We Failed the Marshmallow Test

In the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of tests at Stanford University. The basic premise put a 4-year-old preschool child in a room with an adult, and two marshmallows. The adult explains that he has to leave the room for about 15 minutes. The child can eat one marshmallow while the adult is gone, but if the child waits until the adult returns, the child can eat both marshmallows. While the basic test is interesting enough, it’s the follow-up that proved most intriguing. The children who showed the most self-control/self-discipline by waiting until the adult returned grew up to have significantly higher SAT scores, lower BMIs, more self-control and self-discipline, and in general, were more successful in life. As music lovers, we failed the marshmallow test.

Not that long ago, the music industry offered music lovers a choice: they could buy music in its original form - CD or vinyl, or via the quick and easy solution of MP3. Two marshmallows or one. However, more recently, it’s gotten more complicated. Now, instead of a single marshmallow or two, we’re faced with MP3 - a single, quick-fix marshmallow, or a much more crave-worthy crème brûlée - high resolution audio.

Let’s face it: most people blew it. Instead of waiting for the crème brûlée, we loaded our iPods, phones and hard drives with marshmallowy MP3 files. We had neither the patience or hard-drive space to wait for the crème brûlée. MP3 made it too easy. Instead of buying full albums on CD, we quickly and cheaply bought single songs.

While bandwidths were still somewhat limited, Pandora became the de facto source for streaming music. Instead of waiting for a bigger pipeline, we settled for what was available at the time. Now, a service such as Tidal comes along, but is it too late? We already ate the Pandora marshmallow instead of waiting for a higher-resolution crème brûlée stream. How can Tidal hope to become as mainstream as Pandora this late in the game? They’re already backing down by offering two levels of resolution for consumers. Are we also going to fail this marshmallow test, and go for cheap instead of quality?

Even something as highly-endorsed as Pono is coming into the game a little late. People have their entire music libraries already converted to MP3. Can the allure of 24-bit high-resolution audio convince anyone except the most devoted audiophiles to re-purchase their collection? How badly do you want that crème brûlée?

New technologies are emerging such as MQA which folds 24-bit audio back into a 16-bit stream (ignoring portions deemed to be inaudible) and increases in bandwidth make higher-resolution audio easier to buy, store, and enjoy. However, one has to ask if it’s already too late. I know that in general, I would never pass up an opportunity for a crème brûlée. I appreciate the cool creamy custard and the satisfying “snap” of a perfectly executed burnt-sugar crust. That said, my iPod, laptop, and phone are maxed out with MP3 files - clearly, I’ve had my share of marshmallows.

jnemesh's picture

I KNOW that high-resolution audio sounds better! I have several albums in 24 bit/96Khz from HDTracks. I have HEARD the difference and KNOW it's significant! And yet...I must confess...both the cost and the hassle of managing my own music library are keeping me from listening. I subscribe to Google Play Music All Access (most cumbersome name ever in the history of streaming services!). Listening to music means I pick up my phone, launch the app, select what I want to listen to, and hit the "cast" button, which has the music playing back on my Chromecast on my TV, from my TV optical out to my DAC and then to my Hi-Fi. You know what? It sounds pretty damn good...especially for MP3. Even better when you consider that I pay just $7.99/mo.

I am interested in services like Tidal...which promise high quality streaming...but ONLY if they offer 24bit/96Khz tracks...right now they are focusing on uncompressed CD quality sound. For $20/mo, I expect better than CD quality.

Eventually though, SOMEONE will offer "Better than CD" quality streaming, and when they do, I will be all over it!

Old Ben's picture

I don't think it's that we've failed the marshmallow test. Frankly, the marshmallow test is an imperfect analogy because the only "cost" to the 4 year old to get both marshmallows is having to wait a few minutes. With high-fidelity digital music, the costs are more than waiting. The music files and the hardware required to play and take advantage of the high-fidelity files is significantly higher than for plain old MP3s.

Understanding that those additional costs exist, the real question is whether the costs are worth it. My issue with higher quality downloads is that I rarely, if ever, sit down in an optimal setting with good equipment to take advantage of the music. As much as I would love to do that, I usually only have time to listen to music in the background (e.g., while driving, jogging, doing the dishes, etc.). Whatever nuance I gain by going to a higher fidelity file is lost by a combination of the background noise and my partial attention. Thus, the extra money I would have to spend to play and take advantage of high-fidelity audio is not worth it. To return to the marshmallow analogy (and truly beat it to death), this is the 4 year old saying to himself "I only want one marshmallow anyways, so there is no need to wait until the shrink comes back in the room to eat it."

I realize that this website caters to the people that have the time and money to invest in high quality receivers, amplifiers, speakers/headphone and to spend time solely listening to music. However, I think the vast majority of consumers (the consumers these high-fidelity music providers need as customers to survive) are more like me.

dommyluc's picture

OK, what's the difference between Meridian saying this and the developers of mp3s saying this? Who "deems" what is "inaudible"?
I have all of my CDs ripped to my hard drive in WAV, and the sound when streaming to my Onkyo network receiver is spectacular. Is Tidal or Meridian or any hi-res download site going to guarantee that, for the money they charge, the music is going to sound noticeably better? Is the sonic difference going to be like the difference between mono and stereo, or stereo and surround? If a person has to sit in a chair for an hour and try to discern the sonic difference, then it's a failure already. You should notice the improvement in quality immediately - no electronic measurements or golden-aired critical listening would make any difference whatsoever. Look, maybe a lot of people here can afford to restock their music libraries every time a new and (supposedly) better format comes along, but I and many others are not among them.

Tommylee99's picture

Only a fool would dispose of their CD (or LP) library in favor of mp3s, just because the inferior format is more convenient. Mp3s were always going to be an interim solution, better sound for computer-based audio is inevitable as the technology improves. Now, you're whining about it.
There must be a lot of fools out there...

hk2000's picture

I agree with the general sentiment here- the majority of people who are needed to make the hi quality streaming viable are happy with near CD quality streaming- especially for free. I too save my CD's as .wav files and stream to an Onkyo network tuner and don't see a need for higher quality. most of my online streaming is done in the car where the road noise basically negates any benefit of higher bit rate or higher resolution.

Rich67's picture

Its not a question if the high res sounds better. That will be debated forever. The music industry is booming because of it'e convenience and portability. Most of the paying public could care less. There just isn't a significant market for high-res, especially at the high cost. I admit I'm one of those people who listen to my earbuds and enjoy the music and at home I haven't been able to hear a difference between CD quality and high-res. Don't get mad at me, though. I didn't say there was no difference, I said I can't hear it and if I can't hear it I'm not paying more for it.

FrakU's picture

I once said HRA was "like a zombie". "It keeps moving, giving a false impression of life, but it is dead". HRA is DOA plain and simple. Here's why!

When I delved into this madness and I already knew that downloads were out of the question. I am absolutely disgusted with all things streamed and/or downloaded. I got tired of running into substandard audio and video "entertainment". So I went to HDtracks and after getting through all those confusing quality options I went looking for the genre I love, R&B. There was essentially nothing. So I went with what was close. Norah Jones and Diana Krall. That's about it. There is basically no "current" R&B that I could find in my extensive search. Then I got my hybrid SACD's home and I heard no difference compared to my old fashioned CD's. WTF man what was the point?

My SACD's collected dust in the back of my closet for years. Then I started reading more and more about people raving about HRA in this magazine. Of course I didn't get it but I had the discs so I wanted to know what I needed to do to get my discs working. I resorted to going on to Youtube for help and it worked - sorta! The guy on YouTube got me started but I had to fiddle around with the settings in my receiver and mostly with my Blu-Ray player and what do ya know! I heard it! My DefTech towers only sounded this good when I watched movies.

I have come to the conclusion that the 2 biggest problems with HRA is that it is a bit inaccessible for newcomers and there isn't much content to chose from. Especially if you're a person of color like myself. It just isn't user friendly.

Madlyb's picture

The marshmallow experiment is a poor analogy because the reward to cost ratio is extremely low (Double the reward for a short wait period), whereas Hi-res Digital Audio (HDA) has been a journey of decades with multiple failed starts coupled to expensive content and hardware.

Even worse, the very people trying to revive HDA, musicians, actively fought against it for years, because of the fear it would cannibalize CD sales. They now turn to it in desperation...the irony abounds.

Here is the truth of it, for the vast majority of our listening time, we do not need HDA, whether it is in the car, commuting, or out for a walk/jog/ride, those environments negate the ability to properly enjoy the content, while providing lots of cons like cost (content/equipment), capacity (almost 10x) and even time (i.e. loading/syncing larger files).

Even when you have the right listening environment and equipment, you have to fight with ridiculously small catalogs, spread across multiple providers, potentially in multiple formats, though the latter seems to have gotten much better.

Finally, let's be honest, even if the catalogs were complete, the vast majority of music just simply doesn't benefit from being presented in HDA. Garbage in, Garbage out...more bits will not fix that.

Personally, I still purchase everything on CD (that is available on CD) and rip to MP3 for my portable listening. I have considered doing a digital conversion to HDA, but hesitant to make the storage and time investment for converting almost 3000 CDs, especially since we haven't established a definitive file format for HDA like we did with MP3.

wcellon467's picture

To me, high resolution audio is simply not worth the extra cost and inconvenience. I've never been able to hear any noticeable improvement between a regular MP3 (192 Kbps or better) and any high resolution audio. I'll certainly never pay extra for high-res streaming when I can listen to virtually everything for free with YouTube, Pandora, Vevo, or Amazon Prime music (I already have prime for shipping). I grew up listening to music on an portable hand-me-down AM radio from the 60's (with one speaker). Everything now-a-days sounds awesome compared to that. BTW, I hate marshmellows! Put me in a room full of them and I wouldn't touch one. LOL

Goodfellow's picture

Sounds like lazy, uneducated, youth of today has won out. They don't care about sound just as long as some noise comes out of their speakers. Disappointing to say the least.