Why streaming music is lower quality

January 1, 2023
 by Paul McGowan

18 comments on “Why streaming music is lower quality”

  1. Hello Paul,

    Perhaps some investigation into clocking will help?

    Four years ago I purchased an Esoteric K-01Xs. It provided the best audio I’d ever had from multiple sources and media types.

    A couple of years pass and in that time I had been investigating master clocks. I purchased the Esoteric G-01X and with a BNC cable, it was up and running re-clocking the K-01Xs. I arbitrarily grabbed a CD and played it. Immediately, clarity and dynamics were clearly experienced. It wasn’t a slight improvement, it was a large improvement that could not be ignored.

    I use a dCS Network Bridge with ROON to stream TIDAL, Qobuz and my collection from a Synology 16T NAS. Since using a clock improved CD Playback so much, I added a dCS Rossini Master Clock to replace the internal clock in the dCS Network Bridge and using the Rossini Master Clock also on the DAC.

    Increased clock accuracy and synchronization of all digital signals has an amazing affect on digital reproduction.

    In summary, streaming from TIDAL, Qobuz or from my own libraries is as clear and dynamic as playing from the CD.

    Noise removal by galvanic isolation is a grand start, but using a clock that is extremely accurate may be your missing link. It was what was missing in my system, which is extremely resolving.

    Perhaps, you and your team could research and experiment to draw some conclusions of your own. I’m retired and would love to help should you want my help. You, Scott and James have my contact information.

    Best regards,

    1. Wow, a rubidium clock as master. Sure perfect timing like in high quality measurement instruments. From my technical standpoint it is somehow an overkill, but OK. For a clock the short term stability and low phase noise is mandatory. An ovenized quartz oscillator would do it, but these are also not cheap when good precision and long term stability too. By the way, rubidium clocks drift over time because of aging. Therefore these are often controlled by a GPS clock signal. This can also be done at quartz oscillators.
      Good to see that you could improve the sound quality in a significant way.
      What I did not find in the specs of your equipment is how deep the data buffer for incoming music bits and bytes is.

  2. Using only Amazon music and its HD content if available. Since my PC buffers the incoming music file data and then play it the sound is fairly good. Also when I captured the music with a program connecting to the MS Windows WASAPI driver during listening the quality and the frequency spectrum was very OK when played back the recorded file. Regarding the other streaming services I can’t comment. But Paul is with his statement right to my understanding. Internet induced interference is no problem at all when using a PC and an external DAC like I do it. If it is a combined streaming receiver then this might be an issue perhaps? There separation and buffering must be sufficient.

    1. Hi and Happy New Year to all
      About the network noise I have experience with ENO filter and it is amazing difference, I am sure Air Lens is a better solution a though a little more expensive
      Sonore optical solution are fine as well, without buying it I did intercalated a Fiber/optical/ fiber between Swicht and Streamer, some improvement, only some.
      About MQA the problem is that you only get the complete deciding with hardware MQA capable the incomprensión made by Roon or other platforms only give you two levels of u compresión not the third final one.
      Having said that quality of Wobuz 192khz is almost same as an excellent LP. I do not ear in my system such a big difference between storage music in the NAS and same récord from streaming, always refereeing to 192khz Qobuz and ROON.
      But I have all Ethernet Cat 8 and shielded grounded. I plan to buy the AirLens instead of ENO filter, this year.

  3. My guess besides it being compressed is they are filtering out the extreme low and high ends of the frequency range. Probably suffers from some phase and timing anomalies too. Things are missing that need to be restored and noise is getting in that needs to be eliminated.

    1. Good afternoon Joe!
      Oh by the way, happy New Year man!
      I don’t know this about other music streamers, but I do know this for a true fact about the one that I have.
      My Yamaha WXC-50 music streamer/preamp, has a feature on it that feels in any missing audio information.
      I was looking at that this morning, via the Music Cast moble app.
      I was just checking all of my settings when I ran in to that.
      I did turn that on after I got it almost a year ago.
      And it does what it was designed to do.
      If I were to put a lossy file like an MP3 and or Apple’s AAC file threw it, it feels in all of the missing sonic information and data.
      I mean, it’s bit pirfect!
      Even it cleans up the sound of bluetooth.
      But even with that being on, there’s no need for it when you put either a 64 or 128 DSD file threw it.
      But I wonder if the higher end streamers can do that?

  4. As usual, there are a lot of variables — you have to eliminate a few key ones.
    If you have a good DAC (like the DirectStream) use it for BOTH your CDs and your streaming. Now you have to elevate your streamer to the comparable quality of your CD transport (like the PS Audio player). This is key. I recommend a Sonore ultraRendu at minimum. Use a good switch and have a good-performing network. Configure your Roon according to recommended setup for max SQ.

    This describes my system. And — most of the time — my old ears cannot tell the difference between Redbook CDs and streaming Qobuz via Roon. In fact, a lot of 192/24 files sound better than the CDs.

    I have not invested in a vinyl system because I believe my streaming setup has reached 90% of the SQ of vinyl. I just don’t want to spent the extra money. Vinyl is just too expensive and the setup (tone arms, cartridges, hi-grade vinyl, $50+ records, cleaning devices, etc.) is too complicated. Roon is the ultimate playback interface. And finding new music that you love is kind of the point of the whole hobby for me. It’s a great time to be an audiophile.

  5. Agree, vinyl is too expensive and when made anyway from digital files then why not use the digital only. Myself I have still a lot of vinyl LPs and a good Thorens TD124 with SME tonearm but not so perfect like equipment today. I had plans to digitize these LPs but skipped this. Now I can have the music of most of my LPs from Amazon music. This is very convenient and the quality is almost as good.

  6. Ok. First, I’m retired EECS. Things digital are in my wheel house. I agree, given the nature of music, that the streamers likely use server side file compression. Probably cuts the uncompressed PCM by a factor of 3. That said, the storage is not that big of a deal. Assuming for this napkin exercise that the average song is 4 minutes, then you can get about 24,000 uncompressed songs per terabyte. 24 million songs would be about 1000 terabytes uncompressed. That is a fairly small storage unit in today’s data centers only occupying maybe 16U of rack space – say 50 drives. Compression would of course make this much smaller. As far as the transmission bandwidth goes, there is no question they are paying for it by volume, so they would be motivated to compress it and then expand it at the client. In theory this should be bit perfect with the caveat that they are using a transmission protocol with error recovery. If they are choosing to keep costs down by reducing the number of packets and ECC required for error recovery, then the stream is not bit perfect. This could quite easily be determined by sniffing the data stream. I’ve brought streamed music into my DAW and run comparisons with my own local copy and found them to not even be close. This is almost a non sequitor though because it depends on the service, and perhaps even the song. What if they up-convert some of their music? What if they don’t use error recovery? I fall back to liking my own server streamed music more than the streamers, if not on the road.

  7. Audirvana Studio has an option for “Lervelling” “No Levelling” and “Preserving Album Dynamics.” I assume the latter is uncompressed. Tidal’s MQA definitely cuts out inaudible audio signals. Qobuz gives you some tracks that are at 24/192. Despite Paul’s good intention to “stay pure” the streaming technology today leaves Vinyl and CD’s in the dust!

    1. Good morning twangster!
      I did try the free verssions of both Audirvana Studio and Roon.
      The sad news is, I can’t use any of them.
      Perhaps until I’m on a Mack system instead of a Windows system.
      If you’re blind, and you have to use a text to speech converter, the last thing you want to run in to in any software, are graffics that your text to speech converter can’t read to you.
      Audirvana Studio and Roon both comes at a price.
      But reading all the reviews on both of them, there is the suggestion that anyone can use either or music managing software.
      But when it comes to people that has to use screen reading software like JAWS, that statement is not a true statement at all.
      But if it acts like that on a Windows system, I wonder how both Audirvana and Roon will act on a Mack system with Voiceover activated?

  8. Another thought. Many youngsters raise up with data reduced music like MP3 and other such formats. And listen from mobile phone with ear buds, often not the best ones. So, how do these people come to hi-fi or hi-end? Even listening to live concerts there the sound is often not perfect and is taken as normal standard. I hope when people get older they will recognize the fun of listening to great music in very good sound quality.

  9. I’m new on this post, but have subscribed in the past. A friend put me up to it as he thinks streaming is inferior to CD’s through a good player. My comments are only about CD playback as I think SACD and Vinyl playback is superior to any streaming modality.

    I listen to classical music only and have a fairly large collections of CD’s, well over 1500. I play them through a Cambridge CXC player, which is mostly a transport, to a Benchmark LA4 preamp to a Benchmark DAC3B to a Mark Levinson 532H amp and into my Revel Ultima2 Salon2 speakers (which are second to none for sound quality). On a good recording the sound is as good or better than a live concert, and I go to many concerts.

    I subscribed to Primephonic and then they were bought by Apple and I was upset because I have disliked Apple for years. But I decided to give it a try. I bought an HP Windows 10 computer and an Intona USB 3.0 SuperSpeed Isolator Model 7055-C. For cabling I got Audioquest Cinnamon USB 2.0 1.5 meter and 5 meter. For ethernet throughput I have hardwired my Netgear router to the computer.

    I downloaded Itunes for Windows10 which uses ALAC and includes free upgrades and got a free subscription to Apple Music for 6 months and now pay for it. Direct Sound vs. Windows Audio Session, make no difference. I configured my computer sound to 24 bit 192 kHz and the same for Itunes. When I stream any album on Itunes the lights on my DAC indicate 24 bit 192 kHz.

    I have an Oppo UDP-205 player, which I use strictly for SACD’s as it’s inferior to the Cambridge for CD’s.

    I have done many listening tests, trying to compare playback from the CD to the streamed version of the same album and try to adjust the volume to about the same (I don’t have the equipment to make them equal). I hear absolutely no difference in any parameter I can think of between the 2 formats. In other words, I essentially get a free album from Apple Music instead of buying an expensive CD.

    The only drawback to the above is I have to remove and reinsert my USB cable into the computer every time I turn it off and then on. Otherwise it defaults to 24 bit 48 kHz. No big deal.

  10. So how do the streaming providers handle different tier levels of subscribers? Do they store 3 different versions of particular tracks – mp3 for basic, CD/FLAC for hifi and hi res for hifi plus/master subscription?

    One particular aspect of my Tidal’s HiFi plus I really like is the Direct Artist Payouts:
    Up to 10% of your subscription is directed to the artists you listen to the most.

  11. Paul, thank you for picking up this question and opening it up for discussion. The AirLens sounds like a great product and I’d be very curious to try it. I think it will deal well with the ethernet noise; not sure about how well it would do on the clocking side.

    I see a page with specifications and pictures, but it does not seem to be available to purchase.

    Any idea of when you will launch?


  12. Paul, thank you for the discussion on this topic. My modded OPPO BD 103 with transformer power supply, and an I2S card sounds much better than anything I stream on Qobuz, even at higher resolutions. now it makes more sense to me as to why.

  13. A question for the esteemed assemblage gathered here. I have downloaded plenty of music from HD Tracks, but am considering upgrading my Qobuz subscription to “Sublime” and downloading Hi-Rez files from Qobuz. Any thoughts on the quality of Qobuz downloads?

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