Most People Don’t Care About Audio Quality, Study Finds

Question #1: How do you typically listen to music?

(source: Atenga US-based consumer survey of streaming music users; 95% confidence +/- 2.5%)

Question #2: What service do you most often use to stream music?

(source: Atenga; same survey)

Question #3: How important is audio quality to you on your streaming service?

(source: Atenga; same survey)

Streaming music listeners are largely unconcerned with audio quality, according to a US-based survey released by product research group Atenga.  Streaming audio is now a predominant method for accessing music, either via radio (conventional or online), or on-demand formats like YouTube and Spotify.

Streaming is becoming ubiquitous, though Atenga found that most streaming users are either (a) listening to music on their computer speakers, or (b) listening on their phones (oftentimes with earbuds), both methods that are substantially inferior to higher-end alternatives.

More importantly, the sources of most streaming are typically lower-resolution, with Pandora and YouTube commanding a vast percentage of streaming music experiences.  Other, more audiophile formats, including vinyl, HD-quality downloads, or HD-quality physical formats, are often played through higher-end stereo systems or superior headphones, though that represents a small minority of overall listening behavior.

When asked directly about their preferences for quality, nearly 40% admitted that they care more about selection and availability than quality.  The number is surprising considering that most self-expressed music fans will express a preference for higher-quality, though pitting convenience against quality is one way to pierce through that.

Overall, just 25% indicated that audio quality is the most important aspect of their listening experience.

The survey raises serious questions about high-fidelity streaming entrants, particularly from Tidal.  Spotify doesn’t offer a higher-end quality tier, though Tidal was positioning a HD-level streaming service for roughly $20 a month.  That seemed to gain little traction, and Tidal shifted the emphasis towards its lower-quality, $10-a-month offering.

Atenga’s survey involved 857 Americans, with an expressed confidence ratio of 95% (+/- 2.5%).


27 Responses

  1. HelloWorld

    1- The results of this study are horrifying and depressing
    2- On the other hand, 857 participants isn’t very significant…

    • Carl Bunch

      Actually, statistically it is.

      857 participants means a 3.4% margin of error.

  2. Name2

    Math is hard (apparently). Even in color.

    <10% discounted sound quality altogether.

    ~54% said either "quality is everything" or "I'll give up on universal availability for quality"

    These are basically the same answer. That 25% Resnikoff chose to bold ("quality is everything") already knows they are sacrificing a universal selection for that HQ.

    Close to 40% out and out said availability beats quality.

    This is a 54-40 cultural split with the smallest minority just that teeny remainder (6%) claiming quality is completely insignificant.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      I was hesitating to even put that slide in there. The reason is that it asks users to self-report a characteristic about yourself. We need to consider those answers carefully, and they’re probably significantly inaccurate compared to actual behavior.

      It’s almost like asking, “Do you like semi-crappy-but-acceptable wine or the highest-quality wine?” Well, most people like to fashion themselves as connoisseurs, and lovers of high-quality, great things. So they’ll answer the latter, even while stocking their Trader Joe’s cart with two-buck chuck.

      • Name2

        Okay, then. Let’s put “quality” in sneer quotes.

        Even if people think their $10 earbuds or $20 CyberAcoustic speakers from Walmart are the apex of a “quality” audio experience, what still stands is this: a reluctance to sacrifice “quality” (however that consumer defines it), even for breadth of choice, among 54% of the respondents.

        No matter how you or I or Neil Young define “quality”, your headline directly contradicts the research.

  3. Maugarz

    Tell me something that I don’t already know. This is old news. Nobody care about sound quality since MP3.

    • Name2

      Actually, the research shows that, as far as a majority of people are concerned, a streaming service can weather losing a precious artist or two better than they can dialing back on quality.

  4. Rick Shaw

    Great. Now link this article to the one a week ago about how you are “an idiot” if you buy expensive bluetooth headphones. Sheesh!

  5. Dave Fore

    They polled people who don’t even BUY music. If you consumed free food and never paid for a meal, how could you possibly complain about the quality?

    • Because...

      If the food is absolute shit, then one can justify spending money to get a better meal next go around. I get free lunches catered from time-to-time that usually consist of oil soaked fried foods or weepy sandwiches. I appreciate the gesture however I’d rather spend the $10 and eat something with sustenance.

      Free isn’t ALWAYS better for consumers. We can’t over generalize here and say that if a meal (or track) is free to consume then EVERYBODY is going to take the free product over paying a fee for something of better quality.

    • Paul Lanning

      Never mind “quality”— most people today don’t particularly care about musical artistry, period. What public attention there is focuses on TV karaoke contests + artists who get publicity for non-musical deeds (get arrested, threaten or beat someone up, show up at sporting events, give boring obnoxious interviews etc) + whatever this week’s hype might be.

  6. Anonymous

    Meh. 60s music did just fine coming out of mono speakers in cars and tiny transistor radios.

    If it’s recorded and performed well, that will be apparent on any playback system.

  7. worldGoneMad

    And yet, surprisingly, most people care about image quality..why not sound ?

    • Name2

      Science probably holds a few answers. Why don’t you do some research and dress up this dump?

  8. Julian Huntly

    I would think that convenience and availability has always been more important than sound quality to the majority of music consumers. Just think of the success of the cassette, walkman, iPod.
    High end stereo systems have always been for the minority.

    I think that as much as 25% is a good result and plenty to build a business on.

  9. Me3

    The majority of consumers have never cared about audio quality. Thank about how terrible radio sounds. It all started there. Vinyl has no bass. Cassettes are …well, you know. MP3? Forget about it. Most people never get to hear what the song sounded like in a studio and therefore have no idea regarding quality. This article doesn’t surprise me. Marketing and hype are what sells (and always have) not quality.

  10. Keith Michaels

    Thanks for posting this. A whole generation of kids have grown up with bad quality music. So this is no surprise.

  11. rikki

    yup just try and sell your cd collection, nobody wants it even for 50 cents each, but a hard drive of crappy mp3’s sold!

  12. Anonymous

    Most people don’t care about the quality. And many of those that do can’t tell the difference. I have lost track how many people I run into that subscribe to Pandora One so they can get 192 kbps… and they never notice they are only getting 64 kbps on “high-quality” through the mobile app. Many people still don’t know the default quality on Pandora is only 64 kbps through the website (not 128) and only 32 kbps through the app.

  13. p-body

    mp3s sort of ruined music. it was not the decision of the recording industry as they understand the better the quality the more effect music will have on the listener. it was the lack of bandwidth available to pirate cd quality music in the late nineties that screwed things up.

    People do not even consciously realize what mp3s are lacking, though after a while low quality music starts to fatigue the ear. People will probably also start listening to more music once the standard gets back to where it should be which is 24/ 96 (or at least 20/ 44) at this point in time.

    • Name2

      it was not the decision of the recording industry as they understand the better the quality the more effect music will have on the listener.

      So who spent the last 15 years putting out overcompressed, “brickwalled”, unlistenable CDs? Google? Cox Communications?

    • Anonymous

      Really? I’d say it had more to do with the fact that a single album in WAV would fill up an entire MP3 player, if it could even support it. How quickly we forget that the iTunes music store used to use much lower quality (128kbps?) and it had nothing to do with piracy.

  14. crab

    All the digital music we hear today, even the low quality streaming, is better than cassette. Poor freq response, poor dynamic range, tape hiss, are just some of the lovely things you get with cassette tape. Yet noone complained at the time, because it allowed for portable music, and the music was good back then.

  15. Matt

    Do we know what speakers were mostly used with computers and what types of computers, e.g. MacBook Air with Big Jambox?
    Any data on music listening with internal laptop speakers?

  16. Peter Simmons

    I was going to add an orchestra to my new album (costs for musicians, arranger and studios about $25,000) but then figured nobody would notice the difference between that and my cheesy midi computer orchestral sounds! Thank goodness the Beatles were around in the 60s with quality instrumentation cos quality is going down the toilet in this new ‘free music’ era!