Music is rapidly becoming an on-demand commodity rather than something that is owned. Just like the DVD, CDs are becoming superfluous for new generations as the ultimate flexibility of music streaming takes centre stage.
With more and more services available, we have been listening to just a few to see how they compare quality-wise especially with regard to good listening on the move.
In the dark ages of digital audio, many companies decided that quantity was better than quality. Thus, MP3 music compression was born with scant regard to the final quality of sound produced. The same dark forces have been at work with music streaming. Based on a basic human desire for more, often exploited by marketers, the most successful streaming services have enormous catalogues of music in order to attract as many consumers as possible. In more recent times, these happen to offer the “best value for money”. However, value is in the eye of the beholder is it not?
Basic services from Spotify, Amazon, Apple etc. are all fine. They provide many people with hours of listening pleasure with scaled tariffs to suit personal circumstances and quality requirements. Many youngsters in particular, are quite happy to play music through the tiny speakers in their mobile phones or tablets and are perfectly happy with the results. In fact, I have met many adults who listen in the same way. However, these folk are unlikely to upgrade the audio in their vehicle for quality purposes.
When deciding to improve quality in whatever environment you listen in, you become a critical listener. This can be most rewarding as there is no doubt that the better the quality of reproduction, the more music is enjoyed. We know this particularly by the way people we demonstrate music to suddenly get enjoyment from material that they would not naturally choose to listen to. Critical listeners can also be marketed to in nefarious ways and the most underhand of all is technical specification. We speak to many who are convinced that their stream of choice must be the best because of some spurious technical element or other.
I have been a Spotify and Apple Music discourager for a while now. I have used both services in anger including premium/lossless versions and they do not sound good to my ears. Two services I have been drawn to however, are Qobuz and Tidal. It is extremely difficult for me to get detailed information as to why these should sound better, but they definitely do!
The most popular theory is that both services pay better artist royalties and as a result get better masters from record companies to work their magic on. Others speak of magic algorithms which are based on the musicality of the final rendering rather than bandwidth restrictions.
The Qobuz service I subscribe to, delivers sound via MP3 at 320kbps. This is the same (or similar) as Spotify premium and Apple lossless. Sonically, the difference is acute with an altogether less spiky sound and better instrument separation and clarity. Qobuz also has a vast amount of hi-res material. This point is particularly difficult for me to fathom as technically, hi-res quality cannot be delivered via 320kbps MP3. However, there is a marked difference in separation with hi-res content I listen to. Again, there are many theoretical reasons for this but the most likely is that hi-res content is usually remastered and sometimes remixed completely. It has been common practice for many years for mastering engineers to squish the dynamic range of a master to get the most impact from the music across more commonplace listening devices. These can be anything from CD to AM radio and the same content is usually provided to both. Greatest Hits compilations are also subject to dynamic compression in order to level match as closely as possible across the entire compilation.
Qobuz provides CD quality and hi-res streaming services. I have not tried these as they can become quite expensive. The Qobus hi-res streaming service currently costs £24.99 per month, whereas the MP3 quality package I use is £9.99 – CD quality is available for £19.99. As I do the majority of my listening on the move, I also fear that hi-res streaming could be a challenge on a 4G mobile phone!
Those marketing streaming services are still doing so on quantity of content. I have eclectic tastes and tend not to be as trend-led as many music lovers and am therefore relatively immune to such marketing. During the four years I have been using it, I have never got bored with my Qobuz listening and as with all services one track leads to suggestions of others I may like. Qobuz themed playlists as well as guest artist selections also lead me off down unfamiliar and usually, pleasurable avenues. I have discovered a lot of music that I would not otherwise have been exposed to and I would say that Qobuz has very much enhanced my life.
I have recently been included in a family Tidal subscription which has allowed me to compare these two services. Go to the article entitled “Downstream” to read my views on this service.
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