Over time, sales of these music sources have dropped in direct proportion to the rise of newer music streaming services. Today, music streaming is where most people get their music. It’s a major shift for music companies, equipment providers, and of course, consumers. While widening our choice in music, these new services are also moving us inexorably toward a world where we no longer own our music, but simply rent it.
The music business is not the first, nor will it be the last business flung into upheaval by the rise of the Internet. We’ll try to sort it out for you, taking a close look at the history, technology, and quality of streaming services. Mort important, we’ll tell you what you’ll need to be a participant in this burgeoning world of streaming music, what you’ll gain, and what you may give up.
At its most basic, streaming sends a digital file from a server or computer in near real-time across the Internet to its destination. Before streaming became popular, the way to get a remote file into your computer, was by a progressive download. When the download was finished, you had the file. The bigger the file, the longer it took until you get it.
Streaming brought us a different kind of download. Depending on your connection, you could hear the file just a few second after it started. Basically, you are listening as it comes in, not waiting for the file to finish. For the music companies, it was a big advantage, because you never retain the complete file. When you are done listening, the file is gone, unless the streaming service opts to let you keep the file for further listening.
In general, this method works pretty well, but if your Internet connection is spotty or is interrupted, the file can stop playing, so most streaming software includes a buffer, such that it saves data that isn’t needed until later, but long interruptions or disconnections will still break the music stream.
To hear the stream, your equipment will need a DAC (digital audio converter) to turn the 1’s and 0’s into listenable music. Receivers contain these DACS, as do the streaming receivers, and even your smartphone.
I’d put the beginning of the streaming age with the rise of Napster in the late 90’s. While Napster wasn’t a streaming service, it built a wide audience based on a highly compressed music file format, MP3 (320 kbps kilo-bits-per-second), and Napster offered a free peer-to-peer service where anyone could contribute ripped music files (from CD, vinyl or tape) and share them to friends or anonymously. By 2001, Napster had millions of users, and the music industry began to rightfully worry. 2001 was also the year of the iPod, a hard disc music player that could take files ripped from a CD right on your computer. As storage sizes increased, people could carry their entire music collection on an iPod.
All this ripping of music didn’t thrill the music publishers, or artists, so Apple opened the iTunes Store to allow people to buy anything in a protected format the music industry could live with. Rather than only downloading albums, you could buy music individual tracks. Eventually, after much public pressure, Apple removed the copy protection from their downloads.
Around the same time, Pandora appeared, along with LastFM. Both services streamed music at fairly low quality and were based on algorithms that observed the kind of music or artists you liked and fed you more. It wasn’t quite the same as creating your own playlists out of your owned music library, but it was convenient if you had Internet access, and it often exposed you to music you might have never discovered on your own.
Pandora and its cousins were computer-based, so people listened on their desktops or laptops getting the music they liked as long as they had the Internet.
With growing success, Pandora and other services added ads between songs, or offered ad-free music for a fee. That was the beginning of the myriad offerings we have today. As the Internet has improved, giving us more bandwidth, the quality of the music streams has improved, offering us CD quality and beyond, but at a price.
With the Internet in most homes, and with the proliferation of Wi-Fi, traditional home devices like receivers were increasingly offering Internet access for firmware updates, and access to audio streaming services.
The services were also available on our smartphones, so we could listen there, ane by streaming from those devices, we could listen in our cars and on our home audio devices.
Soon, other devices picked up on the demand for streaming music, with companies like Sonos, Bluesound, and Denon offering dedicated streamers that could replay the Internet streams on your favorite devices at home, and create whole-house systems where music could be streamed to multiple rooms.
The earliest streaming services weren’t high fidelity. They were more like AM radio, but they worked, and they satisfied a music-hungry market. In general, when played through computer speakers or smartphones, the sound was good enough, but if the system were to grow, the quality needed to improve.
There isn’t a strict definition of high fidelity in streaming, but basically it refers to uncompressed music of at least CD quality. Higher than CD quality – termed Hi-res – is defined by The Digital Entertainment Group (in conjunction with the Consumer Electronics Association and The Recording Academy) as the following:
Hi-res audio is: “Lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better-than-CD quality music sources.”
Since CDs have a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz and a bit depth of 16-bit, and Hi-res files have a sampling rate ranging between 96 kHz and 192 kHz at 24-bit, the better-than-CD quality spec is the target that the best streaming sources aim for.
It’s a controversial question. Most critical listeners hearing a high-resolution stream or a CD-quality stream compared to a compressed MP3 stream will pick out and prefer the higher quality stream every time. It gets trickier when we go from a CD-quality stream to a higher-resolution stream. Personally, I find it hard to hear the difference. It’s going to depend on your hearing, the equipment that captures the stream, and of course, your speakers. The reality is streaming does its best to get to CD quality, but, in general, your music will sound better coming from your own discs or local file (on your computer) playback (like a downloaded high-resolution file that is sitting on your home storage).
There’s also a new streaming format called MQA. It stands for Master Quality Authenticated. Some claim it’s musical nirvana. Others say they can’t hear any difference between MQA encodes and 24 bit FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec streaming, and that it involves light compression. Still, it’s supported by Tidal in their highest tier, and we’re beginning to see some equipment manufacturers add decoders for it.
(Here are my comments on the major services, followed by a chart of their prices and specifications.)
By best, we’re balancing best music selection with the quality of the streams. There are many other music services out there. We deem these the best of the lot.
Spotify: This service started in Europe, but it is popular all over the world. It has a library of more than 40 million tracks. Spotify streams at 320 kbps, not really CD quality, and certainly not high-resolution. For many, it is good enough. It sports iOS and Android apps, which can relay the stream to other devices, and it supports a variety of home components, web browsers and smart TVs. Spotify has a free plan with ads, or a Premium plan at $9.99 a month with no ads, some downloading of music (to keep on your device) and slightly higher quality, but it is still compressed.
Tidal: Tidal streams FLAC files, very high quality audio that is lossless (no compression). Tidal has about 50 million tracks, and more than 30,000 in high-resolution. Tidal is supported on iOS, Android, web browsers, some home components, and desktop computer apps. There’s a CD-quality tier, and a high-resolution tier with higher prices. Tidal also has a lower priced option of streaming at 320 kbps to match. Tidal costs $9.99 a month for the standard service and $19.99 for the ‘premium’ service. What’s the difference? Tidal’s high-fidelity sound is only available on the premium tier, and this means that for, $19.99/mo, you’ll be able to listen to CD-quality music using the Free Lossless Audio Codec or ‘FLAC’
Apple Music: This service is aimed at Apple users, and it fits well into the Apple ecosystem. Files are in AAC (high quality but still compressed), and Apple says it has more than 45 million tracks online. There are iOS and desktops apps, but Apple Music is not Android friendly. Costs are $9.99/mo, $14.99/mo for a family plan, or $4.99/mo if you’re a student. But Apple has another option allowing you to pay $99 for a 12-month subscription.
Here is a definition of AAC, from Wikipedia: “Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) is an audio coding standard for lossy digital audio compression. Designed to be the successor of the MP3 format, AAC generally achieves better sound quality than MP3 at the same bit rate (Brandenburg, 1999). The confusingly named AAC+ (HE-AAC) does so (clarification needed) only at low bit rates and less so at high ones.”
Qobuz: Not as well known perhaps as the others, it’s very advanced in technology and streaming quality. Qobuz gives users the ability to stream over 70,000 24-bit Hi-res albums and download tracks at a discounted price, but you need to spend more on an annual subscription. Below this tier sits a hi-res Studio tier, a CD-quality Hi-Fi tier, and a Premium MP3 streaming tier. A Studio subscription, which only includes unlimited Hi-Res streaming, costs $24.99/mo, or $249.99/yr. Its Hi-Fi service – similar to Tidal – featuring 16-bit CD quality streaming, costs $19.99/mo, or $199.99/yr. Qobuz Premium, which only allows 320 kbps MP3 streaming, costs $9.99/mo, or $99.99/yr.
Amazon has its own streaming service called Amazon Music Unlimited. It is compatible with smartphones and tablets via its Android and iOS apps and PCs and Macs via its web player or desktop app. Fire tablets and TVs are also compatible while some in-car systems and audio products (including Amazon Echo and Sonos speakers) also support the service. The Amazon basic service is free if you have Amazon Prime. Music Unlimited with an unlimited choice of music is $9.99/mo. Audio quality is 256 kbps AAC. Not the best on offer, not the worst.
The interface is user-friendly, allowing you to browse Amazon’s catalogue with minimal fuss. It’s easy enough to discover new music, although Spotify does have the edge when it comes to recommendations and curated content. Most users say Amazon Music has slightly better audio quality than Spotify. Amazon Prime members can join Amazon Music Unlimited for only $7.99/mo for a monthly subscription or $79/yr for an annual subscription. Non-Prime customers pay $9.99/mo.
There are many other smaller services that cater to particular tastes. For classical music fans there’s Idagio, which streams at CD quality and allows downloads. They have more than 2 million tracks available. They support iOS, Android and web players. Idagio streams in lossless quality (FLAC), and costs $9.99/mo.
Another classical service is Primephonc. It offers two levels of service, MP3 quality at $7.99/mo, or 24 bit FLAC lossless streaming at $14.99/mo.
|Provider||Audio Quality||Bitstream from Provider||Price Monthly|
|Spotify||Compressed (Not CD Quality)||320 kbps||$9.99|
|Tidal||FLAC (CD Quality)||1,141 kbps – also offers MQA files at 96 kHz/24 bit depending on your bandwidth and equipment||19.99|
|Apple Music||Compressed (not CD Quality)||Apple doesn’t specify delivered bitrate. Music is stored in AAC at 256 kbps||$9.99|
FLAC CD Quality
FLAC up to 24/192
|Amazon||Not CD Quality||256 kbps||$9.99|
|Primephonic||FLAC (CD Quality)||1,141 kbps||$14.99|
|Idagio||FLAC (CD Quality)||1,141 kbps||$9.99|
|Pandora Premium||Not CD Quality||192 kbps MP3||$9.99|
Note: in all cases streams will drop in quality if your bandwidth is limited or your equipment/software can’t handle higher bitrates. It’s unlikely in the real world so called high-resolution services will sound any different to most non-critical listeners after a trip down the Internet.
So, with all the musical riches streaming services provide, how do you get these services at home? The answer will depend on your equipment and also where the streaming originates on your devices.
If you have a smartphone, you’ve got streaming capabilities there. You can download apps for Tidal, Pandora, Spotify, and more. You can listen on your phone of course, or headphones. If you have a receiver with Bluetooth capability, and almost all receivers newer than 8 years old or so have that, you can grab the signal from your smartphone and pair it to your receiver. You’ll control everything over the smartphone, but the sound will come out of your receiver and speakers.
An even better choice would be a receiver that can stream directly. You’ll need a receiver that can connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Receivers so equipped will almost always offer streaming from the most popular services like Spotify, Pandora, and most offer a choice of hundreds of streaming radio stations around the world, or even your local stations. Often, receivers provide the capability of streaming from Tune-In, a service that collects many of the stations around the world. They also offer streaming services that aren’t connected to radio stations, and are usually grouped into categories like talk, Jazz, Rock, Classical, and many more.
A streaming receiver is a superior choice over a smartphone or computer because it doesn’t tie up your smartphone or other equipment, and you don’t need your phone to control the music. It can all be done with the receiver remote.
I should note there are some downsides to streaming receivers. There’s not much of a user interface, and the software and firmware on receivers are not updated all that frequently.
Another option for streaming is a computer or a tablet like an iPad. Many of the streaming services offer PC or Mac apps for desktops and laptops. If your computer has Bluetooth, you can pair to your receiver and stream to it.
One of the other ways you can get high quality music into your home is with a dedicated streaming device like the Sonos or Bluesound music servers. In addition to playing your ripped CDs from a hard drive, those devices also offer a variety of popular streaming services, as well as TuneIn for Internet radio.
Both Sonos and Bluesound offer dozens of streaming options but check before purchase to see if the device you want will stream the services you want.
For example, if you are a classical music lover, Sonos offers Idagio, a popular classical service. But Bluesound offers no classical stations. Both devices offer Amazon Music, and many receivers now offer that service as well, but with so many competing services, you won’t find everything everywhere.
Although not dedicated music devices, hardware like the Apple TV do provide some streaming audio services as well as their video offerings.
Roon is a relative newcomer to high quality music in the home. It is compatible with several home audio components and streamers. It can manage a music system, giving you album art, information about the artists, and depending upon your hardware, it can control playback. Roon can mange your files, either iTunes libraries, PC libraries, or even on an external hard disc or server. It can also manage and search some of the streaming services like Tidal.
I’ve checked most of the popular receiver brands to see what they have, and here’s a pretty good idea, but remember, the offerings are always changing, and more expensive receivers usually have more choices.
Pioneer: Offers Google Cast, TuneIn, DEEZER, and TIDAL. Pioneers also have Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and Chromecast.
Sony: Sony receivers generally offer Chromecast, Apple Airplay, Bluetooth, Spotify Connect through an app and Wi-Fi.
Denon: Supports Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, Apple Airplay 2. With the included HEOS feature you can connect to Spotify®, TuneIn, Pandora®, Amazon Prime Music, iHeartRadio, SiriusXM, Soundcloud®, Tidal, Napster, Deezer, or local music sources.
Yamaha: Built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, AirPlay, Spotify Connect, Pandora, Rhapsody, SiriusXM Internet Radio, vTuner, connections to PC or an audio server like a NAS.
Cambridge Audio: Includes StreamMagic streaming platform which brings with it NAS drive and UPnP playback, Spotify Connect, and thousands of Internet radio stations.
Onkyo Receivers: Chromecast built-in, AirPlay®, Wi-Fi®, and Bluetooth® App Streaming via the Onkyo app. It offers Spotify, Pandora, and TuneIn built-in, as well as Deezer and Tidal.
Marantz: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Airplay2, HEOS which offers Pandora, TuneIn, Deezer, and Spotify.
It’s really dead simple. If you are connecting your smartphone to a receiver, make sure Bluetooth is enabled on both devices. Load your streaming app on your smart phone and make sure your phone is paired to your receiver. Then just control it all on your smartphone screen. Volume is controlled on your receiver or receiver remote.
A dedicated streamer like a Sonos will already be connected to your receiver on an analog or optical in/out. Switch to it and use the Sonos remote app on your smartphone or computer to select a streaming option. Again, volume is controlled on your receiver remote.
If your receiver has built in streaming options, all control is through your receiver remote. If your TV is on, you may see detailed controls on screen. If not, you’ll have abbreviated controls on the small screen on the receiver.
If you are just listening to background music, any streaming service will do. TuneIn offers a variety of music stations of all types, but they won’t be excellent quality. More like low bit rate MP3 quality.
If you’re a serious listener, you’ll want the higher quality 24 bit FLAC streaming services. They are listed above.
As a general rule, your own music, if ripped as a FLAC or other high bit rate format on your computer, will sound better than almost all streaming services. However, you are stuck with the music you have. Streaming services can widen your musical horizons. Several times I’ve heard something I like and bought the CD or Hi Resolution download. Streaming gives you musical discovery, which is quite nice.
Of course, with streaming you are renting your music. When you quit the service, your music is gone unless the service allows some downloads.
For many listeners, the best of both worlds is to use your large music collection and get it digitized on a hard disc for easy playback and cataloging. Sonos and Bluesound take care of this automatically when you add music. There are other devices that can manage a library, like iTunes or Roon.
Then, sign up for a high quality streaming service to augment your collection, making that infinitely large collection available in your home or even in your car through your smartphone.
Hi-Fi receivers have a pretty long life, but over time you might want more channels or more power. Bluetooth may be improved, but most manufacturers offer a firmware update for that.
Phones don’t last forever, and as you trade in, you’ll likely get better audio specs. Streaming devices like Sonos and Bluesound aggressively update their software, adding more streaming services, fixing bugs, and improving the audio quality. In total, you should get several years of pleasure out of your equipment. As new streaming services come online, it’s up to the device manufacturers to keep up. They’ll generally support the most popular services, but the dedicated streamers have a wide selection that will please most people.
Streaming is here, and it’s big business. Equipment manufacturers are rapidly adapting to it, and it’s popular with listeners. It’s still possible to get by with no streaming, but ultimately streaming can enhance your musical life.
However, to become completely dependent on it means you’ll have no musical collection of your own. When you disconnect, all your music is gone unless you were a collector before you began streaming. There’s something nice about owning your music. And there’s something nice about pulling new music out of thin air to listen whenever and wherever you want.