I’ve long suspected that most classical music fans can’t tell the difference between CD-quality downloads and the compressed kind you get from mainstream music stores.
Visitors to this site were asked to listen to an audio file containing three different versions of the same 1’15” excerpt of Mozart’s piano concerto K491. To keep it a blind trial, all three samples were joined together and up-converted into a single 56mb WAV file.
Participants were told that one was CD-quality, and the other two were compressed files like you might buy from iTunes or Amazon. They were asked to identify the CD-quality one. This is what the question looked like:
The correct answer is the third one. The first was a 320kbps MP3 like you might get from a specialist classical download store, and the second was a 256kbps AAC file, like you might buy from iTunes.
If my hypothesis is wrong, and most people can tell the difference, you’d expect more than half of all respondents to answer correctly. To confirm the hypothesis, you’d expect fewer than half of all respondents to get it right.
If you got it wrong, don’t feel bad. This was a test of the technology, not a test of your ears.
The sample size was 100 respondents. In the time it took to get 100 responses (six days), the post about this test was viewed about 1,000 times and the file clicked on about 200 times, in part thanks to incoming links from Miss Mussel, Alex Ross, Daniel Stephen Johnson and AC Douglas. I think this represents a pretty good cross-section of classical consumers on the web.
Most people (57%) got it wrong. Another 16% said they didn’t know.
CD wasn’t even the most popular guess – almost a third of all respondents (32%) thought that the lowest bit-rate file (256kbps AAC, like you’d get form iTunes) was CD quality. 27% got it right. That’s slightly worse than if everybody that thought they knew had just had just guessed.
Respondents were much more likely (3.7 times as likely, in fact) to get it wrong than to admit that they didn’t know.
- Most classical consumers can’t reliably tell the difference between compressed downloads and CD-quality audio.
- The majority of consumers who think they can tell the difference are, at best, mistaken.
- A much larger (or very different) sample would be required before you could conclude that anybody can tell the difference.
Compressed audio has a bad reputation, but that’s mostly undeserved. There must be audiophiles that genuinely can tell the difference, but they’re a small minority. If exaggerated complaints about compressed audio prevent people from even trying digital downloads and deciding for themselves, then those complaints are harmful to the entire classical record industry.
If labels want to sell music to hi-fi enthusiasts, they should keep peddling CDs. If they want to sell music to music enthusiasts, they should stop whining about bit-rates and encourage their customers to try the download stores that already exist, and that have the capacity to reach millions of consumers worldwide.
If you’re about to launch a classical download store, you’d better have a lot more up your sleeve than a clunky site offering lossless downloads. When they try them side-by-side, a lot of customers will prefer the convenience of Coke.
We’re up to 30-something comments now, with many of them focussed on what this experiment tells us about the importance of playback equipment. Let me be really clear: this experiment tells us nothing at all about playback equipment, nor is it intended to. The experiment asks “can people tell” and not “why can’t they tell”. If you’re interested in hardware, the “why” is important. I’m much more interested in selling recordings. When you’re selling recordings, it doesn’t matter anywhere near as much.