Amazon on Tuesday introduced CD-quality 24-bit "Ultra HD" music to Amazon Music. It's $12.99 a month if you pay for Amazon Prime, or $14.99 a month if you don't. In theory, it should sound better than competitors such as Spotify, which don't stream at such a high bit-rate.
I decided to give it a try.
I downloaded the Amazon Music app, found some songs that were labeled as "Ultra HD" and with 24-bit encoding and compared them with the same song on Spotify.
I'm not an audiophile listening with expensive gear. I'm just a regular guy who wants to see if I can notice whether or not the music actually sounds better.
Turns out I can't.
I started with "Blue in Green" by Miles Davis, which Amazon Music said was playing back in Ultra HD. Then I played the same song from the same album on Spotify. Listening through a set of wired headphones plugged into my laptop, I couldn't hear a difference. I tried listening closer, moving to separate parts of the songs and playing tiny clips on both services. Still, nothing.
So I tried Led Zeppelin's "Fool in the Rain" (2012 Remaster), again in Ultra HD on Amazon Music and then just streaming from Spotify's web player. Again, I couldn't tell the difference. Both sounded perfectly fine through both devices, but I couldn't hear a difference.
This is why audiophiles spend lots of money on hardware in the first place: You need the right gear to hear differences in quality.
Maybe I need better headphones, not a cheapo set that came in the box with a phone. Maybe I should play the files through a better set of speakers, like my Sonos at home, or maybe I need a laptop with a better digital signal processor in the first place. The point is: Sound quality is not just about file size. Any subpar component in any part of the chain can degrade the sound quality.
So if you're just a casual listener looking to stream music through your headphones at work or the gym, you probably shouldn't pay up for a service like this just because it promises HD. If you're Neil Young, or another audiophile like him, and you want the convenience of streaming with the quality you're accustomed to on your high-quality audio gear, this may be for you.