Recently, I found myself in a discussion of music services on Twitter with a friend who is an avid Spotify user. Being someone who use to live off of my Spotify account myself, I've become somewhat of a music streaming nomad over the past few years. I started out a lover of Pandora, then switched to Spotify due to is lower rates, and then tried Apple Radio for a time.
What all of these music streaming services having in common is that they broadcast music in quality less than that of the average compact disc.
The phenomenon of Hi-Fi listening speaks to the accurate reproduction of music from its original source without loss from transfer, compression or noise. True audiophiles appreciate music differently than the casual listener. They invest in high-end equipment to bring out the best possible sound, second only to a live performance, yielding a premium listening experience.
Lossy versus Lossless
Most music services stream compressed audio. iTunes Radio streams in 256kbps AAC format, and Spotify streams in up to 320kbps Vorbis format. Both formats are considered to be lossy.
So what exactly does lossy mean? Essentially, it's method of compression which reduces the size of a file by reducing the quality of the item you're compressing. For the purposes of the subject, the thing is an audio track, but the same principle can be applied to digital images. The detail - usually on the higher frequencies - is lost during compression into an audio format like AAC or Vorbis, leading to it being called lossy.
Lossless formats are exactly what you might imagine them to be - digital audio files that are an exact bit-for-bit representation of a compact disc or analog album from which they are ripped. While the file may have some compression, there is no loss of bits from it's original digital or analog source, making it perfect for archiving CDs or vinyl albums.
It's important to note that compression done through the recording process in a studio is not the same as compression in a file format. Dynamic range compression applied during the mastering process is a completely seperate kind of compression and influences the music in a different way.
Hi-Fi Streaming with TIDAL
While most streaming services give you an inaccurate representation of music due to substandard bitrates, there is hope yet for audiophiles.
TidalHIFI promises to bring over 25 million tracks of music to your desktop, laptop or mobile device, streaming in ultra-high quality, for $19.99 per month.
How good is the sound? The answer depends on how you play back the music. Using the service on laptop speakers or your iPhone will produce decent sound quality but nothing that sounds any better than Spotify.
Playback on a high-end hi-fi system or through an external DAC and quality headphones (no, not Beats) is what makes Tidal special. My portable audio setup includes an Audioengine D3 DAC and RHA MA450i in-ear headphones and I could hear the difference in quality between tracks. The differences, while subtle, stand out on classical and jazz genres. Treble has an added airy breadth to it while bass is strong adding depth to tracks without feeling boomy.
While I am a huge fan of the quality of the streaming (1411 kbps, same as a compact disc) I was slightly less impressed with the service's offering of classical and jazz tracks, which is a big part of my listening. Being a native Philadelphian spoiled with the best orchestra in the world, I was dismayed to find that most of the tracks I already owned on CD were not available on Tidal.
I was further disappointed with Tidal's offering of curated playlists, some of which contain less than 20 tracks. If I'm putting on a playlist for background music during a dinner party, I do not want to take time away from my guests to find another playlist because the total playtime is 1-2 hours.
Taking all of my points into account, I'm not sure if I can justify $19.99 per month on a service that doesn't quite meet my needs.
I'm not questioning the value of a music streaming service broadcasting at CD quality bitrates, but rather, my sentiment is based more on a matter of selection. Tidal will need to bulk up it's classical and jazz offerings with albums other than compliations that you can find in the discount bin if it wants to win my loyalty. Until then, I'll stick with my Spotify subscription. There, I am simply able to find a better selection of the genres that interest me.
While not everyone can descern the detail of music streamed between 320kbps and 1411kbps bitrates, my ears can hear the difference when listening critically. For that reason alone, I really want to stick with Tidal becuase listening to lossless music is beautiful experience.
It's a shame that Tidal's music library won't let me.