Does High-Fidelity Music In Streaming Really Matter? Probably Not, Says a CNBC Test

Mercenary Field Amplifier
  • Save

Music companies, music streaming companies, and manufacturers are pushing more and more for listeners to enjoy a truly beautiful sound experience without all that loss.  The examples are everywhere: Tidal initially launching a $19.99 service for hi-fi audio fidelity, Deezer offering hi-fi as well, and an iPhone 7 without a headphone jack supposedly due to physical analog headphone jacks not being able to deliver high quality audio.

But does all of this truly matter? According to a CNBC report, maybe not as much as you’d think.

The question CNBC posed was the following: “Is the full CD sound quality (and all that 1,411 kbps data you’d be streaming) any better than the typical 320 kbps being offered by services like Spotify, Google and others?” CNBC decided to conduct their test in their high-fidelity audio ‘sweetening’ room.” In an article laying out the details, 15 colleagues ranging from 21 to 55 years old were brought in and asked to pick 3 songs each, with a few asking for 4 songs. They then played each on Tidal, Spotify and Apple Music.

A few other testing details: if the last two services happened to crash, they would use Deezer instead. In order to ensure impartiality, each participant didn’t know what service they were listening to.  The song would move on when the participant told testers to move on.

Now, here’s the kicker. Out of 48 total songs played, only 1 out of every 3 participants identified the correct high-fidelity sound service. But “at least four times” people couldn’t hear any difference.

After reaching out to the music services, Alexander Holland, chief content and product officer at Deezer, was the only one to defend its service. He reportedly told CNBC:

“The difference is audio quality can depend on external conditions such as the environment, headset, speakers and devices. Music-loving audiophiles can definitely detect the difference between the different level of sounds.”

According to other sound professionals and audiophiles, yes, you can tell the difference if you’re playing back the music on high-quality devices, and you probably won’t be able to tell if you’re playing the music through common, everyday equipment. Refuting this argument, CNBC was quick to point out that they subjected their participants “in a room with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of audio equipment.”  

They also noted that an NPR online survey, along with other studies, that show that in general, people like you and me probably can’t tell the difference.

For audiophiles quick to dismiss CNBC’s admittedly “non-scientific test,” an in-house engineer pointed out “that ‘lossless’ music reduces stress levels, while heavily compressed audio requires listeners’ brains to fill in the gaps” and truly depends on how the music track was designed to be outputted.


Mercenary Field Amplifier image by Andrew Pilling, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0).

8 Responses

  1. OP

    CD quality music is really different. CNBC “tested” by asking a bunch of interns to “compare” using their iPhones and Beats headphones. How cute. But of course you won’t hear the difference on a smartphone using “normal” headphones, that’s guaranteed. That’s why companies really looking after the high end market – like Qobuz – are partnering with top-end audio manufacturers (not talking about Sonos here, by the way…) and focus on streaming 16 or 24 bit FLAC to the luxury DAC sitting permanently in the living room.
    And that’s why MQA is a curious beast – why focusing on squishing the bitrate and compromising quality “less than other codecs” when the audiophile market listens over Wi-Fi (gosh, over gold-plated RJ45!) and settles for nothing but the purest, no-compromise, most original file format? If anything the market should push for *higher* bitrate (e.g. DSD), to validate that feeling of authenticity.

    • chopstix

      no that is not true, OP…they used high quality, well regarded genelec speakers…did you even bother to read the article in full?

      one thing that is coming out of this (and i’m a Tidal hi fi suscriber) is the source used: if the music streamed is a victim of loudness wars or dynamic compression, and not a well mastered/produced piece then ‘cd quality’ doesn’t really matter..maybe when/if Tidal comes out with MQA then there will be noticeable differences to warrant the extra $10/mo for HiFI.

    • Daniel Adrian Sanchez

      You mean add a link to the source? The actual source was referenced. I’ll go ahead and update the post with links.

  2. Nicky Knight

    Consumers are probably happy with the current audio quality of music from Spotify, Apple Music and iTunes.

    It’s not really the technical spec that decides what people will listen to but more the creative manipulation of the composition and the sound that matters to most.

    Most people nowadays listen to music either on mobile/cell phone earbuds and headphones.

    It’s interesting that the days of everyone buying a stereo HiFi (speakers, amp, turntable, cassette deck, CD player) are for the most part gone..

    Music is more often enjoyed from a personal device like a phone or otherwise played over/via a TV set.. gone are the HiFi Stereos..

  3. George Massenburg

    If a sensitivity to listening to high-resolution, high-rate music can’t be proven with good scientific methods, it will continue to be discounted. We need to grow a practical, meaningful listening test. i couldn’t be more impressed with MQA—it’s math underpinning (much of it done by Peter Craven) is exemplary, it’s performance everything one would wish for—contrary to claims it is measurably lossless within the limits of digitally-encoded music.
    whatever, the issue isn’t going away…for good reasons.

  4. Cat Steppings

    I don’t have pricey speakers or headphones, so lossless streaming is not for me. Most people should just stick with the regular mp3/aac/ogg services. I do still like cd’s with a cd player (it’s nice to just put in a disc, hit play and hear the music) and I have a sansa clip player that plays lossless files, but I am not certain I can hear the difference.