Can you hear the difference?

I like Quora, the site where people pose real questions and then interact over actually interesting and often meaningful issues by sharing knowledge and opinions. No selfies, no photos of someone's cute grandkid with ice cream all around his mouth, and no amazing sunsets. Unheard of in the social networking sphere -- what an odd idea!

Here, I stumbled on this question: Can you hear a difference in quality between Spotify's 320 Kbps stream and Tidal's lossless audio stream?

My answer: Yes, absolutely.

This ties in nicely with a long-standing interest (or theory if you like) of mine: how digitalization of analogue things first tends to make the experience worse and inferior to its analogue counterpart. When the digital technology matures and is capable of delivering a similar or even better experience, then people have grown used to an inferior experience and don't see the point. 

In my view, this is exactly what's happening to Tidal's HiFi streaming right now. 

I would argue that if you can't hear the difference between say Spotify and Tidal's FLAC streaming you might have either or all of these three problems -- all of which have to do with the dynamics of the music:

1. Your equipment isn't good enough. If you're listening to your music through your iphone headphones everything tends to sound the same. The argument here, though, is that you don't need to have a $200k amplifier to tell the difference. Just get a pair of decent headphones by AKG, Sennheiser, or others. You don't need to go crazy -- a pair such as the Sennheiser Momentum 2 will work really well just plugging straight into your smartphone or computer (but even a little better with a cheap USB Dac). I suggest you take your smartphone and walk into a hifi shop an try your favorite music with some good headphones. I personally prefer AKG, Sennheiser, Grado, and Audeze, but there are many other good brands too.

2. The music you're listening to isn't recorded and/or produced to sound any better on hifi equipment. A lot of today's music is mixed to sound good on cheap headphones. A lot of today's music is also heavily compressed -- and I mean HEAVILY compressed. Genre is important too. The difference is much easier to spot in acoustic and low-key music than say techno. But even there the quality difference is possible to hear, just listen for fragile sounds such as open hi-hats or ride cymbals. Also, pay attention to details. I bet you can hear things you haven't heard before, such as small imperfections: the guitarist's hands moving over the strings to change chords, the singer's breathing, the drummer fiddling with the kit. There's a rich warmth to high-def music that's hard to explain -- but you'll hear and feel it immediately. 

Try listening to some songs that have good dynamic range: then it's quite easy to tell the difference, such as (these are Tidal links):
- Everybody Hurts, REM
- A Rainy Night in Soho, the Pogues
- Revelation Big Sur, Red House Painters
- See the Sky About to Rain (from Live at the Massey Hall), Neil Young
- Bullet in the Head, Rage Against the Machine

3. You're not used to high-quality music. This last point is a bit controversial, but I firmly believe that many people have never really listened to music produced by a high-quality hifi stereo, so they've got used to the sound of inferior mp3s and think that's how their favorite songs should sound. This is a shame!

The difference between listening to say Red House Painter's Songs for a Blue Guitar album on hifi stereo equipment using a great source versus listening to it through my iphone earbuds is quite honestly like night and day. It's still a great record, but in the same way that watching a good hockey game on a black and white TV is still a good game -- it's just such an endlessly richer experience to watch it live.