Our ‘Pepsi Challenge’ reveals what individuals actually take into consideration hi-res audio

Our ‘Pepsi Challenge’ reveals what individuals actually take into consideration hi-res audio

Have you listened to your favourite tune via a pair of high-end headphones or $300 Hi-Res Audio licensed Bluetooth earbuds? Do you subscribe to Spotify’s free plan, or are you extra of a premium-tier Tidal listener? Apple has an enormous lossless high quality music library proper now however you most likely don’t have the best tools to totally benefit from it. Same factor with Tidal, which is reducing its costs beginning April tenth, making its high-resolution music extra accessible. Meanwhile, Spotify nonetheless doesn’t supply lossless after saying “Spotify HiFi” again in 2021.

But though the preferred music streaming service nonetheless doesn’t supply hi-res audio, is it one thing you really care about? Could you inform the distinction between the free lower-resolution choices on Spotify and the lossless high quality streams from Tidal, Apple Music, or Amazon Music Unlimited?

To actually discern the distinction between them, you want the best wired tools or the best mixture of smartphone, Bluetooth codec, and high quality Bluetooth earbuds/headphones/cellular DAC, which assist what’s being performed from the cellphone.

Sennheiser headphones and iFi DACs

(Image credit score: Tshaka Armstrong)

That looks like lots to undergo, however that’s what I did, and I introduced it proper to the doorstep! My “Pepsi Challenge” was presenting a blind “style” take a look at to the common smartphone consumer to seek out out if all of this progress, these advances in audio expertise, actually matter.

LG made hi-res audio simple. RIP to simple.

The back of the LG V60

(Image credit score: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Let me take a short second to say RIP to my beloved LG V60 ThinQ from 2020, which featured a Quad DAC built-in and a 3.5mm audio port. That was one of many best methods to get CD-quality audio out of a cellphone. 

Some over-ear or on-ear headphones might be related to modern-day 3.5mm port-less telephones by way of USB-C or 3.5/4.4/6.3mm connectors and adapters once you use a USB-C cellular DAC/Amp. That mentioned, what number of of you studying this think about your self an “audiophile” and would spring for each Bluetooth earbuds and over-ear headphones and a DAC (do you even know what that’s)?

Did your eyes simply glaze over studying that? So, I ask once more, does the common client care sufficient to determine all of this out to leverage all of that top bit price goodness? To determine that out, I devised a take a look at to get some definitive solutions.

Testing to seek out what issues

Group shot of Sennheiser headphones and iFi DACs

(Image credit score: Tshaka Armstrong)

For this take a look at, I selected 10 individuals of various ages, ethnicities, and genders and performed low-resolution audio streams, adopted by both lossless FLAC recordsdata or high-resolution Tidal streams. Some of the responses I obtained expanded my understanding of what influences individuals’s decisions profoundly. I used to be shocked by a number of the solutions as a result of I hadn’t thought-about the context during which some individuals get pleasure from music. 

I arrange the methodology for testing my pattern group like so:

Some members had extra time than others, so the variety of songs various, however every tune they sampled was performed twice. I used a Pixel 7 Pro to play every tune as soon as from Spotify, with the audio stream high quality set to “Medium,” after which a second time straight from my Pixel utilizing the USB Audio Player Pro app or Tidal. I had to make use of that app as a result of Android downsamples the audio popping out of that USB-C port to 16bit, 44.1kHz, and the recordsdata I used to be taking part in had been larger decision than that. 

HummingBird Media, who was as enthusiastic about this take a look at as I used to be, outfitted me with the gear for this experiment. For spherical one, I used the wonderful Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 4 over-ear headphones by way of Bluetooth. In spherical two, the identical songs had been performed by way of those self same headphones however wired now, utilizing iFi’s Audio GO hyperlink USB-C dongle DAC/headphone amp. I had one occasion the place I employed some higher-end tools that Hummingbird despatched, however I’ll get to that in a second.

Who cares about hi-res audio, and why?

Pixel 7 Pro displaying bluetooth codecs

A screenshot the codecs my Pixel 7 Pro used for Spotify and FLAC recordsdata (Image credit score: Tshaka Armstrong)

So, what had been the outcomes after my members’ listening exams after which subsequent Q&A periods? Most individuals mentioned they might hear a transparent distinction. Literally. The commonest suggestions was that the domestically performed FLAC recordsdata or streamed Tidal tracks had extra readability. There was extra separation with the devices, that means they might discern particular person sounds higher within the higher-resolution recordsdata and streams. Sounds like a straightforward “W” for hi-res audio, proper? Wrong.

One tester, JT, a broadcast engineer by commerce, remarked that regardless of the perceived distinction, it wasn’t sufficient for him to pay for something particular to have higher-quality content material. He likened it to 1080P vs. 4K TVs. He advised me that he is aware of 4K is best, however 1080P is sweet sufficient for his wants. So, no Tidal and no looking down and buying FLAC recordsdata; he’s superb with lower-quality music, technically talking. 

Some different testers had equally nuanced responses. Two testers, whom I’ll name CA and CF, mentioned they might each pay, however in several contexts. CA may hear the distinction in readability however was solely prepared to pay the one-time value for the $59.99 iFi GO hyperlink dongle DAC. He wasn’t prepared to fork over the additional dough month-to-month for a premium music service.

CF already pays for Spotify as a result of she doesn’t like advertisements, so she can also be prepared to pay for the distinction she hears between the 2 streams. But she would increase on that and say that it wasn’t value it in her automotive, and he or she’d solely wish to benefit from paying for premium streaming or upgrading to extra premium tools just like the Sennheiser Momentum 4 and iFi GO hyperlink for energetic, leisure listening at house.

Some individuals might be able to inform the distinction between low-resolution and hi-res audio, however that also won’t be sufficient to justify the additional value usually related to it.

Hearing, or “audition,” as it could even be referred to as in neuroscience circles, is extremely subjective. It’s as a lot about notion as it’s concerning the technical facets of the sound supply, and as such, it shouldn’t be a shock that two of my testers didn’t hear any distinction in high quality. This additionally signifies that that they had no incentive to pay for something greater than what that they had already used. Hi-res doesn’t matter to both of them.

One of these testers can also be an avid music listener. She cooks with music on and does chores with it on. When we get within the automotive, the very first thing she does is activate the radio and hit her favourite Spotify playlists on her cellphone. It’s my spouse, so I do know these items.

Since I had extra time to check my spouse, I had her hearken to one of many take a look at tracks a 3rd time, “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes,” by Paul Simon. Only this time, I employed iFi’s spectacular GO blu HD Bluetooth DAC and streamed within the Hi-Res LDAC codec at 96kHz, 32bits via that DAC right into a pair of audiophile-grade Sennheiser HD 660S2 open-back over-ear headphones. If you don’t know, these are like seeing a film in IMAX, the place the Momentum 4 can be viewing that very same film on one of many customary giant screens. Both are satisfying, however the 660S2 is extra dynamic.

With the 660S2, my spouse was in a position to hear a barely discernable distinction from the lower-resolution music, however it nonetheless wasn’t vital sufficient to affect any motion on her half towards the higher-resolution expertise.

Group shot of the Sennheiser HD 660S2 and Momentum 4 Wireless

(Image credit score: Tshaka Armstrong)

The two most profound Q&As touched on notion and introduced up questions of neurodiversity, which I hadn’t thought-about earlier than. One of my testers most popular the lower-resolution music due to a phenomenon I really get pleasure from. High-resolution music recordsdata paired with high-end headphones make me really feel like I’m actually immersed within the music. At its greatest, it feels just like the music just isn’t taking part in at me however that it’s really in my head. It feels prefer it’s throughout me, or extra exactly, I’m in it. I’m on stage, sitting in the course of the band.

She didn’t like that feeling, initially saying it was too loud though I checked to make sure that the tracks had been taking part in on the similar perceived loudness. This made me assume of people that have processing sensitivities, these for whom sure stimuli may result in sensory overload. I noticed that in that context, hi-res audio performed via earbuds or high-end headphones might be “dangerous,” and the decrease decision, much less dynamic streams, “good.”

Then there was SK. He heard and articulated the distinction in readability, however to him, an avid Spotify consumer, the distinction within the higher-resolution tracks sounded too “digital.” He mentioned the Spotify streams had been “acquainted, comfy.” For him, the enjoyment was within the acquainted, and the perceived distinction took him out of that place of consolation and made it much less satisfying.

Final conclusions: What actually issues

Various DACs and dongles needed to listen to Hi-Res audio

(Image credit score: Tshaka Armstrong)

At the tip of my experiment, I’ve come to 2 conclusions:

  • Almost all of my testers hadn’t listened to music taking part in in one thing they’d think about “high-end” headphones. They all remarked on how wonderful the Sennheiser Momentum 4 sounded. So, a part of answering my preliminary query requires first asking, “Has the common consumer even heard high-quality audio performed via high-quality audio gear to know if Hi-Res audio issues?”
  • There is not any “common” consumer. There are quite a few contexts and causes for smartphone customers to care or not care about Hi-Res audio regardless of it being “higher” on paper, and all of them are proper.

At the tip of the day, expertise will hold transferring ahead, and as issues progress and wi-fi applied sciences are higher in a position to deal with lossless recordsdata, individuals will simply have entry to them, which is able to change into the norm, very similar to how Apple made its complete library obtainable in its lossless ALAC format.

Those with causes and contexts for not liking it’ll discover the providers that work for them if there is not any choice to retain the lower-resolution variations of the songs they hearken to. The relaxation seemingly gained’t even acknowledge that they’ve been “upgraded” as a result of they don’t have the dearer, higher-end listening gear, which might make that improve actually pop just like the Sennheiser and iFi gear I used right here. They’ll proceed to purchase the earbuds whose focus is on value and have set first, and Hi-Res dynamic vary audio second.


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March 25, 2024 at 06:01PM

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