ABX test: FLAC vs Ogg Vorbis 96 kbps

My first post after more than 2 years! How cool is that?

I have been playing with Spotify this past few days after being disappointed on playing gapless albums on my Samsung Galaxy S7 (it looks like this issue is prevalent on Samsung devices running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, since I have seen posts regarding Samsung Galaxy S6 users being able to play gaplessly on Android 5.0 Lollipop, only to lost it thereafter upon OS upgrade.)

Anyway, as probably most people know, you have three quality choices for Streaming and Download on Spotify namely Normal, High, and Extreme, the latter being only available for Premium subscribers. As someone who’s into details, Normal, High, and Extreme to describe quality isn’t enough.

What’s great is Spotify already has this information on their website:

  • ~96 kbps
    • Normal quality on mobile.
  • ~160 kbps
    • Desktop and web player standard quality.
    • High quality on mobile.
  • ~320 kbps (only available to Premium subscribers)
    • Desktop high quality.
    • Extreme quality on mobile.

And most importantly, they’re all in Ogg Vorbis format.

Ogg Vorbis had been shown to perform significantly better than many other lossy audio formats especially MP3.

Personally, I wouldn’t use Extreme quality. I know my hearing isn’t that perfect than it used to be; listening tests show that my hearing rolls off at about 15 kHz. And besides, it would consume a lot of bandwidth. I only have 800 MB/day, I wouldn’t use it all on streaming music alone.

To test whether I need High quality setting or is Normal enough, I did an ABX. For those who doesn’t know what ABX is, it is a method of comparing two choices of sensory stimuli to identify detectable differences between them. I don’t have any fancy equipments like a desktop digital-to-analog converter, or an amplifier. All I have is my Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Studio Monitoring headphones plugged into the 3.5mm headphone jack of my desktop computer using onboard VIA® VT1705. For the ABX software, I used foobar2000’s ABX comparator tool on WASAPI event.

I started the test using a lossless digital copy of my favorite pop artist, Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes”. Surprisingly, I failed the test, meaning, I cannot distinguish the 96 kbps Ogg Vorbis version from the original, lossless version. This is actually a good thing, since this means that Ogg Vorbis has done its job well of being transparent, at least as I am concerned, at lower bitrates compared to MP3, which I can ABX successfully up to about 160 kbps. But I’m not satisfied. Knowing that I have been ABXing the whole day (before this test, I have been ABXing different formats, bitrates for other purposes), I slept on it. A few minutes after waking up, I did the ABX again. This time with a more complex song, Theatre of Tragedy’s “Storm”. I ran the test 14 times, and correctly identified which is which 13 times (I failed the first trial until I got to pinpoint what I need to hear to tell the difference). As usual, this fast-paced metal song revealed a smearing on the cymbals sound, but the difference is so subtle, I don’t think you’re gonna hear it using your typical earphones that came with your smartphone or by a casual listening session on a typical home audio system.

Simply put, I can tell the difference between a lossless audio and Spotify’s 96 kbps Normal quality. Then you would finally say, “Great, choose High!” Well, no. I don’t think High quality will offer a “higher” perceivable quality as my hearing is concerned while offering almost 70% increase in data consumption. And besides, as I have already said, the difference between the lossless and the 96 kbps Ogg Vorbis is so teensy-weensy minute that I don’t think you would notice it on its own (without an original, uncompressed audio to compare it with).

Dilemma solved. Normal it is!



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