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, since it's lost data from its original format. However, while many auidophiles 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 awhile, 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 320kbps 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% (or in this case, 9 out of 10), you probably can't tell the difference.

You can run this test yourself in your favorite music program, but Windows favorite 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 in foobar2000. The general consensus is that, while a low-quality MP3 (128kbps) might be discernible from a lossless file (~1,411kbps) file, higher quality MP3s (320kbps) 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 futureproofing 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 320kbps 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 badass. Which it does.

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

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