Here we are back again with another edition of Sam’s Adventures in Audio. I’m always learning new things working at this store, so stay tuned to hear about what I’ve been working on this time. Last week I focused on turntables, so this week I thought I’d tackle the other popular source for music listening: digital streaming.
For years, it was assumed that music streaming could never match the quality of a good old-fashioned vinyl record or even a CD. Lossy formats like MP3, AAC, and OGG dominated the streaming market and they simply sounded compressed and lifeless compared to traditional discs. Many of these services are still available today, such as Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music Unlimited. These lossy formats reduce file sizes by cutting out small bits of information in the music that they don’t think you’ll notice and compressing the dynamics. These services are offered at a reasonable ~$10/month and work great for the average listener who doesn’t care too much about sound quality and just wants to enjoy their music…
But what if you want more? What if you don’t want your streaming service to cut out information from your music? Enter lossless streaming. The big 3 lossless streaming formats, Tidal, Qobuz, and Amazon Music HD, all offer millions of songs in the FLAC file format that maintains true CD quality or even higher. Each service has its own catalog and features, and each comes with its own price tag. Tidal is $20/month for its lossless/hi-res tier. Qobuz has their Studio Premier tier for $15/month (or $12.50 if you pay yearly) for the time being. Amazon Music HD will run you $13/month if you’re already subscribed to Prime, or $15/month without. Which one is best for you? Let’s find out.
Tidal is a little more expensive than the other two services, but there are ways they make up for that. Tidal’s got some great features that have helped establish them as the service most people think of when hi-res streaming is brought up.
- The largest library at about 60 million songs. Tidal has songs from pretty much all areas of music, but they specialize in bringing brand new albums into their service right away. This makes Tidal the way to go if you want to catch the newest releases.
- Tidal has a pretty solid music discovery playlist system. The more music you listen to, the more discovery playlists they will generate for you. Because these playlists are updated every day with new music, it makes for a great experience discovering new songs or artists.
- Tidal has partnered with MQA to offer millions of songs in higher-than-CD quality. Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) is effectively a way of upsampling recordings to achieve up to 24 bit/96KHz audio. There is some debate about how this compares to 24 bit/96KHz releases not using MQA from other services, but rest assured both sound excellent. Just make sure you have a DAC that supports MQA if you’re going to be using this feature.
Qobuz may be the underdog pick here, but these guys have managed to win my pick for the number 1 HD music streaming service. At a more affordable price than Tidal, these guys offer a whole lot of awesome features to compete. The future is bright for Qobuz, and I can’t wait to see what they bring next.
- Qobuz may have the smallest library at just under 50 million songs, but don’t let that be the deciding factor. Qobuz’s library is ever-expanding and they still have a massive library of music to choose from. They also have the largest amount of Hi-Res (above CD quality) songs.
- Qobuz has something of a unique approach to discovery. They haven’t moved towards the discovery playlists of Tidal or Spotify as much, but have instead opted for a rather unique system of news articles, panoramas, and their “Taste of Qobuz” playlists. These offer a unique way to learn about music while you listen.
- Hi-Res is where Qobuz really shines. They offer the highest number of albums available in Hi-Res quality and many more available for purchase. One great thing about Qobuz is the ability to see the bitrate and frequency of your music, instead of having to guess with Tidal’s MQA.
Amazon Music HD
Amazon rolled out their HD music service rather sloppily last year, but they’ve slowly started to find their footing. This is the newest service in the HD game, and it’s interesting to see what Amazon is able to bring to the table.
- A similar sized library to Tidal at just under 60 million songs. In addition to their HD-quality library, Amazon also has a good sized selection of non-HD songs available to fill out the gaps. Many tracks are available in “Ultra HD” as well, which is comparable to Hi-Res for Qobuz or MQA for Tidal.
- Amazon’s discovery features at the moment are severely lacking. They have some curated playlists and a rudimentary autoplay system for finding new songs, but compared to other services it just feels like it’s not quite there. They also rolled out without the ability to play in Exclusive Mode.
- Amazon does have a nice library of Ultra HD tracks, albeit with varying qualities ranging from 16-bit 48KHz to 24-bit 96KHz. Not much special to talk about here, although they also show your bitrate like Qobuz which is nice.
Roon – An Upgrade to your Existing Service
Are you feeling disappointed in the interface or discovery features of your music streaming service? Do you wish you could combine your existing downloaded music seamlessly with your streaming service? Do you enjoy reading about your music while you listen? Then Roon is the perfect upgrade for you.
The folks at Roon have created a massive database of music information that allows you to combine Tidal, Qobuz, and your existing library all on one platform. Combine this with the single most intelligent autoplay system ever made and you’ve got an amazing tool for finding new music. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten lost in the experience of listening to music while reading Roon’s extensive background on the artist and all of their albums. It has helped me to enjoy music much more, and expanded my musical interests to new heights.
At $10/month, Roon offers so many features that I can’t even list them all here. It’s really worth checking out if you already have Tidal or Qobuz and are looking for some more functionality.
All 3 of these services offer something unique and it’s worth checking out each one if you want better audio. Qobuz is the service I have decided on using, as it offers the best balance of price and features I like. I can personally say that moving up to an HD music streaming service was easily the best upgrade in my system I’ve made in the last couple of years. If you’ve got a nice audio system, it makes a world of difference.
If you’re curious about trying out any of these services, we’ve got Roon, Tidal, and Qobuz all available to demo at our store. You can even get some good deals on Roon and Qobuz if you sign up through us. If you’re not convinced they make a difference, come down and listen for yourself. It was a lot of fun getting to explore the differences and I look forward to learning more. Join me next time to see what I’m exploring next.