You missed the point that I was very careful to select CDs and high-res downloads that were made from the same original master. Yes, the quality of the original recording, the manner in which the tracks were mixed, the use of dynamic range compression and the quality of the master are much more important than is bit depth, but unless the master was doctored differently for the CD and the high-res versions, there shouldn’t be any difference other than bit depth.
I’ll give you the point for sample rate for the reasons I already gave, but if bit depth weren’t a factor, the SACD, DVD audio and HD-CD formats would have never been invented. Even as the engineers at Sony and Philips worked on developing the compact disc, they acknowledged that the format was a compromise.
Some of the very best recordings of all time were made in the 1950s using simple condenser mikes, pentode-based tube amplifiers and multi-track Apex reel-to-reel tape recorders. Unfortunately, the tapes themselves have deteriorated with time. The substrate stretches and the magnetic media is subjected to slow but steady gamma ray bombardment. The original tapes are fragile and unlistenable, but they’re being remastered digitally and through the wonders of digital signal processing, the original quality can now be restored. They’re being rereleased as high-res audio, DSD audio and, yes, on CDs. Several of my tests were done using these remastered gems. My testing wasn’t double-blind, but it was as random and blind as I could make it, with tracks from identical masters but with different bit depths and sample rates.
Not everyone hears music in the same way, and some people have unique abilities. A voice like Frank Sinatra’s comes along once in a lifetime, if that. Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell and Julia Fischer are great violinists, but they still can’t match Jascha Heifetz. True perfect pitch is exceedingly rare and I’ve only met one person in my lifetime who actually had it. Relative pitch is much more common, but still occurs in only a fraction of a percent of the population. It would be interesting to perform a double-blind test of bit depth and sample rate on a population of only people with perfect or near-perfect pitch. I would be shocked if you could compare their results to that of the general population.
My hearing isn’t what it used to be, but I can still pick out the individual musical instruments in a high-quality recording. Sometimes there is very little difference between the quality of a CD and a high-res format, but all too often, the difference is as stark as that between color and black and white. To someone who’s color blind it might not matter, but to many of us, it does.