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Audio Engineering Society

Convention e-Brief
Presented at the 131st Convention
2011 October 2023
New York, NY, USA
This Engineering Brief was selected on the basis of a submitted synopsis. The author is solely responsible for its presentation,
and the AES takes no responsibility for the contents. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this paper, or any portion thereof, is not
permitted without direct permission from the Audio Engineering Society.

Consumer Attitudes Toward Digital Audio

Ainslie Harris1

Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, Scotland

This paper builds upon an engineering brief submitted to the 130th AES Convention (Harris 2011). Where the May
2011 brief outlined initial findings from focus groups that were conducted, considering questions about preferred
audio quality from the point of view of attitudes and consumer behaviour, this brief focuses on an outline for future
research, discussing important questions for consideration, and proposed methodology.


satisfied if the song they downloaded plays

from beginning to end. They generally obtain
music without paying for it.


To date, literature on digital audio quality has focused

on technical aspects, and where consumers are
concerned, a listeners ability to perceive a quality
difference, for example, by format/codec and bitrate. In
light of the increased popularity of music downloading,
there is a lack of literature addressing audio quality
from an attitudinal point of view, i.e. why people choose
to download to particular codecs or bitrates, as opposed
to whether or not they can hear a difference in audio
Harris (2011) found, as part of a qualitative research
exercise related to attitudes towards usage of free music
download services, that there appear to be three
groupings for attitudes toward audio quality, based on

High school students (15-17 years old) who

know little about technical terms for audio
quality, describe quality in abstract terms (not
fuzzy, no clicking noises), are generally


College and university students (19-24 years

old), who recognize more subtle audible
quality differences and describe quality in
terms of technical terms (bit rates, codecs),
prefer higher quality audio files, but for
practical reasons tend not to download higher
quality files. This age group pays for music as
well as illicitly downloading it.


People in full time employment (25+ years old)

who recognize more subtle audible quality
differences and describe quality in terms of
technical terms (bit rates, codecs), prefer
higher quality audio files, have the practical
means to consume audio in higher quality
formats and prefer to do so. This age group
tends to pay for their music more than younger
age groups.

The research found that even when consumers can

detect and appreciate quality differences between


Consumer Attitudes Toward Digital Audio


formats and codecs, there are pragmatic factors that

influence their attitudes and perceptions toward audio
quality, so they do not necessarily choose the highest
quality audio format or codec available, even when
considerations such as price are not an issue.
While research by Mulligan (2011) related to product
and channel strategy for music sales, suggests that older
listeners (25+) prefer higher quality audio because they
are used to and prefer to listen to CDs and radio rather
than digital downloads (16 to 24 years old) or streamed
music (12 to 15 years old), the issue of attitudes toward
quality and how and why they affect behaviour warrants
further exploratory research.


The aim of such research is not to determine whether

listeners can hear differences in quality. The aim is to
instead understand what file types, codecs, and bitrates
listeners choose to listen to, and their reasons for doing
so. This latter approach considers a much broader range
of factors beyond audible quality.
While Harris (2011) found that attitudes appeared to be
segmented by age, it would be useful to determine
whether age is a statistically significant factor affecting
attitudes about audio quality, and whether there are
other significant factors such as education, employment
status, gender, perceived financial ability, and perceived
control over being able to choose from a variety of
quality options, have any marked effect on choice and
It would also be useful to attempt to determine more
specifically what pragmatic factors affect attitudes, and
to what extent (i.e. perception that storage or listening
equipment or finances are not sufficient to warrant
choosing higher quality files). If presented with an ideal
scenario where a listener could choose to download any
format (and had the equipment and finances to do so),
which would they choose to listen to and why? In their
actual reality, does anything prevent them from making
that same choice, and if so, what? What terms and
benchmarks do consumers use to assess and describe
audio quality? Do people who download legitimately
versus illicitly make different choices or hold different
attitudes toward quality?
Further, it would be interesting to gain an understanding
of whether the choices are a result of actual knowledge,
or simply familiarity with a codec name. What are the
most popular codecs and decoders? Are they popular
because they are names that listeners are familiar with,

because their listening equipment forces them to make

that choice, or because it is cheaper, better quality, or
allows them to enjoy other features (e.g. album art)? Is
interoperability between codecs and devices a real or
perceived need? Do consumers prefer different
formats/codecs in different listening contexts or tend to
stay with one preferred format? Do they choose formats
based on factors such as price, hard drive space,
professional requirements, opportunism, or listening


While a detailed methodology has not yet been

determined, this exploratory research would most likely
benefit from a mixed methods approach, utilizing
qualitative and quantitative techniques, given the lack of
research published in this area. In the first stage,
interviews and/or focus groups should be conducted in
order to gain a broader contextual understanding of the
research questions and consumer behaviour. This should
be followed by a quantitative exercise, which ideally
would be conducted online in order to reach a broader
Listening tests are not part of the proposed
methodology, as this is a study on attitudes not listening
In developing a more detailed topic guide and
methodology, academic models for predictive behaviour
should be considered, for example, the Theory of
Planned Behaviour (Ajzen 1991) which considers
attitudes toward a behaviour, subjective norms, and
perceived behavioural control and their affect on
intention to perform a specific behaviour.


Given the large population and wide variety of online

music services available in the USA (both legitimate
and illicit), it would likely be most sensible to focus on
this country. Consideration must be given to whether
the sample can be representative and what it could or
should be representative of.
The design and analysis of the research exercise must
consider the risk of bias, and how to screen for it. For
example, do avid music listeners, people with musical
training, technical aficionados, or audiophiles have
statistically significant preferences and attitudes?

AES 131st Convention, New York, NY, USA, 2011 October 2023
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Consumer Attitudes Toward Digital Audio



There are a number of reasons why the research

outlined here is beneficial, from financial to creative.
While offhand, one might assume that music in a digital
format involves very little financial outlay compared
with the distribution of physical media (i.e. CDs, vinyl),
digital music still costs money to encode, transmit,
decode, and store. These costs affect a variety of players
in the audio industry value chain, including but not
limited to craft (what equipment to use in the studio),
equipment design (what should the equipment be able to
play, how much should it be able to store), IP delivery
(bandwidth), and the products and services that
consumers choose to purchase (i.e. high capacity music
players, headphones, stereo equipment). For example,
recording engineers must decide what formats and
resolutions to use, codec designers must decide what
codecs to design next, audio equipment designers and
vendors must decide what to design and sell to the
marketplace, and companies that deliver audio over IP
to consumers must decide what formats and codecs to
deliver. While it is helpful for these professionals to
know whether consumers can discern and/or appreciate
quality differences, this does not necessarily mean that
those same consumers will choose higher quality
options when they are available.

[2] HARRIS, A., 2011 [online]. Do Young People

Actually Care About The Quality of Their MP3s?
Audio Engineering Society 130th Convention London, England (May 13th -16th, 2011), Track
EB1 - Design and Assessment. Available from:
[3] MULLIGAN, M., 2011 [online]. Digital Natives:
The Generation That Music Product Strategy
from: n/11-0120digital_natives_the_generation_that_m
usic_product_strategy_forgot [Accessed 15 April


This research topic can contribute to the audio and

music industries by helping to provide a framework for
understanding why consumers prefer particular types of
audio formats, preferences by segment, and the factors
that influence such preferences. It has the potential to
help audio professionals of all stripes to better
understand their listening audience. By having a better
understanding of why music listeners choose to
download the formats they do, players throughout the
value chain can better utilize their own resources while
at the same time potentially better serve their customers
needs. The next steps are to develop and conduct a
formal research exercise in this area, based on a mixed
methods approach.


[1] AJZEN, I., 1991. The theory of planned behaviour.

Organizational Behavior and Human Decision
Processes 50(2) pp.179-211.

AES 131st Convention, New York, NY, USA, 2011 October 2023
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