Take the Scientist Challenge: If you can reliably hear a difference between either CD or 320kbps mp3 and any higher resolution format, (and prove it!) we will publish a glowing, feature-length article about you.
Whenever we write about subjects like bit depth, sample rates, high resolution mp3s, or the quality of contemporary audio technology, we inevitably hear a bit of chatter on social media forums from people who claim they can hear differences that no one else is able to.
Of course there are some people in the world who can hear, and more importantly, listen, better than others. There’s no question about that.
It’s even been confirmed that there are some subtle differences which may be very difficult to hear, but which some people can reliably hear, blind. This includes a half a dB of EQ at certain frequencies, some pretty infinitesimal changes in level, differences between tape formats and so on. Truly tiny things. (Practice enough, and you may be able to do it, too.)
But even when we take all this into account, it appears there are some differences that no one has ever heard under properly controlled conditions. We’re talking about reportedly “huge” differences in sound quality for which no clear evidence exists.
The unproven claim that comes up the most often is that there is a clear audible difference in sound quality between a super-high-resolution format like 24/192, and either standard full-resolution audio at 16/44.1, or a high-resolution mp3 at 320kbps.
That these claims are in fact, unproven, may surprise some people. If you’re one of them, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
When I first started to look into the claims about the sound quality of super-high resolution formats, I, like many others, instinctively believed that they must sound better. I mean, just look at the numbers! They’re so much bigger! Duh!! But the more I went looking for evidence, the more that I found there was none to report.
In the end, I was unable to find any reliable evidence that anyone, trained listeners included, could hear or appreciate a difference between these formats when listening blind. I did however, find mountains of studies that pointed the other way. (We even did one of our own, just be sure.)
All this was a genuine surprise to me, especially when I thought back on all the anecdotes and impassioned testimonials I had heard to the contrary.
I did eventually find some reasonable explanations as to why a single A/D converter could possibly change in sound at different sampling rates, due to design choices that would lead to intermodulation distortion, or from subtle differences in filter slopes within the audible range. But that was as far as it went. And when it came to audio playback? Forget about it. No good evidence at all.
Take The Challenge!
If you’re not convinced and you believe that you can hear these differences, I want to hear from you. All you have to do is prove that you can reliably hear a difference between CD, 320kbps mp3, and any higher resolution format, and we will write a glowing, feature-length article about you. That’s a promise.
The only stipulations are that it has to be double-blind, using properly mastered commercial recordings under normal listening conditions. You also have to get it right enough times that the result is statistically significant (i.e. greater than chance.) You can even pick the music, the environment and the playback system. We’ll provide the files, and have them independently verified by a third party if you like. And you can even practice as much as you want!
(What does “normal listening conditions” mean? Mostly that you can’t cheat the test by queuing up a super-quiet passage, then cranking the gain up to an ear-shattering level in an attempt to compare the extremely low-level noise floors of 16 and 24-bit. If you did that, you’d effectively be comparing two, much lower bit depths, which is not the goal.)
I will admit that I’m skeptical anyone will even take this challenge, much less succeed at it. I’ve already offered this opportunity to dozens of comers in the past few months alone and have had no takers so far.
Still, despite this healthy skepticism, I’d be damned if anyone in the world can reliably hear these differences, and I’m not the one to document it first! I want you to succeed. (The fact that I have a very reasonable doubt that anyone will is neither here nor there.)
So the next time you’re talking to some friends or poking around an internet forum or social media site, and someone sounds off about being able to hear “big differences” between 24/96, 16/44.1, and 320kbps mp3, just send them a link to this page.
If it really is that easy to discern, we want to hear from them! It would be the first instance of a confirmed positive on record that I’m aware of. And that would be news worth reporting.
For now, it seems pretty safe to say we’ve reached a real apex when it comes to hi-fidelity audio playback. Today, we have access to better sound equipment at lower prices than ever before. We’re living in a damn audio golden age, and it’s time to start acting like it!
Of course, there are still plenty of real challenges facing musicians, audio enthusiasts and sound professionals alike, and I believe we should take them seriously. However, without any proof to the contrary, it appears that raw audio quality is just not among them. And that should inform us when we’re considering where to put our energies.
Disagree? That’s okay. Take the challenge!
Think you can hear the difference? First, test yourself! Try an honest blind listening exercise. We’ve found that in just about every case where someone claims to hear a difference, they have never actually tried to discern it in a proper blind test.
One way to test your self is to download an ABX testing program like foobar 2000 for PC or ABX Tester for Mac. If you’re the first on record to reliably get it right when comparing 320kbps mp3 or 16/44.1 to any higher resolution format, we want to be the first to hear about it.