If you use the Internet to listen to music and you are, or aspire to be an audio enthusiast, you probably know about music streaming services like TIDAL, Qobuz, Spotify, TuneIn Radio, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Pandora and the like. This article will focus on the first three because, in my own experience, they tend to offer the best combination of simplicity, variety, sound quality, and the most thoroughly-curated music catalogs. Your mileage may vary, and that's OK; I only mean to offer a summary of my own personal experience over the past few years along with some hints, nudges, or just plain old-fashioned guesses about what any one reader might need or want from a few high-quality music streaming services.
First, let's talk about what these services are not.
They are not replacements for FM radio (if you remember what that is). They all offer curated or machine-generated playlists – in fact, that's largely Spotify's raison d'être – but you mostly have to think of them as giant repositories of music, libraries in the sky, that give you immediate access to an enormous number of recordings via swift, easy search, with cover art, liner notes, reviews and other metadata. Although this is probably a moot point, keep in mind that you do need to have a live internet connection to use a streaming service, and, depending on the sound quality you want, anywhere from an adequate to bodacious amount of network throughput.
They won't necessarily sound better than or even just like LP, CD or the various kinds of analog tape formats out there. It's hard to explain why and can very complicated in some instances, but, using myself as an example, I often prefer the sound of physical media over streaming because I currently have really good disc players and only so-so streaming DACs. Even when I owned the remarkable Ayre QX-5 Twenty streaming DAC, I thought my two-box Audio Note CD player sounded better (but for a lot more money). However, as has been noted by many audio writers and listeners, the streaming rig gave me access to enormous amounts of music whenever I wanted to hear it, in very high fidelity that I could "just play" through my stereo by tapping on my iPad – all for about $20 a month (using TIDAL HiFi at the time).
No single streaming service has everything you might want. Even if you subscribe to several and you want to hear a particular album or track, you might still have to buy physical media. At the time I write this, the 1992 CD Moodfood by Moodswings appears to be out of print and not on TIDAL or Qobuz. I had it in my well-alphabetized collection, found it, ripped it, played it. But I would have had to buy a used CD online otherwise. (It's a little like the film Chronicle of a Summer, one of the first and best examples of cinéma verité. Until a few years ago, when Criterion released it, the film was impossible to find outside of an academic institution or maybe The Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, CA.)
All that said, both Qobuz and TIDAL offer vast, well-curated libraries of music in many genres and have a large number of software and hardware platforms with which they work well. For me, Qobuz has a more interesting collection and, using a gigabit Ethernet internet connection, potentially better sound quality for albums offered in 24/192 hi-res PCM quality, which are a subset of their total library. However, TIDAL tends to sound better to me than Qobuz at 16/44.1 PCM and also offers more current, mainstream releases, like Lemonade by Beyoncé, a really wonderful and well-produced album.
The only other streaming service I tend to use (there are many) is Spotify, which is great for getting a guided tour of many kinds of music, both familiar and obscure. I've heard some wonderful harpsichord performances on Spotify that I would likely not have otherwise discovered. I do tend to use Spotify on the Apple TV platform so I can more easily follow the music and see the cover art, and I stream Spotify in MP3-quality because it's just going through an Audioengine B2 Bluetooth speaker anyway. I’m not overly concerned with sound quality here; it's a bit like listening to FM radio in the old days.
I have also tried Apple Music, Amazon Music, and the internet version of SiriusXM, to name a few others. In particular, I do like the programming on SiriusXM. For all the rest, they're fine, no real complaints. I just find that Qobuz, TIDAL, and Spotify are enough for me. Your experience may differ, no problem!
Regarding other considerations when comparing streaming services, try to think in terms of the “use case” situations in which you commonly listen to music, and ask what problems any one service would solve for you.
Here are a few examples:
The Casual Listener
We are casual listeners most of the time. Although we enjoy music, think of ourselves as sound enthusiasts, and have no problem flipping records or changing CDs, we also like to relax, and an evening spent with Bach, Coltrane, or The White Stripes leaves us refreshed and hopefully not too stressed over how many different versions of Kind of Blue we can own.
Suggestion: TIDAL, lots of choices, generally good sound, easy to stream in "hi fi" without having super-fast Internet, not too pricey. For mainly classical listeners, consider QOBUZ as an alternative.
The Serious/Audiophile Listener
We all know the serious listener. Such an audiophile sits precisely in the sweet spot with the amp at a fixed volume, has a preamp with no balance adjustment, and has probably heard the same 35 songs over and over again for decades on systems with increasing numbers of zeroes before the decimal point in the price. This listener is a likely candidate for cable lifters and talks about "golden ears." However, this person may also listen to substandard recordings to learn more about, or simply enjoy, music.
Also, while I might personally scoff at someone who has a six-figure system and only streams music, it's not the worst idea I've ever considered
Suggestion: Qobuz, at 24/192 PCM, with a very high-speed internet connection. Or TIDAL, for now.
The Curious Listener
Open-minded, perhaps musically a little naïve, affable and quirky, the curious listener questions everything, tries to draw few “final” conclusions about music, listens without (too much) judgment, and wants to learn about sound and music. The curious listener probably has a simpler system and delights in allowing time for their own “new music Fridays.”
Suggestion: try it all. Apple Music is good place to start, or maybe Amazon Music because you may kind of have it already if you use Amazon for other things. Also, try Spotify and, if you have an interest in music from different locations around the world, TuneIn radio. However, you would likely have to run TuneIn from a browser on a laptop, and there is no "hi-fi" version.
The Frugal Listener
A frugal listener does not avoid spending money on things per se; they just proceed with caution and, if moved to spend a bit more than usual, will do so with the confidence that it truly enriches their experience of recorded music.
Suggestion: Spotify. In some markets, you can get Spotify with lossless compression. You can also listen to it for free if you don't mind commercials and if you hear something you like, you can then look for the LP or CD or pay for a download from a site like HDTracks or Acoustic Sounds, and enjoy the music free from commercials.
To conclude: if you've never tried streaming, you can start with Spotify or TuneIn radio, even just on a personal device. Don't worry about lossless compression or having to hear limited commercial interruptions at first. There's nothing wrong with Pandora and some other services, but I don't personally find that they have large libraries of music to offer. Experiment and see what you like, and don't forget that most services have free trials.
I don't mean to dismiss any one service. And the last things I’d want to see are a monopoly on streaming, or on the other hand, too many services, which would fragment the market enough so that nobody wins. As it stands now, I do think that streaming comes about as close to FM-on-demand as one can get, minus the on-air personalities and midnight "Free Bird" marathons.
Header image: Ayre QX-5 Twenty music streamer.