MP3 versus WAV: Can Anyone Tell the Difference?

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The other day, a musician friend sent me a new version of a track we have been working on together so I could check out a new piano part that he added. I complained that it was taking several minutes to download the track to my phone, and then realized he had sent me an 80MB WAV file in lieu of the fairly customary, high-quality MP3 file that is normally sent between the producers and musicians I work with for simple reference purposes. I wasn’t connected to Wi-Fi, and it was taking forever to download a file that size.

When I asked him why he didn’t send the usual 320 kbps MP3 file, he told me that he felt the upper mid- and high-frequency ranges in his new piano part seemed to lose some clarity when he rendered it as an MP3, versus how the WAV sounded. He wanted me to hear the part as he intended. Fair enough, I thought.

Weeks before, another musician and audiophile friend was telling me about how he’d recently switched from Spotify to TIDAL because it offers a high-end plan that streams both losslessly compressed audio, as well as full-quality, uncompressed audio for certain albums. The trade-offs, as he explained them, were much longer load times, and a lot more data usage, neither of which he minded, because he usually listens to music when he has Wi-Fi access.

These two events got me thinking: can any of us actually tell the difference between an MP3 and a WAV?

The Great Compression

The advent of the MP3 was transformational for the music industry and music consumers alike. Mostly developed by the Fraunhofer Society in Germany in the late 1980s and early ’90s, MP3 compression can achieve up to a 95% reduction in file size versus the original, uncompressed audio. Using lossy data compression, MP3 encoding removes certain elements of the audio, yielding a much smaller file that theoretically sounds “worse” than the original, uncompressed file.

These greatly reduced file sizes gave fans the ability to share their music easily and quickly, a practice that led to a disruption in how people listen to music, as well as a full redesign of the music industry at large.

Today, streaming services, like Spotify, TIDAL, and Apple Music, and video services such as YouTube are the main ways people consume music, all of which rely on primarily compressed audio to deliver the music to the user almost instantaneously. Recently, as mentioned above, some services have started to offer lossless or uncompressed audio streaming for premium prices and, of course, they require substantially more bandwidth to stream well.

So, back to my question: Can any of us actually tell the difference? I decided to conduct a little experiment with the two friends I mentioned, and me, as the guinea pigs. I created three folders on Google Drive, each for a different song, and each song folder contained high-quality MP3 (320 kbps), and CD-quality WAV (16-bit 44.1 kHz ) versions. I gave folder access to each of my friends, and I told them to play each version of each song, and tell me which ones they thought were the MP3s. I explained to them both that we all needed to take the necessary measures to ensure we didn’t accidentally reveal the file extensions to ourselves while playing the tracks, which is thankfully pretty easy to avoid in Google Drive, and none of us had a problem.

I wanted to see if any of us could consistently tell the difference under everyday listening conditions, so each of us participated in the experiment while monitoring using our respective “workhorse” devices that we use most often for enjoying music. I used my Audio-Technica ATH-M40x Monitor Headphones connected to my laptop, and each of my friends used Apple AirPods connected to their iPhones.

Audio-Technica ATH-M40x Monitor Headphones

The Results

Perhaps tellingly, the friend who thought his piano part had lost something once it was converted to MP3 did the best in the experiment, correctly guessing the MP3 two out of three times. He mentioned that he thought the percussive attacks in the drums and the pianos sounded smoother to him in the WAV versions. As for my audiophile friend and I, we didn’t do so hot, each of us guessing only one of the three correctly.

Are you able to consistently discern WAV files from MP3s? Tell us if you really can in the Comments section, below! We look forward to hearing from you.

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