A/B/C testing: August and Everything After, in 24-bit, 96kHz FLAC vs. 16-bit, 44.1kHz ALAC vs. 256 kbps AAC

I’m listening tonight to a “hi-res” 24-bit, 96kHz lossless version of “August and Everything After” through my good headphones, DAC, and amp tonight. I love this album. It helps that I was 15 when it came out, of course. But still, I think it is an emotionally rich artistic achievement. It surprised me when such an earnest, heartfelt record became wildly popular; only in the 1990s would that happen, I guess.

I compared this hi-res version, track by track, with two other versions I have on hand:

  1. my 16-bit, 44.1kHz ALAC rip from my original CD from 1992, and
  2. the 256kbps AAC version available through Apple Music.

Overall, all three versions sound almost identical, which is kind of what I would expect, actually, given that Apple Music’s lossy AAC encodings are of a very high quality, and that the bit rates and bit depths for CD-quality recording and iTunes AAC encodings were chosen very carefully. We are far from the world of mushy, sizzly 128kbps MP3 files now. That said, the lossless versions do sound a tiny bit better. They reveal more detail than the lossy version, notably in the snap of the bass guitar and in the attack of the snare drum. The difference is slight: you have to listen very carefully to hear it, and you need equipment sensitive enough to reproduce the sounds accurately.

The main improvement the hi-res version brings over the CD-quality rip, to my ears, is a lower noise floor. Otherwise, it sounds the same as the CD version. You gain about 1-2% in fidelity at the price of lot of extra bits on the hard drive, and, perhaps, more dollars out of your wallet. This is true even though the 24-bit version was mastered to be a little quieter than the original CD and iTunes versions. You have to turn it up a notch to match the others’ volume. Even with more amplification, the hi-res version’s noise floor is incredibly low, and everything sounds fantastic.

Overall, I would prefer to listen to all my music in lossless quality, in as high fidelity as possible. It can sound better than lossy rips, and, even if I can’t hear the difference on a particular track, why not listen to the best version available? That said, I subscribe to Apple Music, which serves AAC files, rather than Tidal, which has a lossless streaming plan, primarily for convenience. Fortunately, for me, Apple’s 256kbps AAC files are completely adequate substitutes for lossless rips. I do think, though, that if Apple offered a lossless plan at a slight up-charge, I would subscribe to it.