The application of sparsity-driven reconstruction methods to MRI to date has largely focused on situations where high-contrast features (e.g., gadolinium-enhanced vessels) are of primary interest. In clinical practice, however, low contrast features such as subtle lesions are often of equal or greater interest. Using an American College of Radiology MR quality assurance phantom and test, we describe a novel framework for systematically and automatically evaluating the low-contrast object detectability performance of different undersampled image reconstruction methods. This platform is used to evaluate three such methods, two based on classic Tikhonov regularization and one sparsity-driven method based on ℓ1-norm minimization (which is commonly used in compressive sensing, also known as compressed sensing, applications), across a wide range of sampling rates and parameterizations. Both the automated evaluation system and a manual evaluation of anatomical images with numerically-generated low contrast inserts demonstrate that sparse reconstructions exhibit superior low-contrast object detectability performance compared to both Tikhonov-regularized reconstructions. The implications of this result, and potential applications of both the described low-contrast object detectability platform and generalizations of it are then discussed. Magn Reson Med, 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.