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Music Entertainment

Can You Really Hear the Difference Between Lossless, Lossy Audio? 749 749

CWmike writes "Lossless audio formats that retain the sound quality of original recordings while also offering some compression for data storage are being championed by musicians like Neil Young and Dave Grohl, who say compressed formats like the MP3s being sold on iTunes rob listeners of the artist's intent. By Young's estimation, CDs can only offer about 15% of the data that was in a master sound track, and when you compress that CD into a lossy MP3 or AAC file format, you lose even more of the depth and quality of a recording. Audiophiles, who have long remained loyal to vinyl albums, are also adopting the lossless formats, some of the most popular of which are FLAC and AIFF, and in some cases can build up terabyte-sized album collections as the formats are still about five times the size of compressed audio files. Even so, digital music sites like HDtracks claim about three hundred thousand people visit each month to purchase hi-def music. And for music purists, some of whom are convinced there's a significant difference in sound quality, listening to lossy file formats in place of lossless is like settling for a Volkswagen instead of a Ferrari."
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Can You Really Hear the Difference Between Lossless, Lossy Audio?

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  • Any good studies? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Experiment 626 (698257) on Friday March 22, 2013 @01:19PM (#43248341)
    Anyone know of any good double-blind studies comparing people's ability to tell FLAC from 320kbps MP3? Googling just turns up people debating in forums whether you would be able to tell the difference rather than any serious academic research.
  • Yes and No. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by nospam007 (722110) * on Friday March 22, 2013 @01:19PM (#43248353)

    People with normal, standard hearing cannot detect a difference, that' s the point of the compression.

    If you are hearing a difference, it's because you have a hearing defect. If you can hear something that you don't hear after compression, it's because you're deaf to the sounds that's overlaying it (and killed it in the compression)
    You were hearing the original differently in the first place, than anybody else with normal hearing.

  • Oblig (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jxander (2605655) on Friday March 22, 2013 @01:20PM (#43248363)
  • by fa2k (881632) <pmbjornstad @ g> on Friday March 22, 2013 @01:28PM (#43248483)

    Depends on how good the sound engineers are. A lot can be gained by higher resolution and sample rate in the mastering stage, but by using a good low pass filter and dithering (and dithering is not really necessary, [] ) basically all audible information is captured in 44.1kHz / 16. Your speakers probably don't go much above 20 kHz anyway, so anything beyond 44.1kHz will only cause distortion (aliasing), see post by MetalliQaZ "Debunked" below.

  • Re:It doesn't matter (Score:4, Interesting)

    by xorsyst (1279232) on Friday March 22, 2013 @01:31PM (#43248543) Journal

    Oh, for mod points.

    While I can't (mostly) tell the difference between the original CD and a ~140Kbs VBR MP3, I _can_ tell the difference between a 140Kbs VBR MB3 made from the CD source, and a 140Kbs VBR MP3 made from a 256Kbs VBR MP3.

    Lossless isn't for listening to, it's for archiving. And make sure you get the cuesheet, pregaps, etc. right when you're archiving too :)

  • by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Friday March 22, 2013 @01:46PM (#43248755) Journal
    You are 100% correct, I have sat in a $100k studio with $5k reference monitors and heard my tracks played back at both 192k and at 44.1k and honestly? Couldn't tell the difference, i really couldn't. And while my midrange hearing may not be the greatest I'm picky as hell when it comes to low end and that is usually the first thing that goes when you compress but standard 44.1k? Couldn't tell the difference which if there was gonna be a difference i would have heard it on that system, it was top notch. I'm sure many here can bring citations showing double blind tests which i have no doubt show its all placebo, because if I can't hear it in a nice studio with the actual live instrument right beside it i doubt seriously anybody is gonna hear a difference with home gear, even high end home gear.
  • by jlfose (1063282) on Friday March 22, 2013 @01:50PM (#43248819)
    It could be dependent on the gear that playback occurs on and the quality of the listener's ears. In watching Stan Lee's new show about "superhumans" it becomes clear that some people have, by training or genetics, better reflexes then the bulk of humanity. On my home gear I can't tell the difference above 160Kbs, but I'm more then willing to believe that some people can, either because they have much better gear to listen to, and/or they have superior hearing.
  • Re:Any good studies? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by FrankSchwab (675585) on Friday March 22, 2013 @01:53PM (#43248843) Journal

    I don't know if it's a good study, but I did exactly this test. Ten or fifteen years ago.

    I took four musical selections (from the latest Rolling Stones album at the time, a solo piano performance, a classical orchestra, a female vocal), and encoded them at 128, 192, and 256 Kbps with the Fraunhofer codec of the day (remember that?). I re-expanded them to 44.1 KHz CD tracks, and put them on a burned audio CD (remember those?). Each selection on the CD had five versions - the first was always the original bit-for-bit copy from the source CD, then followed (in random order) the 128, 192, 256, and the original again.

    I made ten copies, and handed them out to the audiophiles in the office to play on their home stereos, and gave them a test sheet - I asked them to identify for each selection which version was 128, 192, 256, or the original. Nobody came close to having a "golden ear" that could reliably tell the 128Kbps versions from the others, much less the higher bitrates. Overall, there was a slight ability to detect the 128 kbps versions - it got selected as the lowest quality one more times than random chance would suggest, but even it was still well below 50% (I don't remember the exact numbers any more).

    And this was with ancient MP3 encoders.

    Frankly, if you think you've got the golden ear, first of all I pity you - I'm sorry that you have to put up with all the crap you're going to hear. Second of all, I really recommend running the same test - prepare the tracks, have a friend randomly order them (but keep track), and then see if you can identify them. Don't simply say "Of course I can" - Actually do it and prove it.

    And, if I can be an old man with a bit of advice for a minute: if you can't tell the difference, don't go out of your way to train yourself to tell the difference. It'll just be an annoyance to you for the rest of your life. Kinda like the person who taught me about the reel-change indicators on film at the movie theatres - I see it, and my whole body tenses up waiting for the change. I wish I had never known about it. I really appreciate the change to digital projection so I don't have to deal with those anymore. /frank

  • by neoshroom (324937) on Friday March 22, 2013 @01:59PM (#43248947)
    I've been into compressed lossless audio from the start. First, AIFF is definitely not one of the most popular lossless audio formats for distributing music because the popular formats are compressed lossless audio and AIFF is uncompressed. The top formats are FLAC, APE and ALAC. FLAC is the most popular because it is open-source and versatile. APE was highly popular in the late 90's and early 00's and still is with some because it has better compression than any of the other formats. However, as time went on hard drive space became more plentiful and mobile devices started popping up. APE achieves its superior compression via calculations that are more intensive than FLAC uses and thus more taxing on mobile devices. It is also less cross-platform-compatible. ALAC is Apple's Lossless Audio Codec and is a latecomer onto the scene. It has good iTunes support and slightly better compression than FLAC, but that's about it.

    Also, it is definitely possible to tell lossless audio from lossy audio, even at higher bitrates. Around 2002 I had a friend who completely mocked my lossless ways, even though I'm not one of those gold-cable audiophile people -- just a normal guy who likes his music. I just had a decent pair of Klipsh speakers with a subwoofer. My friend was so certain that this was all in my head and I was so certain that it was not that we devised a simple test. He would show me two identical-looking files in iTunes, just showing the titles. One was a high-bitrate AAC and the other a FLAC file. I could click on them to play them as much as I wanted. I was then to decide which was lossless and which was lossy. We did this with 10 files. It was basically double-blind as he didn't know which was which either until he took the computer back to check my answer. He set up 10 files this way. All in all the test took just 5 or 10 minutes.

    I got 9 of 10 right. It is hard to describe sounds, but the lossless music is "deeper," especially bass, guitar vibrations and high notes. This makes it obvious for many songs.

    However, I expect not everyone has hearing like this. I suspect this because one day I heard this annoying buzzing sound and asked my girlfriend about it. She couldn't hear anything. So, I searched all over for what was causing it. It turned out it was a television that was on, but that was on a non-channel so it was completely black on the screen. However, the CRT television emitted a sound from being on in a silent room that I found annoying and my girlfriend couldn't even hear. My sister could also hear it when I tested her later. I also sometimes find the sounds fluorescent lights make annoying too.

    Anyway, lossless is great and, yes, you can hear the difference if you have hearing which can hear the difference. It's sort of tautological, but it's the truth.
  • by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Friday March 22, 2013 @02:02PM (#43248985) Journal

    Well to be really REALLY fair I have noticed it also matter if the original music was recorded in analog or digital, as I've taken some tracks we've cut in a classic studio with the analog 8-track and its really fricking hard to get those to sound really..."right" for want of a better term as its really hard to describe, when it is compared to digital.

    The closest I can get to describing it is this and sorry if you aren't a musician but they'll know of which I know how you have that great old tube amp for the guitar and it has that nice warm fat feel to it? Notice how the same amp when modeled digitally doesn't doesn't quite have the warmth? Its kinda...artificial sounding? That was the trouble we had, the tapes sounded nice and warm but trying to get that to switch over to digital was fucking hard, frankly it was easier to just cut the tracks again in a digital studio than it was to get the analog tapes to really convert well.

    Sorry if I'm not describing it correctly but music is one of those things where my terminology often fails me, its so hard to describe feelings and emotions and music for me is an emotional expression so I end up having to try to describe how I felt as I listened or played and my vocabulary fails me, the analog was a little fuzzy but it was warm and lived in feeling while trying to convert that to digital something was lost in translation, no other way I know how to say it. the same tracks recorded natively in digital sounded great, analog sounded great, but putting the two together was just something we never could get to work.

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Friday March 22, 2013 @02:07PM (#43249037)

    "There are good reasons to master audio in high res, but for listening 16 bit 44.1khz audio is as good as anything."

    The reasons for having "extra" fidelity in master recordings is the same reason for having high-resolution photos in "raw" format: there is lots more wiggle room for editing while still maintaining good enough fidelity that the end user can't tell the difference.

    For example: take a large (say 16M pixel) 8 x 10 photo, and reduce it to 4 x 5 at 600 dpi. Then take the same photo, edit it (for example, change some colors, remove a cloud from the sky, etc.) and reduce that to the same size and resolution. Even though the resulting photos are higher resolution (at arm's length) than the eye can perceive, they look different.

  • by SD-Arcadia (1146999) on Friday March 22, 2013 @02:16PM (#43249217) Homepage
    "By Young's estimation, CDs can only offer about 15% of the data that was in a master sound track"
    And nothing of value was lost in the remaining 85% of the *data* that is inaudible to the human ear.

    "Young, in fact, created his own digital-to-analog conversion (DAC) service called Pono. Young has tweeted that the Pono cloud-based music service, along with Pono portable digital-to-analog players, will be available by summer."
    There's your cash-in scheme lurking behind all the BS.

    "Young's service would increase the quality, or sampling rate, of the music from 44,100 times per second in a CD (44.1KHz) to 192,000 times per second (192KHz), and will boost the bit depth from 16-bit to 24-bit."
    I would like to repeatedly hit you over the head with []

    "The sample rate of a digital file refers to the number of "snapshots" of audio that are offered up every second. Think of it like a high-definition movie, where the more frames per second you have, the higher the quality."
    NO, do not think of it like that unless you're a charlatan. Refer to rebuttal on

    "Millions of people in the world are audiophiles."
    No doubt, Millions of people in the world are fools and they have money that could be yours.

    "It's just common sense that the higher the resolution -- the more data that's in an audio file -- the better the sound quality, Chesky said."
    Too bad this thing called SCIENCE has been trumping "common sense" for millenia now.

    "The site also recommends high-resolution player software such as JRiver, Pure Music, or Decibel Audio Player. The software, which basically turns your desktop or laptop into a music server or a digital-to-analog converter,"
    HILLARIOUS. I won't even begin to..

    "The most popular music server among audiophiles, according to Bliss, is an Apple Mac Mini."
    This is beautiful. I am not surprised in the least to see this audiophile-appleophile overlap.
  • by evilviper (135110) on Friday March 22, 2013 @02:26PM (#43249359) Journal

    we devised a simple test. He would show me two identical-looking files in iTunes, just showing the titles. One was a high-bitrate AAC and the other a FLAC file. [...] I got 9 of 10 right.

    AAC (like MP3) is a frequency-domain codec, and can therefore never provide transparent audio. It has nothing to do with "deeper". but instead is an inability to represent transients... non-tonal components like percussive sounds and other noise.

    If you had performed the test with Musepack/MPC or even MPEG-1 Layer II at high bitrates, you would have failed the test. []

  • by Entropius (188861) on Friday March 22, 2013 @02:38PM (#43249505)

    OT, as a choral performer:

    Classical music has a stupid wide dynamic range, more than any other genre I know of, and (in particular) soprano sections have a nasty talent for pegging meters that were supposed to be set with plenty of headroom.

  • by Bengie (1121981) on Friday March 22, 2013 @02:39PM (#43249517)
    For me, MP3 knocks out a lot of highs no matter the bitrate. Listening to most Jazz really brings out the flaws of MP3.
  • by Bengie (1121981) on Friday March 22, 2013 @03:19PM (#43250029)
    No amount of equalizer tuning will fix a bad lossy compression. When I listen to any music with real horn, string, or cymbals, MP3 literally hurts my ears. It will give me an ear ache and a headache after only a minute or two of listening. Other better compression algorithms like ogg will not do this, even at higher volumes. Pop music does not have this issue for me.
  • by femtobyte (710429) on Friday March 22, 2013 @03:40PM (#43250389)

    The trick you're playing on yourself here is:

    x = [1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0]; % x is only defined on 8 samples over the interval. There are an infinite number of continuous signals that could be sampled this way.

    Following your procedure through to y:
    octave:5] y = ifft(Y);
    octave:6] y
    y =
          0.87500 0.12500 -0.12500 0.12500 -0.12500 0.12500 -0.12500 0.12500

    so y is also defined at 8 sample points; as for x, there are an infinite number of curves that could fit these. One of these curves is the sum of frequencies indicated by Y. But what does fft(y,256); mean? From the Matlab documentation,

    "Y = fft(X,n) returns the n-point DFT. fft(X) is equivalent to fft(X, n) where n is the size of X in the first nonsingleton dimension. If the length of X is less than n, X is padded with trailing zeros to length n."

    So, now you have y defined in a larger window (y = 0.87500 0.12500 -0.12500 0.12500 -0.12500 0.12500 -0.12500 0.12500 0 0 0 0 0 .... 0). See my response above to another poster's question: when you enlarge the sampling window, you "create" a lot of possible "intermediate" frequencies that "don't exist" (i.e. are indistinguishable from sums of integral frequencies in the shorter window). By padding y with zeros to a larger window, you're looking at a *different* signal from the un-padded y alone; consequently, you need the "extra frequencies" that you ascribe to the "non-sharp-cutoff" to correctly describe the different "y+0,0,0,0,...,0" signal (which is distinct from y). But that doesn't mean the cutoff isn't perfect as defined on the original signal x->y. In fact, if you periodically *repeat* y (y->y,y,y...,y instead of y->y,0,0,0...) you'll see the "sharp cutoff" still applies since the periodic signal is still the sum of the original frequencies in y.

  • by taustin (171655) on Friday March 22, 2013 @04:34PM (#43251171) Homepage Journal

    After all, we're talking about people who buy $1,000 Monster cables, even though in a blind test, they can't tell the difference between those and wire coat hangers. []

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