MP3 Or Lossless: See If You Can Hear The Difference With This Test

Think you can tell the difference between CD quality music and compressed MP3s? This simple test can prove once and for all whether storing your music in lossless is worth your time (and hard drive space).

Lossless music, as we've talked about before, is music that hasn't been compressed to a smaller format like MP3. Technically, MP3 is lower quality, as it's lost data from the original recording. However, while many audiophiles will tell you they can totally tell the difference between the two, the truth is it's very difficult for the human ear to tell them apart. Most people are either trying to impress you or are subject to the placebo effect.

I've been storing my music in lossless for a while, though I never really tested myself to see if I could tell the difference. After reading a number of forum threads like this one, I figured I should give it a shot -- and hell if a 320Kb/s MP3 doesn't sound exactly the same to me as a FLAC file. And, while I don't consider myself a serious audiophile, I officially challenge all lossless addicts to take this test and see for themselves whether their ears are really as sensitively attuned as they think they are.

Storing your music in a lossless format has its own advantages -- it's still the most digitally pure representation of your music -- but if you really want to know whether you can tell the difference, an ABX test is the best way. An ABX test is essentially a way of comparing two known files (the lossless A and lossy B) and two unknown files (X and Y, which are the same as A and B, but you don't know which corresponds to which). After playing all four, you tell the test whether you think X is the same file as A, or the same file as B. After repeating this about 10 times, you count up how many times you were right -- and if you didn't get a score of 95 per cent (or in this case, 9 out of 10), you probably can't tell the difference.

You can run this test yourself in your favourite music program, but Windows favourite foobar2000 actually has an ABX plugin that makes the process easy. Check out the video at the top of this post to see how the plugin works, and try it out for yourself. The general consensus is that, while a low-quality MP3 (128Kb/s) might be discernible from a lossless file (~1,411Kb/s) file, higher quality MP3s (320Kb/s) rarely -- if ever -- are. Of course, this can differ depending on the type of music (classical music is often easier to discern), how familiar you are with the music and how nice your audio equipment is. You'll need some high end audio equipment if you even have a hope of hearing the difference between the two.

The takeaway? Storing your music in lossless is great for future-proofing your library (since you can convert it to any other file type without losing quality), but if you're looking to get the most out of listening to your music, you might be fine sticking with 320Kb/s MP3s. I believe Redditor VomitGolem said it best:

Anyone who only seeks the perfectly pure sound should rethink their audio philosophy.

I only need to prove that my system sounds badarse. Which it does.

If you take the test yourself (or have your own opinions on the subject), discuss your thoughts in the comments below.


Comments

    So you're suggesting we plug in some earbuds and see if we can tell the difference between an MP3 and FLAC? I don't think that is the point...

      FFS, how are you going to be listening to your audio then? Do you carry your million dollar hi-fi around with you? On the bus? No?

      Well then don't complain like a massive wanker.

        Not everyone like you only listens with buds on the bus. You massive wanker.

    10 years ago most people were saying a 128kbit MP3 was CD quality - which was/is laughable. Even on multimedia speakers I can pick a 192kbit MP3, but beyond that, I can't tell on multimedia speakers. I keep my collection in FLAC because disk is cheap and it future proofs my collection.

    James 2nd

      This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

      And 25 years ago everyone was saying that CD quality audio was completely unacceptable. Now, somehow, it is the standard by which we judge high quality. Get over it.

    Im sorry but there is one very easy way to find out, and listening to it on your computer with your shitty logitech speakers or through your shitty little ipod is not how to do it.

    Put it through an amp and proper speakers, preferably something in the range of 100-200w RMS per channel. Then its piss easy to compare. Especially if you compare to something like a .wav rippped from a CD.

    If youre listening to music on portable or computer devices then youre listening to subpar accoustics anyway, so just fucking deal with it.

      No, I'm sorry, but nobody measures the quality of an amplifier by its RMS output. If it worked that way, then PAs would sound much better than hi-fi systems. But they don't. I am quite sure that the little 35W RMS bi-amplified speakers in my studio sound much better than your 100-200W set-up.

    We don't keep lossless files because we can necessarily tell the difference. We keep lossless files so we can transcode without a compounding loss in sound quality. For example, a 320 kbps MP3 sounds fine to me. Likewise, a 192 kbps MP3 usually sounds fine to me. But if I transcode a 320 kbps MP3 to a 192 kbps MP3, it will sound like shit.

      Yep, I keep lossless to avoid transcoding and enable later recoding.

      This is why my CD collection all sits in FLAC on my HDD. The same collection is also in 160-256kbps VBR MP3, because that's the "flavour of the month" that works for my devices, but having the FLAC sitting there means that if/when a better codec comes along; or my next phone is happier with AAC or OGG or whatever; I can just chuck 400GB+ at a transcoder and my CDs can sit undisturbed in their cases.

      Why would one ever need to transcode 320 to 192? I store my music at MP3 VBR. Hopefully, the future will be good to me. In the mean time, I have a large collection and lossless does take up considerably more space. There seems to be the scare out there that your music is stored in that horrible MP3 format it will be history and unusable sometime in the future. OK, maybe or maybe not. Store it however you wish. I won't ever be going from 320 to 192 as I use Exact Audio Copy creatine VBR MP3 with LAME which automatically sets the rate at the ideal settings to save disc space. I think it sounds great and I'm saving considerable drive space, plus you can fit sooo much more, and I like iTunes. Plus if you use the annual subscription service on iCloud you get your music upgraded to the higher quality format offered by apple. OK, it's personal choice here.

    It gets crazier than this. People claim they can hear the difference between lossless and WAV, and I think they are so stupid that I offered an (unclaimed) $500 reward to them (http://www.stereo.net.au/forums/index.php?/topic/35983-500-to-the-first-person-who-can-hear-the-difference-between-flacalac-and-wav/).

      Y ou are probably right- the next step will probably be that people can actually hear when a file a ripped wav from harddrive or the actual cd playing.

    There's a certain point where the difference is negligible. I often find the bigger differences lie in the speaker's quality, and I'm sure we've all used some horrible speakers before.

      +1
      I would like to do this whilst sitting in a sound proofed room with high end speakers, However Max makes an excellent point also.

    If anyone thinks one lossless format over another is going to uniquely future-proof them I think they haven't been paying attention to the relentless growth in processing power. I fully expect that future players will be able to decode any non-encrypted media file you throw at them.

      Players today already handle whatever formats you can throw at them :)

        Counterexample: iTunes.

        But actually, I meant that they would be able to analyse and decode rather than using pre-coded filters.

    I can pick it out but im not really aware of it

    20 years ago I could hear a pin drop. 10 year later I cant hear high pitch. 10 years on and I cant hear my wife at all. Yet, if I had the space I would have a lossless collection. Go figure. Oh, and have 2 backups - thats a lot of space.

    I have Arcam & B&W equipment, and I can hear the difference between CDs, FM, DAB+, MP3 and Lossless - if you know what you're looking for, you can even tell the various radio channels because of the monkeys sitting behind the mixing decks who know as much about sound as I do about the 11 Dimensional String Theory.
    Nothing, I repeat nothing sounds like a properly recorded CD. I used to have vinyl, but that's like comparing reading a book to using computers - it's really not a valid comparison.

      You can tell the difference between CDs and Lossless? Maybe you should claim the $500 reward posted above. ^^^^

      There is literally no difference between a CD and a losslessly encoded file. That's what lossless *means*. If you are hearing a difference, your music player is not working correctly.

        He probably has a crappy sound card, which makes quite a difference.

          my old computer chipmunkified every thing played through it

    I can easily tell the difference between 256 kbps and 320 kbps music, but I think that's where it ends for me.

    Although I will say that the first time he played the music in that video, I thought it was dead obvious that X was B. No idea if I really do have a good ear or not, or whether youtube's compression messed it up.

    Perhaps my 320kbps MP3s are all encoded poorly. But in many songs I can tell the differance even with my Brainwavz M3's

      I suspect that some MP3 encoders suck; to my ears LAME's FM preset (128k VBR) is considerably better than a certain big multimedia company's 160k, even on not-great speakers.

    I used have to everything in FLAC as I have a good sound system and heaps of TB storage. Then along came the iPhone, AirPlay, the iOS remote app and iTunes DJ, and everything got converted to 320.

    The fun of having everyone I know who comes over to my place either for a visit or a party with an iPhone and having remote+iTunes DJ with Airplay everywhere outways any audio elitism I used to have. (As well as being able to go from my lounge to bathroom to sunroom to outside to garage and be in control of what music is playing and the volume with my phone). Oh well.

      Jim, I have the same Apple setup with a Mac mini hooked up to my Stereo, I cant understand why you converted everything to 320.??????? I have all my files in lossless in itunes with no drama's. There is even a checkbox option in itunes to convert your music automatically when it syncs to a iphone etc

        Yes you just convert lossless to apple lossless and you can use it in itunes and so on...

    I can't really discern between 256-320VBR and lossless, but anything less I can certainly tell (assuming it's stuff I both know and love), and every time I hear something like Karnivool compressed down to 128kb/s I die a little inside.

    Space is so cheap now though that there's not much point in NOT going lossless, means you can always convert to whatever is wanted in future without compounding conversion artefacts.

    I can totes tell the diff when i play FLAC and WAV playing thru my PC with onboard sound, plugged into my iPhone earbuds.

    I have my music stored in lossless format and play it through a Soundblaster X-Fi Xtreme sound card, NAD 317 amp and Kelly K2 transducers (speakers). Even when converted to Itunes default AAC format, it sounds clearly better than the original CD's on a mid-range Yamaha CD deck with the same amp and speakers. The point is, it's the quality of the Digital to Analogue conversion that is the limiting factor at low levels of compression.

    One must also take into account source material itself. The difference in lossless and lossy quality is most apparent in complex music with multiple transients, common in classical recordings. If you know how to listen this is easily recognized through a decent sound system.

    This is retarded, it depends mostly on resolution of system you are listening on. I for sure have hard time hearing difference at work on crappy desktop speakers, but at home on my hi res system (OB sabas, 5 elements in path from dac-out to speaker) difference is as much as scary palpable holographic fatamorgana sound vs flat 2d stage with s**tty transient response.

    This is ridiculous, MP3 at 320kbps sounds great, and there is no noticeable difference between A and B in your example. I have played music, my ears are particularly sensitive to defects in a track's audio, and I'll be the first to point out a difference when there actually is one, but FLAC is simply not worth the hassle of its filesize.

    Excellent article Mate. I've been doing the abx tests with foobar and , so far, it seems I haven't wasted my storage space using .wav files. I'm using a pair of Sennheiser hd600's for the test and the mp3s sound a lot tinnier on some songs. If anyone else is having problems telling the difference, I suggest you try using songs from Thunder and Lightning by Thin Lizzy. Sure, it's an old album with old production, but it's still very well produced and clear. Hint: Listen to the bass lines in particular. To all the naysayers; If you mainly listen to music through crappy headphones or speakers, or even on a good system at low volume, you're right, you won't hear a discernable difference. Try playing the same files on a good system LOUDLY and if you still can't tell the difference, stick with mp3's and keep expanding your Justin Bieber collection. I thought mp3s were great until I got a decent sound system in my car.

      OK Dwayne. We seem to be perpetuating the idea that if you listen to MP3 then you listen to Justin Beiber and must not have a "decent" sound system. I agree that if you listen loud enough to bust your eardrums, then you might notice the difference. But I know of quite a few Justin Bieber fans that listen to their systems LOUD in the car.

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