The Impact of Music Streaming Services on Sound Quality

The Impact of Music Streaming Services on Sound Quality

Written by Paul McGowan

The story of music streaming is a tale of both technological evolution and cultural shifts.

It all kind of kicked off in the late 1990s with the advent of MP3 files. The pitch for this new digital format was the efficient compression of audio files – drastically reducing their size without a significant loss in sound quality (though plenty, including myself, might argue the opposite). This technological innovation was a stark shift from physical media like CDs, vinyl, and cassette tapes that we all had been accustomed to collecting and playing on our dedicated hardware.

The MP3's rise to prominence was fueled by the internet's growing reach and speed, which made it possible to transfer music files across the globe in minutes, and eventually, in seconds. The cultural impact of this was profound. It democratized music distribution, allowing independent artists to share their work broadly without the need for a record label or physical production. It also sparked a cultural shift towards a more personalized and on-demand music experience.

Moreover, the portability of MP3s aligned perfectly with the rise of portable digital music players, the most famous being the iPod, which further accelerated the transition from physical to digital music. This shift also led to the development of various music player software options for computers, forever changing how people interacted with their music libraries.


The Apple iPod helped fuel a musical revoution. Courtesy of


There was, inevitably, a dark side, most notably the rampant file sharing and piracy issues epitomized by services like Napster. The ease of copying and distributing MP3 files led to a massive upheaval in the music industry, forcing a reevaluation of intellectual property laws and the financial model for artists and record companies.

In response to the piracy crisis and the demand for legal digital music options, platforms like iTunes emerged, offering paid downloads and effectively legitimizing digital music distribution. The success of iTunes and other similar services proved there was a market for legally purchasing digital music and set the stage for the next evolution: music streaming.

Streaming services, which began emerging in the mid to late 2000s, took the concept of digital music a step further by offering access to vast music libraries over the internet without the need to download files. This model granted users the ability to listen to music from anywhere, as long as they had an online connection, fundamentally altering the concept of music ownership and paving the way for the streaming-dominated landscape we see today.

As the dust settled on the file-sharing era, Apple emerged as a key player with the launch of iTunes in 2001. iTunes revolutionized the music industry by providing a legal, user-friendly platform for digital music consumption. It offered a pay-per-song model, which was a stark contrast to the subscription model used by most modern streaming services. iTunes not only addressed the piracy issue but also laid the groundwork for the digitization of music, setting the stage for the streaming revolution.

The Rise of Modern Streaming Services

With the foundation laid by iTunes, streaming services began to emerge, fundamentally changing how we access music.

While streaming services offer unparalleled convenience, granting access to vast libraries of music at our fingertips, this convenience came at a cost – sound quality.

Understanding Bit Rates and Codecs

The core of this issue lies in the technology used for streaming – specifically, bit rates and codecs. A bit rate, measured in kilobits per second (kbps), represents the amount of data transmitted over the internet per second. Higher bit rates generally translate to better sound quality. Codecs, on the other hand, are methods of compressing and decompressing digital audio. Common codecs in streaming include AAC, MP3, and OGG Vorbis.

A few modern streaming services, like Tidal and Qobuz (among others) offer lossless options, but we’ll get to that in a moment. For now, let’s see what each of the services has to offer us audiophiles.

Comparing Major Streaming Services

  • Spotify: One of the most popular streaming services, Spotify uses the lossy OGG Vorbis format. It offers different streaming qualities up to 320 kbps for its premium subscribers. While this is respectable, it’s not even close to the highest quality available in the streaming world and certainly not lossless.
  • Apple Music: Apple employs its lossy AAC format, which is known for its efficiency and quality at lower bit rates. Recently, Apple Music has made strides in offering lossless audio, allowing streaming up to 24-bit/192 kHz, a significant leap for us audiophiles seeking higher fidelity.
  • Tidal: Tidal positions itself as the service for audiophiles, offering lossless high fidelity sound quality at CD level (16-bit/44.1 kHz) and even Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) recordings, a lossy format (this should open a can of worms since MQA pitches theirs as only ‘losing” info we don’t need). Tidal provides resolutions up to 24-bit/192 kHz.
  • Qobuz: Similar to Tidal, Qobuz specializes in high-resolution audio up to 24-bit/192 kHz in FLAC format, appealing to those who seek both quality sound and a deep connection to music. Qobuz is my personal favorite for sound quality.



Hi-res audio from services like Qobuz can be accessed via a variety of devices. 


Balancing Convenience and Quality

For the average – non-audiophile – listener, the differences in sound quality among these services may not be perceptible, especially when listening on standard earbuds or car speakers. However, for us crazy audiophiles, these differences are not just noticeable but crucial. The choice often boils down to balancing convenience and quality. While Tidal and Qobuz offer superior sound, their libraries may not be as extensive as Spotify’s. Apple Music’s recent foray into lossless audio is a promising middle ground, offering both a vast library and improved sound quality.

The Role of Equipment

It’s important to note that the benefits of higher bit rates and lossless audio can only be fully appreciated with the right equipment. High-quality DACs and streamers, USB-isolators, proper cabling, highly-resolving speakers, and amps and preamps able to convey these differences are integral to extracting the nuanced details and richness of lossless audio.

Physical CDs and SACDs vs. Streaming

The debate among us audiophiles regarding the sound quality of physical CDs and Super Audio CDs (SACDs) versus streaming is ongoing. CDs have long been a benchmark for high-quality audio, offering a reliable 16-bit/44.1 kHz resolution. SACDs, on the other hand, offer an even higher resolution with their Direct Stream Digital (DSD) format, providing what I and others consider an unparalleled depth and clarity of sound (note: as an example, PS Audio’s Octave Records captures everything in high-bit-rate DSD and produces only downloads and SACDs in support of this level of quality sound).

Comparatively, streaming services have made significant strides in offering high-quality audio. Tidal and Qobuz, with their lossless and high-resolution streaming – depending on who you talk to – challenge the supremacy of physical media. However, many audiophiles, including me, argue that the tactile experience and the unique sound characteristics of CDs and SACDs still sound better, though the gap is being narrowed, not by changes in the streaming services but by the streaming equipment used to render that music.

The impact of music streaming services on sound quality is a complex and evolving narrative – a debate I suspect will continue on for years. From the controversy of Napster to the innovations of modern streaming services, the journey of digital music has been one of adaptation and advancement. As technology continues to evolve, so too will the ways in which we experience and appreciate the art of music.


Header image courtesy of Everding.

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