Today, NPR unveiled the latest iteration of the "Guess the audio quality" quiz. In light of the advent of companies like Tidal and Pono — services that charge a premium for higher audio quality — we figured we'd put the staff to the test. Who is good, who is bad, who has taste, and who can't hear? Find out below.
Hannah Margaret Allen, Apple Earbuds: Honestly, I thought I'd do much better. I found that if I didn’t immediately hear the difference I wouldn’t get it right. I also think I confused other sounds, like the bass in “Dark Horse," for higher quality. Maybe if I had some fancy headphones it might be a different story, but from what I hear, the uncompressed audio files don’t make that much of a difference. Score: 3/6
Lauren Sarner, Apple Earbuds: I was surprised by how many I got right, but my father and brother are both musicians/ musical purists who are obsessed with sound quality, so maybe I’ve absorbed some of their teachings through osmosis.
I did find it easier on tracks that had actual musicians playing real instruments (as opposed to the synth stuff in the Katy Perry track). Score: 4/6
Ben Guarino, Samsung Galaxy earbuds: I started off cocky with "Dark Horse." Promptly clicked the 128 kbps. Tone set. Jay Z wrong (320); Mozart (lucky guess); Coldplay (correct) — the Ss seemed least hissy in the uncompressed file, but I could also have made that up. Neil Young (lucky guess). No to Suzanne Vega (320). Score: 3/6
Matthew Strauss, Ebony Earbuds: I chose mostly by song volume, but vocal clarity in the case of Suzanne Vega. I got the first one right (Coldplay), so I got amped that I would ace the whole test, but I guess Chris Martin's bombast is just not as replicable and applicable for all songs. Score: 3/6
Sam Eifling, NORMAL Earbuds: The only one I got right was Suzanne Vega. Turning up the volume up on my headphones helped … but there was just not much to do with any of these. And I've got really nice earbuds, too.
Compression! The shit works! Score: 1/6
Eric Francisco, Sony ZX: I could definitely tell differences in quality — particularly more when I immediately played each track after the other, instead of listening to the whole sample all the way through — but I couldn't tell which quality was supposed to be better. My headphones are Sony's reliable (but cheap) ZX. They wear out after awhile and this particular pair is about a year and a half old. But for the price it's probably the best sound quality and I never want to give Dr. Dre more money than he needs on principle. And now that goes for Jay-Z too because I couldn't care less about this. Score: 2/6
Sean Hutchinson, Apple Earbuds: I was pretty surprised at how similar the 128kbps to the uncompressed files sounded. Maybe it’s because I don’t necessarily have the best ear for that kind of thing and only tend to rely on the quality of the files available to me to buy. I’d love to see how an engineer or producer does on this test.
The only way I’d really want to pay for super high quality files like what’s on Tidal is if I have a great setup to listen at home. Extra crisp and clear quality doesn’t really make a difference to me if I’m listening to music on my commute or at the gym, but if I have an environment conducive to HiFi then I’d think about it more. Otherwise Coldplay sounds like Coldplay and Katy Perry sounds like Katy Perry regardless of the file type. But maybe that’s just me. Score: 3/6
Andrew Burmon, Apple Earbuds: I felt like I heard some of the clarity on the Neil Young track, which definitely sounded buffed up, but was otherwise guessing wildly. The thing illustrated by the Katy Perry and Coldplay tracks respectively is that good music sounds good and bad music sounds bad. Does good music sound better when its clearer? Maybe, but bad music definitely doesn't. Bad music is bad. Exfoliate Chris Martin as much as you want; he's still that guy. Score: 2/6
Corban Goble, Carrie Battan's cherry red Urban Ears: To be honest, I knew the trick to this: the loudest one is usually the best quality. But my #cheating only took me so far. In college I did way better on this test, though I'm proud I got KP, Coldplay. My misses were all 320kbps. Commodified audiophilia — still BS. Score: 3/6