Streaming Sessions

Don’t Fear the Streamer

Issue 132

We live in good times. As I sit here in front of my system this evening, I appreciate what decades of progress have brought us. I discovered an artist on Qobuz and streamed an album over my system this evening. I also have a couple of favorite CDs queued up – CDs that I have ripped to a server and can play back through my network. And vinyl? Some evenings, sure, I’m happy to spin my records, especially since many were never (and will never be) released digitally; some I have recorded to digital so I can play them at any time, anywhere I happen to be.

I’ve been a music listener my entire life, and my tastes have evolved along with the physical formats available. I was playing records and a handful of pre-recorded cassettes back in the 1970s. I saw CDs emerge as a predominant format, starting in the early 1980s. I’ve watched other formats come and go, dabbled in a few myself, and stuck with what I knew best – LPs and CDs.

I first started on a digital renaissance back in the 2000s, as I was ripping a handful of CDs to use on early MP3 players. I also envisioned that the next major format for music after CDs would have no moving parts, perhaps playing music from a copy-protected memory chip (like an SD card). I never imagined, though, that the latest format wouldn’t even be physical – we now download music as digital files.

Listening options that weren’t possible decades ago are available now. Storage is cheap, so we can store many music files on a hard drive or server. We now have enough bandwidth coming into our homes to stream hi-res music and a few 4K video streams simultaneously. The time became ripe for music streaming when these technologies (and their affordability) converged.

Cambridge Audio CXN V2 network player.

Cambridge Audio CXN V2 network player.

Level Up!

Streaming is embraced by the masses these days. For many, it is their primary if not their sole source of listening to music. But my focus here is not the mass market – mine is on the discerning music collector who may own music in a few different formats, whether vinyl, CD, tape or whatever else they’ve collected over the years.

I had considered trying streaming for years, but never could get past the poor sound quality.  Today, some services offer lossless music. I was glad, after trying (and disliking) the others, to see Qobuz finally make an entrance into the US market, with lossless streaming at CD resolution and in true high-resolution.

Streaming has enhanced my listening experience by having so much music available. I am a music buyer and will download a title I like, or I will find it on vinyl. I have a few different ways in which I discover new (to me) music, and streaming has changed that for the better.

Rewind to the mid-1980s when CDs were gaining in popularity. I would buy at least one CD per week and often two, as there were new releases and reissues that interested me. My trips to Sam’s Jams every Friday evening were a routine I still miss to this day, hanging out with fellow music lovers, listening to new releases on their system (the store was cool enough to have an old tubed Dynaco system powering the speakers in their jazz room).

Sam's Jams back in the day.

What I every so often found was that the new releases which caught my ear at the store ended up being duds. Maybe only one or two tunes appealed to me. Or the album or artist never engaged me. At any rate, they’d be stored away on the CD rack, skimmed over every time I looked for something to play. (The same happened with LPs as well, long before the CD era.)

With streaming, I can avoid the duds. I can play an album as many times as I want, to see if it grows on me or if I find I don’t care for it. If I read a good review of an album, or get a recommendation from a friend, I can go home and give the music a play on my own time to see if I can live with (or without) it.

I also get in moods where I explore a wide swath of music. For the past few months, I have been exploring the CTi Records catalog. Streaming has been a perfect way to sample a broad range of these albums, and I have added several to my collection because of this. Last winter, I was getting deeper into the many orchestral recordings that Bernard Haitink conducted throughout his career and found many recordings available to experience his work.

There are two additional ways I find streaming useful. First, if visiting an audio show, audio dealer, or a friend’s house, having access to music I am familiar with is invaluable for auditioning components and systems. I no longer need to tote a stack of records or CDs with me, or hope that they have it on hand.

Travel is another way I use streaming. I used to fill up a CD carrier or two on a trip, and most of the time didn’t like most of what I chose to bring with me once I was out on the road. Granted, I use both an SD card and USB memory stick in the car these days (about 650 GB of lossless music, some in hi-res), but when I settle down at the hotel or condo, I have access to much of the music I already own. My CDs stay safely at home now.

Debunking Common Arguments Against Streaming

With streaming so readily available now, why are some music listeners so opposed to it? I’ve come across a few arguments. Some are myths or misunderstandings. Others are (let’s be honest here) stubborn adherence to the past and a refusal to embrace the future. Below are a few common arguments I see regularly about streaming in general.

I don’t want to listen to lossy MP3s over streaming!

If you subscribe to the mass market streaming services, you will get lossy files. Spotify, Amazon and Apple Music are all lossy with their mainstream offerings; Amazon does have an HD version of their service, but their streaming service will only play back on proprietary software with little hardware support, certainly nothing that many audiophiles can integrate easily into their systems.

McIntosh MB50 streaming audio player.

McIntosh MB50 streaming audio player.

Today, there are services like Deezer, Tidal and Qobuz which offer lossless CD-quality or better streaming. Qobuz goes one better and offers pure and genuine hi-res streaming up to 24-bit/192 kHz. On top of that, you can often integrate some of these services into equipment that many Copper readers already have access to. Anyone using Roon, for instance, can integrate Qobuz and Tidal streaming into their own personal library.

Streaming costs too much! I’m not spending $15 per month on a subscription service!

Based on what I wrote earlier, this argument falls flat. How many times have you purchased an album, with good intentions, that was a dud? I have boxes downstairs with a few hundred good intentions. I don’t miss the albums, but I do miss the money I spent buying them. Streaming would have avoided this, by allowing me to preview the recordings beforehand.

Even in a broader sense, consider your personal budget. $15 is the cost of lunch out a couple of times per month, or a few fancy coffees from the barista on the corner. We spend hundreds on tweaks that do little or nothing, but can’t part with $15 per month for the music to feed the system? It’s a weak argument.

Aurender A100 music server.

Aurender A100 music server.

Streaming is for kids who use phones and earbuds to listen to music, not audiophiles!

We won’t get into the methods for streaming music here, but there are multiple ways to play back your lossless streaming music through your system. Sure, maybe the younger set uses earbuds to listen with their smartphones. But that thinking is a decade out of date now. There are dozens of components available now that can stream music into our systems in full, lossless quality.

Streaming services have nothing I listen to!

Do streaming services have everything, especially in hi-res? No. They can’t. Each streaming service negotiates with labels and distributors to get licensing deals to provide customers with the music. Despite Qobuz being the newcomer, their licensing has broadened over the past couple of years, and there is rarely something I can’t find on Qobuz that others might have. Each service may have a handful of releases that are unique to them but for the most part, the bulk of what is available on one service is available on all of them.

I’ll never play music I can’t hold in my hand!

This is the one argument that makes me shake my head at the stubbornness of collectors. Nobody is taking away your records. Nobody is telling you that you can’t listen to your CDs anymore. Nobody is preventing you from buying new music in any format you see fit.

Audioengine B-Fi multiroom music streamer.

Audioengine B-Fi multiroom music streamer.

Streaming is how you can listen to that brand new release on release day, without complaining daily that Amazon hasn’t delivered it yet. Streaming is the way you can listen to that latest release or reissue everyone else is raving about to see if you’d like to own it, or decide for yourself that it’s overrated or not to your taste. Streaming is also convenient for those wondering if certain versions of songs (different mixes, takes or performances; mono vs. stereo versions; different masterings, etc.) appear on certain recordings, without having to buy an entire CD of redundant music you may already own.

Streaming services don’t pay the artists!

That is a valid argument – we all know that today’s model of music consumption and compensation is in a sad state. Try to think of it this way: even for all that music you sample once or twice, those plays generate a (very) small amount of income for the artist and composer. Given all the ways we can access “free” music, at least it’s something. And even there, we should be supporting our favorite artists by attending their gigs (when those come back) and buying their new releases and merchandise (preferably from their own online stores, where they make an extra profit).

Choosing from Phantom Fears or Enjoying the Music

The short version? You have nothing to lose by trying streaming. Most streaming services have free trials. You can also find ways to temporarily try streaming through your main system. (For instance, if your DAC has a USB input, you can often attach your computer, tablet or smartphone to the DAC and stream music from an application the streaming provider offers for your device.) Don’t just sign up for the trial and then forget about it. Use it. Daily. Try searching for music you’re curious about. Read recommendations and reviews on Qobuz (which creates its own editorial content).  Go on a “music bender” and explore a lot more music that you may never have been aware of.  Take a chance and look outside your tunnel vision!

Streaming, for me, isn’t about the technology or the concept of it. It’s about expanding my enjoyment of music – something that streaming has done to enhance my musical experience in this all-too-short lifetime.

Enjoy!

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