Do people care about audio quality?

The proliferation of mp3s and YouTube videos with poorly produced audio demonstrates to me that for most of the public, accessibility and convenience is more important than especially high quality sound. Do you agree? To give another example, the sound quality of most mobile phone calls I make is much worse than an old-fashioned landline. I never get halfway through a landline call and have to ask for a mobile phone number to ring back on! (but the converse case happens frequently). Some new results from the Calls of the Wild experiment supports my assertion about sound quality.

Calls of the wild logo

Last year I got involved in the birdsong experiment for the British Science Association. Mostly, this was about comparing our responses to pleasant warbling and ugly squawking to support the research of Eleanor Ratcliffe. But at the same time there was an experiment running for the Salford’s Good Recording Project which we didn’t talk about at the time, because otherwise the results would have been ruined.

We covertly added traffic and/or wind noise to some of the birdsong recordings to see how that might change people’s judgements. Here is some examples for a pleasant songbird:

Original recording:

With added noise:

People were asked questions about the birdsong (e.g. pleasantness), but none of these ratings were changed by the addition of noise. People focussed on the foreground sound and either didn’t notice the background noise or weren’t bothered about it.

We re-ran the experiment a few months later, but this time we added a question on the survey specifically asking about the quality of the recording. Once we drew peopleā€™s attention to audio quality, we observed a negative effect on bird song ratings for the highest level of wind noise (e.g. the noisiest example above).

Traditionally, audio quality research has focussed on listening for small degradations of signals using trained listeners. I think our results show that to the general public, sound quality is less important than audio engineers might hope. Am I wrong? please comment below.

We have another audio experiment running: Audio Battle. Please have a go, we need more subjects to complete the test. This time no tricks are being played, what it says in the instructions is exactly what is being tested.

6 responses to “Do people care about audio quality?

  1. I’m always delighted by really good quality sound but certainly don’t keep it in the housešŸ˜‰ All my listening happens on fairly ordinary headphones or through a laptop. I’m not sure that my hearing is able to pick out the nuances sufficiently to warrant spending much money on a sound system or seeking out high quality recordings, and mp3s sound perfectly fine (good, in fact) to me. I don’t doubt I could be taught to listen out for stuff though.

  2. I wonder if the lack of negative responses in the bird song example has to do with the type of noise added to the original signal. It sounds like you added uncorrelated noise. When I worked in the high-end audio industry, we found that people sometimes reported an improvement in perceived sound quality when small amounts of uncorrelated noise was added to a signal. If you added, say, odd-order harmonic distortion, or buzzing, would they have found that more objectionable?

  3. “Accessibility and convenience is more important than especially high quality sound. Do you agree?” yes i do
    But i also agree that the same consumers have the ability to differentiate quality in sound reproduction

    Noise becomes sound when there is a meaning too it (art) its subjective
    Why do we need better quality in sound, better tools? i think that better tools get you better sound quality and that permits de subjective message to be richer and more meaning full
    I do agree the spirit of the art, the message is far more important than the sound quality but good sound quality lets you enjoy the message in a more pleasant way.

  4. I am a big user of Spotify but unfortunately my phone network’s internet speed is appalling sometimes. Accessibility primes for me in this case. Quality is good if you are buying the recording and have a proper system to listen to it back home.

  5. I’m not sure if changing what sounds the audio contained addresses the more common problem. The issue with modern digital files on youtube etc. isn’t the content of the recording and mix as much as it’s the data compression applied to the delivery format. If you’d played them the original wav file and then a 96 kb/s mp3 it might have been more relevant.

    The threshold of acceptability is quite low for most people, but they do care if it falls below that.

    I’d be interested to see an experiment on dynamics compression and listening fatigue, whether conscious or not. I’ve also found that if I’m listening to something with grid-aligned sampled drums and copy-and-paste choruses I actually stop hearing it, the same way you don’t hear the ticking clock.

    Chris

  6. From my experience most people don’t care about sound quality. Sound, acoustics engineers or musicians seems to be more sensitive to this subject. However, in general if you will make someone pay attention to two different situations (good and bad quality) most people notice it right away. We need more sound education!

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