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Digital Music Guide

Everything You Need to Know About Digital Music

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Chances are most of your music collection these days is digital. You probably have vinyl, tapes and CD’s on your bookshelf at home, but you’re probably not packing them in your bag when you leave the house.

Granted, analog sources like vinyl and cassette tapes (yes, even cassettes) are having a resurgence lately, but most digital audio and streaming subscriptions allow you to take your entire music library with you wherever you go. Besides the convenience factor, is the digitalization of music a good thing? Everyone says, “Vinyl sounds WAY better than CD. You can’t even compare the two.” Is this true?

Let’s take a quick look at the history of recorded music to see how we’ve arrived at the digital world of music we live in today.


Table of Contents

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Analog to Digital Conversion

The Recording Process

The recording process has changed a lot over the years. Originally, music was recorded using the signal straight from the microphone and tracked or recorded directly to analog tape. The waveform of the microphone is an analog wave, therefore making the wave on the tape analog as well. At that time, tape was the dominant recording format, while both vinyl and tape were the primary playback formats. All the analog information is already on the tape or vinyl, so in order to produce sound, you need something to read the tape or vinyl, amplify the signal and send to a speaker to produce the sound it created.

In the case of the vinyl record, the analog wave is printed on the disc and the stylus on the record player fits into the grooves on the record. The stylus then picks up and sends the etched vibrations through the cartridge in order to produce an analog signal to be amplified. In a stereo record groove, the right channel is recorded on the right wall, and the left channel is recorded on the left wall. Regardless, the analog information, like tape, is included in the medium and all that is needed to produce sound from the tape or record player is an amplified speaker source.  

Today, most of the time recordings are saved as digital data. The analog wave from the recording is sampled at the desired interval and then turned into numbers (1’s and 0’s) that are stored on the digital device. Each sample is essentially a small “chunk” of the analog wave, like ‘cutting” the tape into smaller pieces. On a CD, the sampling rate is 44,100 samples per second; so, there are 44,100 numbers stored per second of music. That data is then stored onto the disc in order to be decoded later by a CD player.

The CD player then uses a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to process the data and numbers into an analog waveform; using elements like bitrate, sample rate and bit depth into account to recreate an accurate waveform. Learn more about digital-to-analog conversion and the importance of a good DAC for your system HERE.

The quality of the DAC converting the digital data to analog audio is a critical component of your audio system that has a direct impact on the overall fidelity of your music. This is especially important when listening to higher resolution audio files with lots of data.

The Point:

  • Sound itself is analog.
  • Sound used to be (and sometimes still) recorded as analog, but is more and more done so digitally today.
  • Since your ears cannot hear and process data, you need a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to convert the data to an analog signal.

Digital Music

Digital music became popular with the emergence of the compact disc, or CD, by the mid 1980s, and were outselling cassette tapes by the early 90’s. The development of the iPod pushed digital music to the forefront, and since then most of society hasn’t looked back. There is something tangible and exciting about being able to have “thousands of songs in your pocket” (quote by Apple). First the iPod and now your phone.

The digitalization of music has certainly had its effect on the industry with trends straying away from physical media. It’s a convenience. There might be a time and a place to pull out a vinyl record and listen to an album from start to finish while reading the album insert, but for most people today, the hustle and bustle of the real working world forces a lot of people to partake in their music when the opportunity arises. On your commute to work, during your lunch break, riding the subway, while running or walking, there are many examples where people like to listen to music outside of their home and away from their high-fidelity home sound system.


Perhaps a good way to look at the emergence of digital music is not so much that it has ruined the analog or physical media industry, but rather offered consumers more ways to listen to their music. It is not an either/or but rather an and, and digital music is a means for us to listen to our music when and where we want to listen to it.  

The fact remains that as music becomes digital, we need space to store the data. As music libraries become larger when they need more space to store them on. And as the demand grows for higher resolution audio, so do the file sizes and the need for even more storage. Eventually there becomes a point where you simply don’t have enough storage to keep your entire music library with you.

But why worry about storage space at all? Today it seems like everything is becoming more integrated and dependent on the “cloud.” Keeping files online for storage and access without having to worry about taking up local space is the major benefit of cloud storage.

Enter Music Streaming: Why spend money on new music when you can pay a monthly fee for acces to an entire music library of millions of songs, including brand new releases?

The development of streaming services across the industry has become the new normal, much to the consumer’s dismay. The plethora of streaming choices offers us extreme flexibility in choosing the specific services we are wanting, but the downside for most is that you have to prioritize which services you want due to various and cumulative price points.

The Point:

  • The digitalization of music offers people more opportunities to listen to music than ever before.
  • The higher the resolution the larger the file sizes, thus it becomes more difficult to store tons of music on a single device.
  • Music streaming offers great fidelity without taking up local storage space.

Streaming Music

Music streaming services are the latest craze in the audio world. Why spend money on CDs, records, digital downloads or singles when you can sign up for a monthly subscription to get access to millions of songs and thousands of albums? Like TV and network streaming apps, there's so many out there now that it can be a little daunting trying to figure out which service is best for you.

Streaming Music is a huge opportunity to gain market share for so many companies these days that it has left the consumer with loads of new choices. These choices include Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, Beats Music, Amazon Music, BeatPort, SoundCloud and many, many more.

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Each service offers some different options, different stream qualities, library variations and more. We'll break down what each service offers, but first, let's look at what high-resolution audio is and why it sounds better than standard/lower resolution digital audio.

What is High-Resolution Audio?

High-Resolution Audio Logo

Just What Is High-Resolution Audio and Why Does It Matter?

High-resolution audio can be defined as music that is better than CD-quality, or rather audio that has a sample rate greater than 44.1 kHz and a bit depth larger than 16-bit. Although some streaming services tout CD-quality audio as “High-Definition” or “HD Audio,” the general consensus on Hi-Res is better-than-CD quality.

Most outside of the audiophile world might not know that compressed music files (such as MP3) robs integral details, emotion, and depth from the original composition. In today's world of satellite radio and single-sales music industry, the average music lover assumes louder means better when in reality it's making the listening experience inferior.

Compression works the same in audio as it does in video: by making the file size smaller, and specifically in the case of video, shrinking the image and making it grainier. The innovation of lossy audio compression was originally invented to use psychoacoustics to recognize that not all data in an audio stream can be perceived by the human auditory system. Depending on the encoding, compression takes out small parts which should be inaudible to the ear. In the process, the dynamic range is reduced and in terms of the data itself, the overall file size is also reduced. A lot also depends on the playback system; where it can be easy on a high resolution system to hear the loss in fidelity of a compressed file, but less so on a factory car sound system.

There are three main components in high-resolution audio that we need to keep in mind:

  • Sample Rate - refers to how many samples of data were taken in a second.
  • Bit Rate - refers to how much data is being stored per second.
  • Bit Depth - refers to how much data is recorded per sample.

The more information or data the recording has then the more faithful reproduction of the original audio recording. Generally speaking, more data = larger file sizes = better quality audio. These components determine the overall quality of the music file.

In the case of the CD, or compact disc, there are 176,400 bytes per second, 44,100 samples per second of music (or 44.1 kHz) at 16 bits per sample. Sony set this precedent when they were pushing the new audio format and it remains a standard for minimum high resolution audio, since most popular streaming services today stream audio at much reduced rates.

High-resolution audio is lossless audio capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from as-good or better-than CD quality music sources, a sound that closely replicates the quality of the musicians and engineers were working within the studio at the time of the recording.

The most popular streaming sites today do not transmit true high-resolution audio files. At least not yet. There is a lot of data to transmit, and for a long time, bandwidth and internet speeds were a big factor in preventing large audio files to be streamed in real-time online. Today we don’t necessarily have to worry about those constraints, but internet speeds and compatible hardware are still first and foremost considerations if you are wanting to stream high-resolution audio.

However, as time goes on we are beginning to see more streaming companies offering higher-quality streaming options as the competition increases among companies. “That streaming service might have more music, but this one has better quality music,” and so on and so forth.

The Point:

  • Higher-resolution music files are much larger and take up more storage space.
  • Most popular streaming sites today do not transmit true high-resolution audio files.
  • But it is becoming more popular and will become the new standard eventually.

Compression and File Types

Audio Data Compression

Not to be confused with Dynamic Range Compression (DRC), which is the process of reducing the dynamic range of the audio by reducing the loud sounds and amplifying quiet sounds, data compression refers to minimizing the size of an audio file. Audio compression algorithms are implemented in software as audio codecs. Different compression algorithms result in different types and various reductions of information in the files. We won't go into the actual coding methods of each algorithm at this time, but we'll do a basic overview of file types and the kind of compression they implement.

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Uncompressed Audio Formats

WAV, AIFF, AU, PCM, BWF

Uncompressed audio formats are large file types that can take up a considerable amount of space on your storage drives due to the amount of information they contain. However, the quality of the audio is unchanged from the original file - uncompressed and unaltered.

  • WAV: Waveform Audio File Format is an audio file format standard, developed by Microsoft and IBM, for storing an audio bitstream on PCs.
  • AIFF: Audio Interchange File Format is an audio file format standard used for storing sound data for personal computers and other electronic audio devices. The format was developed by Apple Inc. in 1988 based on Electronic Arts' Interchange File Format and is most commonly used on Apple Macintosh computer systems.
  • AU: The Au file format is a simple audio file format introduced by Sun Microsystems. The format was common on NeXT systems and on early Web pages. Originally it was headerless, being simply 8-bit μ-law-encoded data at an 8000 Hz sample rate.
  • PCM: Pulse-code modulation is a method used to digitally represent sampled analog signals. It is the standard form of digital audio in computers, compact discs, digital telephony and other digital audio applications.
  • BWF: Broadcast Wave Format is an extension of the popular Microsoft WAV audio format and is the recording format of most file-based non-linear digital recorders used for motion picture, radio and television production. It was first specified by the European Broadcasting Union in 1997, and updated in 2001 and 2003.

Compressed Audio Formats

Lossless Compressed Audio Formats

FLAC, WavPack, Monkey's Audio/APE, ALAC, WMA (lossless)

Lossless audio compression produces a representation of digital data that decompress to an exact duplicate of the original audio file. Therefore, no actual data is lost when decompressed, but will still result in smaller file size (when compressed) than the original file. A popular format for archiving.

  • FLAC: FLAC is an audio coding format for lossless compression of digital audio, and is also the name of the free software project producing the FLAC tools, the reference software package that includes a codec implementation.
  • WavPack: WavPack is a free and open-source lossless audio compression format.
  • Monkey’s Audio/APE: Monkey's Audio is an algorithm and file format for lossless audio data compression. Lossless data compression does not discard data during the process of encoding, unlike lossy compression methods such as AAC, MP3, Vorbis and Musepack. Monkey's Audio files use the filename extension .ape for audio, and .apl for track metadata.
  • ALAC: The ALAC file extension is a data format associated with Apple Lossless Audio Codec (ALAC). ALAC files were developed by Apple. These files use M4A format because ALAC is a codec used for encoding audio data and not an audio file container format like an MPEG-4 file.
  • WMA: WMA is a file extension used with Windows Media Player. WMA stands for Windows Media Audio. WMA is both an audio format and an audio codec. WMA was intended to be a competitor for the MP3 and RealAudio audio formats.

Lossy Compressed Audio Formats

AC3, DTS, AAC, MPEG-1/2/3, Vorbis/OGG, Real Audio

Loss algorithms utilize psychoacoustics to recognize that not all data in an audio stream can be perceived by the human ear. Because of this, specific information is identified and either coded with decreased accuracy or removed entirely. From a file size point of view, lossy compression is superb at creating smaller file sizes overall than lossless compression, but due to the algorithms it uses, audio quality oftentimes suffers in comparison.

  • AC3: AC3 is a file extension for surround sound audio files used on DVDs format. The AC3 file format was created by Dolby Labs for use in a Dolby Digital audio on DVD, Blu-ray and other digital video formats. AC3 stands for Audio Coding 3.
  • DTS: dts file extension is used for an audio file format that was created by DTS, Inc. These DTS files are also known as Digital Surround Audio files. DTS, which is a series of multichannel digital sound technologies, are integrated into many audio playback hardware products.
  • AAC: Advanced Audio Coding is an audio coding standard for lossy digital audio compression. Designed to be the successor of the MP3 format, AAC generally achieves higher sound quality than MP3 at the same bit rate. AAC has been standardized by ISO and IEC, as part of the MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 specifications.
  • MPEG: MPEG-1 Audio Layer II or MPEG-2 Audio Layer II is a lossy audio compression format defined by ISO/IEC 11172-3 alongside MPEG-1 Audio Layer I and MPEG-1 Audio Layer III. While MP3 is much more popular for PC and Internet applications, MP2 remains a dominant standard for audio broadcasting.
  • VORBIS/OGG: Ogg is a free, open container format maintained by the Xiph.Org Foundation. The creators of the Ogg format state that it is unrestricted by software patents and is designed to provide for efficient streaming and manipulation of high-quality digital multimedia.
  • REAL AUDIO: RealAudio is a proprietary audio format developed by RealNetworks and first released in April 1995. It uses a variety of audio codecs, ranging from low-bitrate formats that can be used over dialup modems, to high-fidelity formats for music.

We are seeing more streaming services considering higher resolution audio, but it is important to note that not all standard electronic devices can play back these formats. You’ll need specific hardware that supports high-resolution format playback in order to make the most out of your audio. For instance, your iPhone will not be able to playback uncompressed FLAC files, so you’ll need to make sure the hardware in your audio system will support your high-resolution files or is compatible to be able to stream similar files if you are wanting to stream them over the internet (we’ll save music servers and streamers for another post).

The Point:

  • Compression varies - different compression algorithms result in differing audio quality.
  • Uncompressed file types are larger and result in the best audio quality.
  • Compressed file types vary from lossless to lossy types, lossless resulting in the better audio quality.
  • Devices and media players vary in the kinds of formats they can playback. Contact us if you have any compatibility questions.

Once you have the hardware and bandwidth, it’s time to start considering what service is right for you.

Where Can You Purchase High-Resolution Audio?

There are a number of ways that you can beef up your audio library with high-resolution files and not low res mp3s. One easy way is by burning your CD collection. Of course, this is the more time consuming option, but it gives you the most control over the fidelity of your music. It’s also the cheapest option since you are copying what you already own.

The trick here is finding the time to do it. Luckily, there are some CD burners that can automatically find the metadata and integrate the files into your library. One example is the Bryston BOT-1 - it does all the hard work for you. It will rip the CD directly to the attached drive, look up the metadata via the internet, and automatically add and categorize the music into your existing library.

This kind of gear is great if you have a large cd library that you are looking to digitize and access on your home streaming devices or take on the road with you.

Another means of getting high-resolution audio is by simply purchasing it. Many online music stores have options to purchase higher resolution versions, and though they might be more expensive, it gives you access to exactly what you are looking for - all in high fidelity. Qobuz and HDTracks are excellent examples of this. Recommended sites:

  • Qobuz (good variety of music and formats; available in the United States, France, UK, and Germany)
  • HDTracks (good variety of music; both DSD and PCM; available in the United States, UK, and Germany)
  • Super HiRez (DSD, FLAC, and ALAC; available in the United States and Canada)
  • Idagio - (great for Classical music)

A ROON Nucleus Music Server would be a good solution to consolidate your different music libraries from different sources: local storage, streaming services, remote, etc… You can stream and manage your music library directly with the Nucleus; it connects directly to your network and can be controlled via your phone, tablet, or computer.

 

Read more about how to download, save, and catalog your music collection. More information on audio formats and much more...

Where Can You Stream High-Resolution Audio?

Good news: there are lots of choices. We’ll go over some of the more popular streaming services here:


  • Amazon Music
  • Apple Music
  • Pandora
  • Qobuz
  • Soundcloud
  • Spotify
  • Tidal
  • YouTube Music
Amazon Music Logo

Amazon Music Unlimited

With an Amazon Music Unlimited subscription, you get:

  • Access to tens of millions of songs
  • Thousands of playlists hand-curated by Amazon's "music experts"
  • Personalized stations
  • Music is available on demand and ad-free, with unlimited plays
  • New albums and songs are typically added to the catalog on the day they are released

Paid Subscribers ($9.99/month, or $7.99/month for Amazon Prime members)

Supported Audio File Formats:‎MP3 and @ 320 kbit/s VBR

Although some original features have been removed (personal uploads), Amazon Music Unlimited still offers incredible value for what you spend, especially if you already have Amazon Prime. A large, well-organized library makes for a good experience. Be aware that the catalog changes from month to month, so some saved selections might not be available for a time until they are cycled back in.

Pros: Discount for Prime members and students, large library, lyrics, integration with Amazon ecosystem

Cons: One-device-at-a-time for a individual-plan subscription, no free version, catalog cycles

Amazon Music HD

Amazon also has a high resolution subscription to their music service called Amazon Music HD. This subscription runs for $14.99/mo (or $12.99 for Prime Members). There is a 30 day trial, but no free version. Amazon Music HD is capable of streaming music from 850 kbps and 16 bit/44.1 kHz up to 3730kbps and 24 bit/192 kHz. Choose from a song library of 50+ million songs. Best deal for HD quality audio especially if you are an Amazon Prime member.

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Apple Music and iTunes

Apple has been the king of digital music since the inception of the iPod and had a helping hand in revolutionizing the industry. Here are some of the features you’ll get:

  • 50 Million song catalog
  • Save tracks locally to listen offline
  • Define themselves as the "best way to organize and enjoy the music, movies, and tv shows you already have and shop for the ones you want to buy"
  • Free streaming radio stations with iTunes Radio
  • Compatible and integrated into all iOS devices
  • DJ curated and genre-specific stations
  • Download media if you won't have WiFi

Paid Subscribers - Apple Music: ($9.99/month)

Supported Audio File Formats: iTunes can currently read, write and convert between MP3, AIFF, WAV, MPEG-4, AAC and Apple Lossless (.m4a). iTunes can also play any audio files that QuickTime can play (as well as some video formats), including Protected AAC files from the iTunes Store and Audible audiobooks.

Apple has always had a great UI and catalog. The long trial is nice too. It’s a good option if you are already well integrated into their ecosystem, though the iCloud integration can be a nuisance if you are an Android user, as many of the app’s features are buggy on non-Apple operating systems.

Pros: Seamless integration with the Apple ecosystem, large library size, great organization, lyric support, free 3-month trial, student discount, iCloud integration.

Cons: Android version of the app has issues, iCloud integration, one-device-at-a-time for standard subscriptions

PAID ITUNES MATCH SUBSCRIPTIONS

  • Stream media directly from iCloud at a rate of 256Kbps, otherwise, download to your computer and then watch, don’t stream
  • Stream settings are always dictated by the SOURCE
  • Supported compression methods: AAC, AIFF, MP3, WAV, Apple Lossless Encoder, default M4A files by iTunes can be encoded with AAC or apple lossless encoder Apple lossless encoder does not discard any audio data during compression which means higher sound quality, BUT larger files require larger bandwidth for streaming AIFF and WAV do not compress audio data in files, and larger file sizes result

WAV/AIFF is the format used on CD's by Apple, whereas MP3 files are compressed but offer lower quality sound than MP4 files. The benefit of an MP3 file is that they are compatible with most other media players and modern cd players. Most radio stations stream via iTunes at 128, 96, 64, 56 or 48 kbps. Genius – can search your library on your computer or iOS device to find songs that go great together and organize them into genre-based mixes and playlists you will love.

-With Genius Match – all your music can be stored in iCloud – even your imported cd's, you can access all your music anywhere, wherever, for $24.99 per year. Plus, when you subscribe on your MAC or PC, you can listen to iTunes Radio ad-free.

WHAT HAPPENS TO MY OLD MP3 FILES?

Apple is extending (for now) that any previously purchased music on iTunes, CAN BE UPGRADED – FREE when you subscribe to iTunes Match. This is HUGE and very cool, thank you Apple. This iTunes PLUS is the new standard on iTunes, available in the highest quality at 256kbps AAC (twice the quality of protected music purchases) and without DRM (digital rights management). It can be also be burned on a CD, as many times as needed, synced to any AAC-enabled device, and played on any Mac or PC. Now, to explain a bit further, 256kbps is still low res audio – it is NOT the same as WAV format or equal to a CD original recording. It's better than a lower quality MP3, but it's still compressed.

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Pandora

Pandora was originally touted as a radio service before competing with other music streaming services (especially Spotify). Like Spotify, it’s great at tailoring it’s playlists to your listening preferences.

  • Aims to provide people with “music and comedy they love anytime, anywhere through connected devices.”
  • Personalized stations (defined by a favorite artist, song or genre). More than 1 million tracks.
  • Powered by the “Music Genome Project®”, which "captures the essence of music at the most fundamental level" and uses over 450 attributes to describe songs and a complex mathematical algorithm to organize them.
  • 5 sub-genomes: Pop/Rock, Hip-Hop/Electronica, Jazz, World Music, and Classical.
  • Taxonomy is built by using music DNA and listener feedback to craft personalized stations.

Paid Subscribers: Pandora Plus ($4.99/mo) - 192kbps AAC+; Pandora Premium ($9.99/mo) - 192kbps AAC+; (Free Version 64k)

The organic exposure to NEW music by Pandora is phenomenal. A lot of music lovers and especially audiophiles tend to stick to their jazz, blues, rock & roll or electronica. While this is truly enjoyable, new music really opens up our minds and exposes us to new techniques, new artists, new influences, and even new genres.

Pros: Ad-free for Premium subscribers, lyric support, personalization

Cons: No live content, can't browse by category

Qobuz Streaming Service Logo

Qobuz

Qobuz is relatively new on the market but is fairly competitive with rival Tidal. Qobuz has a lot of curated content despite missing some key artists in their library.

  • 50 million tracks
  • Exclusive editorial content
  • Thousands of digital booklet
  • Offline mode - download for offline listening
  • Store - Hi-Res purchases as reduced prices

Paid Subscribers:

  • Premium ($9.99/mo) - 320kbps MP3
  • HiFi ($19.99/mo) - 16bit/44.1kHz FLAC (CD Quality Streaming)
  • Studio/Studio Premier ($14.99/mo - limited time promo - usually $24.99/mo) - 24bit/192kHz FLAC (High-Resolution Quality Streaming)
  • Sublime+ ($299.99/year) - High-Resolution Quality Streaming + purchasing advantages/HiRes downloads at reduced prices

Supported Audio File Formats:WAV, AIFF(uncompressed); FLAC, ALAC, WMA (lossless) Currently over 185,000 albums in high-resolution audio quality. New music is added regularly. Documentation quality: albums are commentated on and enriched, as Qobuz supplies documentation on their history. They also offer you the opportunity to browse through the millions of digital booklets in all applications. A great option for high-resolution streaming. A bit pricier than its mainstream counterparts, but for audiophile quality streaming, there's not a lot of other options on the market at this time. Looking through the digital booklets is a nice touch and has a nostalgic quality to it. The opportunity to enjoy albums as they were meant in their full entirety - the music and art together - is a rarity today.

Pros: Support for high-resolution audio, curated content, digital booklets, offline listening

Cons: Pricey, limited library as competitors

Soundcloud Logo

Soundcloud

Soundcloud started as a file upload site for just about everyone to be able to host their music. Today it still focuses on that accessibility and is a popular choice for artists trying to get their music available to the masses.

  • Define themselves as "world's leading social sound platform where anyone can create sounds and share them everywhere."
  • Recording and uploading sounds to SoundCloud lets artists easily share them privately or publicly to friends, blogs, sites, & social networks
  • Share on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Foursquare.
    -can be accessed anywhere using the official iPhone and Android apps, and hundreds of apps built on the SoundCloud platform.
  • They don’t modify original audio files for download but they are converted to MP3 joint stereo for STREAMING due to a bandwidth issue.

Paid Subscribers:

  • SoundCloud Go ($4.99/mo) - 64kbps Opus
  • SoundCloud Go+ ($9.99/mo) - 256kbps AAC (Higher Quality Audio + full catalog, ad-free)
  • Free Version - 64kbps streaming (large underground selection)

Supported Audio File Formats:AIFF, WAVE (WAV), FLAC, ALAC, OGG, MP2, MP3, AAC, AMR, and WMR files. Max file size is 5GB.

SoundCloud's search options like Exploring Trending Music & Trending Audio is a real treat. You can search SoundCloud by genre on the left navigation or by Music icon on the center navigation with a picture, banner, and description. You can use social icons to promote your sound preferences here with: icons such as like, share, add to playlist, repost and even comment. It's a very interactive tool for music lovers to share their opinions, artists, genres, and more.

Pros: Premiere service for emerging artists, and extensive library/catalog.

Cons: Missing several big-name artists, no sort-music feature on Go, poor organization, low-quality audio.

Spotify Logo

Spotify

Like Pandora, Spotify also has a playlist system that you can tailor to your listening preferences. They are also more integrated into social media in that you can share your listening history with others. Many more features below:

  • Define themselves as “Everything you want from music, completely free”
  • Podcasts
  • Listener-curated playlists
  • Customization and organization
  • Available on iOS, Android, PC and Mac
  • New music suggestions for every mood and genre

Paid Subscribers:

  • Premium (no ads) ($9.99/mo) - 256-320kbps Ogg Vorbis
  • Free Version (with ads) - 128-160kbps Ogg Vorbis (Ogg Vorbis formats, ~96 kbps Normal quality on mobile or ~160 kbps high-quality on mobile and standard quality on desktop)

Supported Audio File Formats: OGG, FLAC

Pros: Collaborative playlists, feature-rich free service, a wide variety of content

Cons: Default stream is 160 kbps, no more lyric support

HOW DO I ACTIVATE HIGH-QUALITY STREAMING ON SPOTIFY?

Premium users can listen to music the way it's meant to be heard. Just turn on high-quality streaming.

MAC INSTRUCTIONS

Spotify Macbook instructions for converting to high-quality streaming
  • Click Spotify in the menu bar.
  • Select Preferences.
Spotify Hi Res Streaming Playback Image
  • Under Playback, select High quality streaming.

LISTEN OFFLINE

Spotify Premium allows you to play your playlists offline. It's perfect for plane rides, the subway, or anywhere you don’t have wifi or an Internet connection.

Spotify uses social apps to spread the word about their music streaming service. When you sign up for Spotify, they automatically add a way for their service to post via your social profile to social media showing that you are listening to a song on Spotify. Why? Because Spotify says,Music Brings Us Together.

We also specialize in on-the-go or portable audio solutions with our hand-crafted headphone cables, mini cables, and USB cables. Let us know if we can help you.

Tidal Logo

Tidal

Tidal has become a popular choice lately among consumers due to their MQA accessibility and large library. Other features include:

  • Cultivated playlists
  • Download songs and playlists on to up to three mobile devices
  • Simultaneous play of downloaded mobile content and one desktop app
  • Unlimited play
  • Available on iOS, Android, PC and Mac

Supported Audio File Formats:FLAC, MQA (Note: with MQA you need software to decode the compressed stream to 24/96 and then hardware to 24/192 resolution).

Paid Subscribers:

  • Premium ($9.99/mo) - 320kbps AAC (unlimited music across multiple devices, create playlists and download for offline listening. Ad-free)
  • HiFi ($19.99/mo) - 16bit/44.1kHz FLAC/MQA (All Premium content plus lossless, CD and MQA quality streaming)

Another great option for high-resolution music streaming. MQA availability is nice and the overall experience is pleasant. Good value.

Pros: MQA availability, audio quality, intuitive service, discount pricing for students, families and military

Cons: Limited device compatibility for MQA, smaller catalog compared to other services

Youtube Music Logo

YouTube Music

Youtube music also has a streaming service that allows you to stream music and videos at a higher quality than some competitors. You’re already on YouTube half the day anyway looking at cat videos, right?

  • Listen in the background
  • No ads
  • Option to download
  • Very large library
  • Access to videos and official audio from the artist

Paid Subscribers: Premium ($9.99/mo) - 256kbps AAC

Pros: large library, background listening, videos

Cons: Not available in some countries, free version is taxing with ads, poor library management

What's the Best Streaming Service?

Needless to say, this is only a fraction of the total number of streaming services available right now. Each service offers its own selection of price points, libraries, and other features, so you'll need to consider which one is best for you. As you can see below, there are plenty of streaming services to choose from:

  • 8tracks
  • AccuRadio
  • Amazon Music
  • Anghami
  • Apple Music
  • Bandcamp
  • Deezer
  • Earbits
  • Google Play Music
  • Hoopla
  • iHeartRadio
  • Jango
  • Joox
  • Line Music
  • MOOV
  • Music Choice
  • MyTuner Radio
  • Napster
  • NetEase Cloud Music
  • Pandora
  • Patari.pk
  • Qobuz
  • Radical.fm
  • Saavn
  • SiriusXM
  • Slacker
  • SoundCloud
  • Spotify
  • Stingray Music
  • Tidal
  • TuneIn
  • Youtube Music

Streaming Services Comparison

Are you looking for compatibility with a specific OS? Overall prices or free versions? Audio stream quality? We've created this table to consolidate the information presented above to help you make the right decision in determining what streaming service is best for you.

NAME PRICE HI-RES? QUALITY FORMAT OS TRIAL? FREE VERSION?

AMAZON MUSIC UNLIMITED

$9.99/mo.

NO

320kbps VBR

MP3

iOS, Android, PC, Mac

YES

NO

AMAZON MUSIC HD

$14.99/mo.

YES

850-3730kbps

16-24bit/44.1-192 kHz

FLAC

iOS, Android, PC, Mac

YES-30 Days Free

NO

APPLE MUSIC

$9.99/mo.

NO

256kbps

AAC

iOS

YES

NO

PANDORA

Free Version

Plus: $4.99/mo.

Premium: $9.99/mo.

NO

NO

NO

Free: 64k

Plus: 192kbps

Premium: 192kbps

AAC+

iOS, Android, PC, Mac

Free: YES

Plus: YES-30 Days Free

Premium: Yes-60 Days Free

YES

QUBUZ

Premium: $9.99/mo.

Hi-Fi: $19.99/mo.

Studio/Studio Premiere: $14.99/mo. (ltd. time promo)

Sublime+: $299/yr.

NO

YES

YES

YES

320kbps

16bit/44.1kHz

24bit/192kHz

24bit/192kHz

MP3

FLAC

FLAC

FLAC

iOS, Android, PC, Mac

YES-1 Month Free

NO

SOUNDCLOUD

Free Version

Go: $4.99/mo.

Go+: $9.99/mo.

NO

NO

NO

64kbps

64kbps

256kbps

Opus

Opus

AAC

iOS, Android, PC, Mac

YES-30 Days Free

YES

SPOTIFY

Free Version

Premium: $9.99/mo.

NO

NO

128-160kbps

256-320kbps

OGG

OGG

iOS, Android, PC, Mac

YES-90 Days Free

YES

TIDAL

Premium: $9.99/mo.

Hi-Fi: $19.99/mo.

NO

YES

320kbps

16bit/44.1kHz

AAC

FLAC/MQA

iOS, Android, PC, Mac

YES-30 Days Free

NO

YOUTUBE MUSIC

Premium: $9.99/mo.

NO

256kbps

AAC

iOS, Android, PC, Mac

YES-30 Days Free

NO

How Do You Play High-Resolution Audio?

The unfortunate thing is that a lot of high-resolution formats aren’t easily playable on your smartphone or computer. They’re either incompatible or you need to download specific codecs for your media player so that they can be played.

A&K Shadow Image

There's a lot of ways you can play your high-resolution music on various devices in your home. Here are some of the most popular options...

Chord Mojo with iPhone

Phone

The most popular and common option to play your high-resolution music is from your phone. Since almost everyone has a smartphone these days, the emergence of streaming services which offer high-resolution audio make their music libraries accessible with just the touch of the finger to open the application. Paired with a portable DAC and your favorite headphones, you'll have an arsenal of audiophile tools ready to take on any kind of music thrown at you. It really is a convenient and portable setup, especially considering that a lot of companies make cases that securely affix your DAC to the back of the phone so everything is really easy to carry in the palm of your hand.

https://images.app.goo.gl/wivqYds5bjB8uTUa9

Tablet

Like your phone, a tablet serves as a convenient method to access your high-resolution streaming services, as well as any locally saved music on your device. Some of the applications on tablets are optimized for larger screens and can make navigating through your library more manageable. Also with the compatibility of Roon Software and the devices being used as Roon endpoints, integrating your existing music library into your streaming one is easier than ever now. All your music in one place. Accessible via your mobile device no matter where you are in the house.

A&K SP2000 DAP

Digital Audio Player (DAP)

Digital Music Players are possibly the easiest way to listen to your high-resolution music. Already compatible with numerous high-fidelity codecs and housing enough power to juice your favorite cans, it's all you need in one package (minus your headphones of course). No larger than your cell phone, DAPs are essentially iPods on steroids, and with plenty of internal and expandable storage, you can be sure that all your large files and favorite music can go with you. In some cases, DAPs like the KANN Cube can do double duty and will be compatible with your home systems as well. Astell & Kern DAPs have what they call their Open APP service allowing select 3rd party android applications to be installed on the devices so you can be sure you have all your streaming and music services under one device.

Recommended DAPs

A&K SP2000

Astell & Kern SP2000 DAP Music Player

The SP2000 is the latest portable player from the Astell&Kern A&ultima line and the first to use separate, independent audio channels between the Unbalanced and Balanced outputs. Featuring two AK4499EQ DACs, SP2000 offers more power than ever before for the ultimate audio experience. This new flagship DAP features an Octa-Core CPU, a 5-inch touchscreen, 512GB of internal memory (double of previous Astell&Kern players), MQA support and dual-band Wi-Fi with a stereo antenna, for improved network performance when streaming music.

Sony NW-WM1Z

Sony NW-WM1Z Premium Walkman

Experience a symphony of detail with the Signature Series Walkman, combining a sophisticated sound technology with beautifully crafted, high-grade materials and class-leading usability. The NW-WM1Z is fully encased in a high-grade gold-plated oxygen-free copper chassis. Widely used in instrument manufacturing, the copper lends the player its unique natural, acoustic sound. Its conductivity and raw strength reinforce the Walkman with unrivalled audio performance. Along with numerous other industry-leading technologies, the NW-WM1Z will help redefine high-resolution audio.

iBasso DX220

iBasso Audio DX220 Music Player

With dual SABRE ES9028PRO DACs, a crystal clear 1080P display, and an ungradable amp card design, the DX220 is designed for the future. Featuring two-way Bluetooth 5.0, dual ES9028PRO DAC chips, 8-core CPU 4G/64G, Native DSD512, PCM 32bit/384kHz, Coaxial/Optical Output, and much more. The iBasso DX220 is designed for music, including a new UI interactive experience, tons of customization and control, this is the Digital Audio Player for you.

A&K KANN Cube

Astell&Kern KANN Cube DAP Music Player

KANN CUBE is the second model of the KANN line, which focuses on high fidelity with powerful output and low noise. The newly designed powerful amplifier and audio circuitry have been strategically implemented to offer a very low noise floor, even with its massive power output, making it an Audio Powerhouse capable of driving the most power-hungry headphones. KANN CUBE offers 3 different power output options of High / Mid / Low, which can drive any headphone with unprecedented power never seen before in any portable device - 12Vrms for Balanced output and 6Vrms for Unbalanced output. To provide a natural and neutral audio experience with minimal distortion, a newly designed OP Amp and Volume IC manages power optimally and efficiently.

https://images.app.goo.gl/eAFNqRJuajdUHALF8

Computer

Lots of amplifiers, DACs, and other gear are compatible with computers via USB connection. It's an easy one-stop-shop for many users: have all your music stored locally on hard drives and access it and other streaming services all on one device that you're already using for numerous other daily tasks like checking email, social media, etc. If you have the know-how to set up a NAS system, you can also use it to stream your music to other devices in your house.

Matrix Audio Element P

Music Streamers

Music streamers are a newer phenomenon since the days of Wi-Fi have become standard. Streamers allow for your music to be transmitted from other sources to your high-grade speakers or headphones. For instance, say you wanted to listen to music from a music streaming service or a digital music library rather than a physical source like a CD or vinyl record. In this scenario you would want a music streamer to obtain the digital source of your music. High-end streamers also include features such as built in amplifiers and upgraded DAC chips; an all-in-one solution to your audiophile needs. Music streamers also allow you to make sure you are getting the best quality audio stream since they are usually capable of processing large files and very high-resolution audio.

Recommended Music Streamers

Matrix Audio Element X

Matrix Audio Element X Music Streamer

The flagship model of the element series, element X combines years of development and tuning experience with the industry-leading ESS ES9038PRO DAC chip to push the hardware to its full potential. Matrix Audio's brand-new element series has a simplified visual design, removing unnecessary elements. It features simple visual lines with a precision CNC anodizing aluminum case. The included linear power supply also goes a long way in maintaining the quality and clarity of the sound. With the rapid development and release of high-quality music formats, the processing requirements are also higher than ever before. The element X is equipped with the brand-new XU216 XMOS processor which can easily handle decoding and unfolding of the highest bit rate MQA format.

Mytek Brooklyn Bridge

Mytek Brooklyn Bridge Streamer DAC Amp

Brooklyn Bridge takes the audio performance of the Brooklyn DAC+ and adds a built-in Network Streamer. Brooklyn Bridge comes with Ethernet connectivity, a WiFi antenna, and a USB port — just add a tablet for a complete music streaming system. Brooklyn Bridge is identical to Brooklyn DAC+ in terms of audio circuits and performance but has the addition of a built-in Network Streamer. AES/EBU digital input is replaced with an Ethernet network connector, a WiFi antenna and a USB port for external music hard drive. Just add a tablet (iPad or android) for complete music system to stream Tidal MQA, Qobuz Hi-Res or other streaming services or play local files connected to Brooklyn Bridge USB port. Roon requires additional Roon Core. Like in the Brooklyn DAC+, there is a line and phono analog preamplifier and a reference headphone amplifier.

Chord Poly

Chord Poly Wireless Streaming Module for Mojo

Chord Electronic’s new Poly wireless streaming miracle made to connect with the best portable DAC - the Chord Mojo - continues Chord’s inspiring and unmatched commitment to mobile high fidelity. Unlike many audio gear makers Chord sees our smartphone mobile music future. Before Chord’s Poly feeding high-resolution music files to high end headphones and in-ear monitors was a pain. Don’t want massive storage space hungry music files clogging up precious smartphone memory? No worries Chord Poly to the rescue. The Chord Poly fits Lego-like to the Chord Mojo DAC and headphone amplifier. “Fully fledged high-resolution wireless network music player, streamer and SD card playback device with wireless playback and control from smartphones,” is how Chord Electronics explains their new, unique and still highly portable Poly.

Bricasti M3

Bricasti Design M3 DAC with Network Card

Bricast M3 DAC features two fully differential conversion channels, separate conversion for PCM and native DSD, and a balanced analog level control circuit, making the M3 suitable for all applications. Internally the M3 utilizes two independent linear power supplies for the analog and digital processing to ensure low noise and superior isolation. The intention of the M3 is to provide a state-of-the-art design, utilizing the best designs and materials that can be found today. The converter and following analog stages are a very critical part of the digital and analog audio chain. The sound of the M3 is intended to be transparent and revealing, and fully dynamic. This in part is made possible by lowering the jitter to extremely low levels, providing a pure digital signal chain without sample rate converters, superior digital filter design, pure DSD conversion, coupled to a fast, transparent analog signal path with analog level control, discrete analog output section and plenty of good clean linear power for optimum analog performance.

Matrix Audio Element I

Matrix Audio Element I Streaming Music Player

The Element i streaming music player is a blend of audio circuits from the Element P (which is a Streamer & Speaker Amp) and the Element M (which is a Streamer & Headphone Amp). The goal of Matrix with the Element I is to provide an amazing bang for the buck option for a very attractive price point to the under $1000 price point customer. The Dac Chip utilized is the same as the more expensive Element P which uses the ES9028 PRO Dac Chip. However, the Element I uses the XMOS XU208 USB controller which provides a little lower input resolution of 24bit 384kHz. This is less than the rest of the Element family but still provides more resolution than most consumer's digital library music file resolution. This is a great way to get an all in one bang for the buck streaming music player under $1000 with so many potentials for upgrades later if needed.

Top High-Resolution Music Products

Silver Dragon Headphone Cable with Fostex TH-909 Headphones
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Bronze Dragon 2-pin IEM Cable with JH16 IEMs
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Summary

The fact remains that as technology continues to improve, the need for better quality music will increase. As most streaming services (paid and streamed) provide a number of varying audio qualities, all of them at least do the bare minimum. But what happens when the bare minimum isn't enough? As services get more competitive, the quality of the audio they provide should also increase, benefiting the consumer. Hopefully lower-quality bit rate streams will be a thing of the past in future years, but for now, if you want high-resolution audio, you'll need to invest in a good streaming service and some hardware that will help you get the most out of your music. I hope we have provided some insight to help you along your high-resolution journey!

F.A.Q.

Can all devices playback any file type?

Answer: No. Not every device can playback any audio file format. You'll need to check to see if your device is compatible with a specific file format or the media player you use will need an additional codec to be able to play the audio correctly. Please contact us if you have any additional or further questions.

Can you install applications on DAPs to stream and play digital music subscriptions?

Answer: Yes you can! Astell&Kern lets you install APK (Android) applications on your device for streaming services and more. To learn more about APK applications and how to install them, check out our blog below:


Astell&Kern Players Support Android Based (APK) Streaming


How do you install an application on your DAP?

Answer: To install an APK application on your device, check out our blog on installing Tidal (as an example):


Astell&Kern Support for OpenApp Services - Tidal


How much digital music can I store on my music player?

Answer: It depends on the music player and the file sizes of your music collection. However, most music players, both desktop and portable, have options for expandable storage. In the case of portable DAPs, Astell&Kern recently updated their firmware to allow for 1TB microSD cards:



New Update for Astell&Kern DAPs



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