest version of the same test, which requires you to listen to 5 songs, 20 times per song. Here are my results:
Flesh & Bone by The Killers -50% correct
The Wilhelm Scream by James Blake – 50% correct
Give Life Back to Music by Daft Punk – 40% correct
Hotel California by The Eagles – 45% correct
Long Time Gone by Dixie Chicks – 75% correct
My total average score was 52%. I was sure I got the Dixie Chicks right because I thought I could hear more clarity in the guitars. Certainly, my highest score came from that song, but still, I only had it right 75% of the time.
Recent studies have been exploring whether expectation can have an effect on sound quality. The Hearing Review published an article on this topic, interviewing a scientist who was investigating this very phenomenon. Computational neuroscientist, Dr Emili Balaguer-Ballester stated that “Almost 80% of connections between central and pre-cortical areas during sound processing seem to be top-down, from the brain to the auditory peripheral system and not bottom-up, which is perhaps unexpected,” said Balaguer-Ballester. “As sound comes from an external stimulus, it would be fair to assume that most of our processing occurs from what we hear, but that is apparently not the case. What your brain expects to hear can be as important as the sound itself.” Are our ears telling us what we hear? Or is it our brains?
There’s a common term in psychology called, “the power of suggestion.” If someone or something suggests a certain outcome, your expectations of that outcome have an effect on the occurrence. If you’re listening to a high resolution file, naturally, you’re expecting it to sound better.
Maybe not all high resolution files are created equal. I have yet to compare a lossless compression FLAC file to a WAV file, for example. And I And I’m not saying that you, personally, cannot hear the difference between a FLAC and a 320kbps file. Perhaps you have unusually fantastic hearing. And if that’s the case, of course you would opt for a high resolution file over a Spotify subscription. So would I. But if you’re not part of that 1% with superhuman ears, you may want to take this test before investing a ton in high resolution files. It would be nice to confirm that your mind isn’t playing tricks on your ears: Take The Lossless File Sound Test