Thursday, 3 August 2017

Music Streaming for Cheapies

Enough about hardware and software. Onto music streaming.

The cheapie option would be to use a free service. I did that for about twenty minutes a couple of years ago when I tried Spotify or Rdio or one of those. Ads are annoying on actual radio, which is why I listen to the BBC and Chill, and no less annoying on a streaming service. So I’m paying.

I really liked 8Tracks. I can still use it, though since they went public and got copyright religion, in the UK it plays via You Tube. And only when I’m running the You Tube site on my Mac. I like it because I could click in a random playlist that suited my mood and hear music from acts I would never otherwise hear about. Most of the time it was pleasant wallpaper, which was exactly what I wanted, and every now and then something would jump out at me, and I would buy the CD. That’s what I want. So I’ll listen to that over the Dragonfly and headphones now and then.

And before we talk about sound quality, can I just say “Royal Albert Hall”? Possibly the most famous music venue in the world, because of the Proms, and its acoustics are, well, blurry is a good word. Nearly all the Prom concerts are pretty much sold out.

Radio One streams over DAB at 128 kps, and the World Service at 64 kps. Your telephone land-line gives you 64 kps (56 kps in the USA). Radio Three is broadcast between 160-192 kps. So anyone offering 320 kps is offering twice the quality of radio. Next up is streaming CD-quality FLAC files, and that’s going make you glad you have unlimited downloads. A WAV file at 1411 kps takes about 11 MB/min and FLAC compresses between 50%-60%, so  Beethoven’s Ninth, which is around 75 minutes long, is around 412 MB of music data. Signalling overhead and some re-transmission may add up to 30%, so allow another 125MB for a total of 637MB. At 320kps for the music, that’s 178MB, and at 96kps for the music, it’s 53MB. Watch the quality setting when you’re streaming on your mobile data plan.   

Pricing. For all the providers, the basic service, at 320 kps, is £9.99 / month. CD-quality streaming is £19.99 / month. You don’t decide of a price is low or high by looking at the competition. You decide by looking at the generic alternatives. Radio, for instance, is free but has irritating ads and talking heads. Not a good comparison. I buy about 3-4 CDs a month, usually classical, not usually new releases, sometimes a box set of (say) Mozart symphonies. Let’s say I spend £40 a month on CDs. Not all of those will get played a lot afterwards. Some are purely experimental - what does this modern composer sound like? Very occasionally I will hear something in Fopp and be immediately stricken - SOHN’s first CD was like that. A new full-price classical CD is about £15. I very rarely buy those. To look at £20 / month as “twice the price of Spotify” is to miss the point. It’s “two spec CD’s I may never play again”. It’s also about the price of a ticket in the stalls of St John’s Smith Square to hear the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Tidal and Qozum’s £19.99 / month for CD-quality is a well-judged price. I suspect that I will buy fewer, or better targeted, classical and / or jazz CD’s, because I’ll be experimenting over the streaming service. I’ll happily stream 320 kps at £9.99 / month over my home broadband connection.

So now, which service? I want one with good playlists. And a decent list. And I’d prefer to avoid the reputational issues of Spotify. Also, the cool kids at work voted 2:1 in favour of Spotify over Apple Music. So. That's Millennials. This leaves leaves Apple Music, Tidal and Qozum.

The audiophile subscription service of choice, so good that it’s integrated into Roon, is Tidal. I’m tempted to say that if it’s good enough for Roon, it’s probably good enough for me. It pays artists more, and I doubt it’s making Jay-Z richer right now. So that’s my choice. Tidal Premium. Via the iDevice and the Dragonfly. I’ll let you know how that goes.

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