Play each sample as much as you’d like in three encodings — 128k MP3, 320k MP3, and uncompressed WAV — and try to identify the uncompressed WAV.
I did slightly better than random selection:
You got 3 out of 6 correct!
Do you spend a lot of time listening to high-quality audio files? Adding specialized equipment to your system can boost the audio quality, but if there are weak links in the chain (say, if you’ve got a digital-to-analog converter and cheap earbuds), you won’t hear as much. Bonus hint: Scroll back up and listen to the uncompressed WAV files again – even self-proclaimed audiophiles say that it takes time for your ears to adjust to the differences in files.
This is what’s so frustrating about audiophiles: they convince themselves, and others, that there’s always more sound quality to be had (and noticed) with an endless money pit of obscure components and upgrades.
But I was already listening with plenty of “specialized equipment”, and even on the ones I got right, I couldn’t really identify what about it sounded better, and any differences were so hard to detect that I wasn’t very confident in any of my choices. I was really straining to hear any difference at all, and I’m not sure I really did.
NPR’s “hint” to then listen again to the now-labeled uncompressed files, since “it takes time for your ears to adjust”, is, of course, bullshit. If they tell you one is better, you’ll subconsciously believe it’s better. This is why blind tests exist.
I stand by my prior assertion that speakers and headphones matter a lot; amps matter a little; and cables, DACs, higher-than-256k bitrates, and higher-than-44/16 sample rates matter so little that almost nobody can blindly detect differences between them. Allocate your budget accordingly.1
The most noticeable quality improvements, by far, come from better-recorded music and better speakers or headphones.
Of my setup: the headphones are incredible and worth every penny, the amp is the cheapest amp that can handle their unusually high power demands, the DAC wasn’t really necessary, and I use cheap cables, well-encoded MP3s, and iTunes without any weird plugins. ↩︎