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 thousands upon thousands of songs and 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.
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.
JUST WHAT IS HIGH-RESOLUTION AUDIO AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Most outside of the audiophile world might not know that compression robs a lot of integral details, emotion, and depth from the original composition. In today’s world of satellite radio and single-sales music industry, people think louder means better when in reality it’s making your listening experience much worse.
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 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.
There are three main components 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/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.
High-resolution audio is lossless audio capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from 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.
Moon Audio Blog: HIGH-RESOLUTION AUDIO IN THE CONSUMER STREAMING MARKET
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.
UNCOMPRESSED AUDIO FORMATS
WAV, AIFF, AU, PCM
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.
COMPRESSED AUDIO FORMATS
Lossless Compressed Audio Formats
FLAC, WavPack, Monkey's Audio, ALAC, WMA (lossless), APE
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.
Lossy Compressed Audio Formats
AC3, DTS, AAC, MPEG-1/2/3, Vorbis, 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.
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).
Once you have the hardware and bandwidth, it’s time to start considering what service is right for you.
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 @ 256 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, large library, lyrics, integration with Amazon ecosystem
Cons: One-device-at-a-time for a standard subscription, no free version, catalog cycles
Apple Music and iTunes
- 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
- over 85,000 movies; more than 300,000 TV shows
- 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 option is nice too. Good option if you are already well integrated into their ecosystem.
Pros: Seamless integration with the Apple ecosystem, large library size, great organization, lyric support, free 3-month trial
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
AIFF is the format used on CD’s, 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 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 an MP3, but it's still compressed.
- 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
Free subscribers: 64kAAC+ - (AAC is a lossy data compression scheme for digital audio, optimized for low-bitrate applications such as streaming audio).
Paid Subscribers ($4/month): 192kbps (still MP3 compressed file – but highest res MP3 file available)
Audio Quality Rating: 5 (due to compressed audio files)
Fun Factor Rating: 7 (love the personalized stations, listener feedback, and new music concept)
I love the organic exposure to NEW music by Pandora. A lot of music lovers and especially, audiophiles tend to stick to their jazz, blues, rock & roll or electronica. While this is truly enjoyable, being exposed to new talent and new music really opens up our minds, our exposure to new techniques, new artists and new influences and even new genres. I don’t know about you but the day I stop discovering new music, it will most likely be the day I die as music is such a lifeline of my existence. I listen when I am sad, glad, happy, grumpy, frustrated, gloomy, confused, well, just about anytime as music has a very therapeutic effect on me. How does music make you feel? What’s your favorite way to listen to music? How about sharing it on our Music is a Movement page, we’d love to hear from you and why you listen. Thanks for sharing, music lovers everywhere will appreciate your efforts.
Pros: Ad-free for Premium subscribers, lyric support, personalization
Cons: No live content, can't browse by category
Varying pricing tiers:
- Premium: $9.99/month - 320 kbps
- HiFi: $19.99/month - FLAC 16-bit / 44.1 kHz (CD Quality streaming)
- Studio: $24.99/month - FLAC 24-bit / 192 kHz (High-Resolution Quality streaming)
- Sublime+: $299.99/year - High-Resolution Quality streaming + purchasing advantages - High-Resolution 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
Cons: Pricey, limited library as competitors
- 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
Free Tier: Access to thousands of songs and content.
SoundCloud Go: $4.99/month (save offline tracks, ad-free)
SoundCloud Go+: $9.99/month (full catalog, HQ audio)
Supported Audio File Formats: AIFF, WAVE (WAV), FLAC, ALAC, OGG, MP2, MP3, AAC, AMR, and WMR files. Max file size is 5GB
Audio Quality Rating:
Fun Factor Rating: 8
We really like SoundCloud's merchandising of Exploring Trending Music & Trending Audio. This is a major reason we gave it such a high Fun factor rating. 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, extensive library/catalog
Cons: Missing several big-name artists, no sort-music feature on Go, poor organization, low-quality audio
- define themselves as “Everything you want from music, completely free”
Free Subscribers: Ogg Vorbis formats, ~96 kbps Normal quality on mobile or ~160 kbps high-quality on mobile and standard quality on desktop.
- listen on mobile, tablet, or pc
- millions of songs, made possible by ads
- ready-made playlists plus New Music suggestions for every mood & genre
Paid Subscribers: ($9.99/month) ~320 kbps Desktop high-quality or Extreme quality on mobile
- your music is everywhere, play any song, anywhere
- download music & listen offline in high-quality audio
- no ad interruptions and no commitment
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
- 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
Supported Audio File Formats: FLAC, MQA
Premium: $9.99/month (unlimited music across multiple devices, create playlists and download for offline listening. Ad-free)
HiFi: $19.99/month (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
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.
- Click Spotify in the menu bar.
- Select Preferences.
- Under Playback, select High quality streaming.
Audio Quality Rating: 7(due to compressed audio files yet much higher quality with their Premium subscribers than Pandora One)
Fun Factor Rating: (love the personalized playlists, new music suggestions)
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. Here at Moon Audio, we agree, this is why we started our Music is a Movement page, please share why Music brings you closer to your world today. We'd love to hear from you.
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:
- Amazon Prime Music & Amazon Music Unlimited
- Apple Music
- Google Play Music
- Line Music
- Music Choice
- MyTuner Radio
- NetEase Cloud Music
- Stingray Music
- Youtube Music