Streaming vs. discs

April 25, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

The controversy over streaming vs. physical disc seems endless.

On the one hand, we know that all things being equal, there’s no difference to the DAC how it gets its digital audio data. It can come from as close as three feet away via cable or can stream from thousands of miles away via the internet. As long as the bits received are identical it won’t matter.

Yet that seems not to be the case.

Discs currently outperform streaming on any platform I’ve experimented with by a lot. I believe that has nothing to do with the bits and everything to do with how they are received and processed (though this does not explain in any way why Tidal and Qobuz sound vastly different with Qobuz the clear winner—a subject for another day)

Let me share a bit of my thinking. If I upload to Dropbox an Octave master DSD file, then download it and capture it to a USB memory stick, and play that stick in our PerfectWave SACD transport, it sounds absolutely identical to the same file as played on a DVD data disc. Thus, the round trip travel to the Cloud and back again have zero impact on the data. Transferring that same data from a hard drive on a Qobuz or Tidal server should then be identical to that of a Dropbox server. In fact, several of these choices employ the same Amazon Web Services for their server. For all we know, the two could be housed in the same building.

Yet, they sound remarkably different.

Tomorrow I will discuss why I believe that to be true.

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42 comments on “Streaming vs. discs”

  1. I don’t stream anything. I want my music stored on a disc, LP, or even a high quality tape but that’s my last choice since we know how those degrade over time and need special storage. Digital storage or the cloud can corrupt it in the same way our computers crash or fail and need to be updated or replaced. One problem that concerns me is CD oxidation. It’s why some more expensive CD’s use gold.

    1. Hi Joe,
      My oldest CD (first bought) is an Eagles album that I purchased in early
      1984 & it still plays perfectly & shows zero deterioration…so far.
      I have 2 CD’s that have edge delamination (since thirty years ago) &
      1 (Made in West Germany) with ‘spot’ delamination that can still play
      on good quality players but will not do so on the average quality ones.
      I see these 3 isolated cases of delamination as quality control issues
      at the respective pressing plants & at the time of manufacture.
      The other 987 CD’s that I own are faultless & play through perfectly
      & a lot of them are well over 30 years old.

      I’ve heard that CD’s should have a useful lifespan of between 100 &
      200 years, but of course we have no way of verifying this assumption.
      Personally, as long as mine last another thirty years
      I will see them all as money well spent.

  2. Please also include tomorrow how streaming from an own storage differs in your experiments. I agree with the cloud streaming effects and experienced better sound from local storage which is still depending on the hard drive it comes from and its isolation and surrounding.

    While those who stream (which way ever) surely wouldn’t want to go back to disc spinning, good digital sound unfortunately got more and more complicated the more we know.

    1. I have found frequently that streaming a ripped CD to my iDevice from my own NAS to JRemote from outside my network sounds much better than a direct Tidal or Spotify stream of the same track. A guy I know who studies these things insists the ISPs employ some kind of packet filtering of known streaming services, and since they don’t know what NAS/JRemote is they don’t filter the same way. Most others I have mentioned this to think that is hogwash ha ha.

      I am not sure I have done a compare of a Tidal track streamed vs. downloaded for offline playback to see if they sound different. Once downloaded via Tidal or Spotify then any network or ISP issue becomes moot.

      1. Oh man yes, so people fiddle around with so much stuff like external power supplies, connection type converters and noise filtering boxes, to then stream from a cloud service (which most do today), just to recognize this is possibly the biggest compromise they can’t fix. Well, quality doesn’t always improve, but convenience does mostly.

      1. Hmmm…sounds like PSA will have to increase their profit margins
        (times 6; instead of times 5) to develop & build said impending PSA
        streaming service 😉

  3. Yesterday my stored recordings on Qobuz, the ones I repeatedly listen to, sounded terrible. Simultaneously I found it difficult to connect my streamer.

    The day before all connected and sounded great.

    This occurs occasionally, but the Lp or the CD never fails!

  4. Yesterday my stored recordings on Qobuz, the ones I repeatedly listen to, sounded terrible. Simultaneously I found it difficult to connect my streamer.

    The day before all connected and sounded great.

    This occurs occasionally, but the Lp or the CD never fails!

    1. I do not stream music, I have enough vinyl and SACD’s to keep me satisfied. I do stream video because some content is only available as streaming ( e.g. Amazon Prime Video ). It is interesting that we accepted wireless ( OTA ) TV and radio for decades before cable came along.

      1. Yeah, and as a remote control-challenged person, I really miss OTA. It takes MINUTES to turn on the TV and access the station I want with Spectrum. It takes mere seconds with OTA.

  5. Paul,
    I’d really appreciate you adding Amazon Hi Res Music to your streaming review…
    … I understand they went out of their way in recent years to provide ‘glitch free’ accessible FLAC files and of course it also uses AWS – Amazon Web Services.

    While the interface is poor I use a Music Cataloging App to store covers of favourites and then Wikipedia and artists or studio websites for typically more details than I need about the recordings.

    I use several of my reference SACDs, CDs and local FLAC files, including some of Octave Records, to try and assess how good they are. I moved from WiFi to LAN wired connections to my DACs which seemed to be noticeably better.

    I’ve only been content with streaming for the last year or so, however, I still prefer playing an SACD. I thought it might just be down to ‘old school’ feelings when you need to get a physical item out, put it into a player before settling down and pressing play 🙂

    After more recent listening I’m more confused, however, on the whole it comes down to a great piece of music well recorded being played when I’m in the right mood… Sometimes this is when playing an SACD/CD but probably equally when streaming – there I’ve admitted it.

    As a Chartered Engineer in Computing/IT, working for over 40 years covering software, hardware, applications, systems and networking I would like to add the following comments:

    SACD/CDs have redundant data built in, however, the act of recovering misread data can be affected by the processing ability and buffers before it hits the DAC.

    FLAC files have headers that include checksums to assure the integrity of the data within the files, hence you can see messages like corrupt file or just cannot open. Hence you not noticing any difference when copying files into and of out of the cloud.

    Networking is not my professional specialism and it’s caused me grief both with general computer systems with applications & databases as well as the audio visual world for my entertainment. The rather basic and old Ethernet protocols we still use are based on relatively small data packets that are guaranteed to arrive but not necessarily in the order sent. So it’s the requirement of the data receiver (even having to ask for the packet to be resent) to process the data, making sure its back in the right order without errors. Again, like CD/SACDs it’s down to the processing and buffering used to make sure the DAC gets the best possible data in the timeframe it needs. At least with only audio files we don’t care about a bit of delay so long as the stereo (or 5.1) timing is not affected.

    I now use my ears to decide…
    … the world is pushing me to files over physical media. Even with PS Audio Octave Records where, since Brexit in the UK, I can’t justify the massive extra cost of shipping in SACDs, while FLAC files cost the me the same as USA based folks.

    1. I suppose at some point we’ll likely need to add Amazon streaming but it’s not always as simple as adding another service with the click of a switch. How they handle metadata and what access they give us depend a lot on how well it can be implemented. Qobuz, for example, gives us complete access to their metadata so when Octave Music launches we’ll have a very rich experience. Tidal, well, not so much.

      1. Paul, I noticed you didn’t mention MQA playback with Tidal. Perhaps you can comment on that tomorrow.
        I’ve found MQA via Tidal to be considerably better sounding that straight Tidal.

          1. There are a lot of reports that MQA messes up the data. Some streaming services also modify the master received from the “artist”. This is why they may not sound as good as “physical”. Nothing to do with the streaming property per se but with the modifications done by the streaming service.
            If you stream the master, it will sound identical to the physical one. Caveat emptor regarding streamers.

    1. The pc background processes mucking up the music? Surely not. The over-processing power.
      But it’s true. All the “computer audio” people cut back irrelevant processes and get better sound. I do, via Fidelizer pro, no question. I do before and after listening. More musical meat on the bones.
      Better may be Audiophile Optimizer, another, based on MS Server. But too complex for me.

  6. I’m sort of glad my comments are droll and don’t try to disseminate these very complex engineering issues in print. I will say that everything that Paul hears is what I hear (as well as most of our community members to be sure). I’m happy to leave the why’s and how’s to my betters and hope for solutions in the near or not too distant future.

    I should have known that something was afoot on Sterling Street (aka Baker Street West). For the past week I could smell rubber burning from Paul’s part of the country all the way to the East cost of Florida because when I wake up in he morning lately this odor is wafting around my listening room…or is it just air pollution?

  7. Personally, I am constantly frustrated by streaming services. Not necessarily the sound quality, but the fact that since I listen to mostly classical music there are specific orchestras or soloist that I like to hear that are difficult to get the services to pull up. I listen to streaming mostly in the car since cars now no longer offer a CD player (and I’ve recently read that they are going to be phasing out am and FM radios!) but for home and office I’ll just pour one of my few thousand CDs, LPs, or One of my handful of cassettes or real to reel‘s. (FYI, I have a 70s vintage set up both at home and in my office.)

  8. I believe streaming services employ different compression algorithms which is why they don’t sound the same and, often not as good as the physical disc. Even the ones claiming to be lossless, high resolution often do not send full bandwidth data. None of them transmit DSD. Everything is converted to PCM.

  9. I Have an Innuos Zen mk111 and stream Qobuz as well as electronic files from a hard disc. I have had this setup for over a year and stream daily. This may not sound as good as SACD, but it’s certainly as good or better than a CD player. It really does depend on the recording, not the bit rate, but the recording. Although, the bit rate can make tremendous difference on some recordings. I have an Auralic dac and Krell electronics, amp and preamp.

  10. I’m totally confused about the most important test you did: “Transferring that same data [a DSD file] from a hard drive on a Qobuz or Tidal server should then be identical to that of a Dropbox server. In fact, several of these choices employ the same Amazon Web Services for their server. For all we know, the two could be housed in the same building. Yet, they sound remarkably different.”

    How did you “transfer” the identical DSD file from Qobuz or Tidal to test your theory? Those services don’t offer DSD. Qobuz has 24/192 PCM while Tidal has compressed MQA has its highest-level choice. Qobuz streams what the record companies give them. I don’t see how you can be comparing like with like.

    I have zero interest in physical media, but I agree that streaming doesn’t sound exactly the same as a playing back a downloaded or ripped file. When I stream a new (to me) album that I come to love and that sounds really good on Qobuz, I buy the 24/192 download from the Qobuz store. I agree that file playback beats streaming (on my system). I got rid of my transport years ago, and although I’m sure the PerfectWave SACD transport is as good as a transport gets, I don’t see the need to go back to optical discs. I like to skip the optical disc stage of playback and jump right to files in my music library.

    1. You are absolutely correct and this is Digital 101…

      Clearly this just highlights that Paul does not really understand Digital, Streaming, Bit Rates or anything else. Why he feels the need to start reviewing things he doesn’t understand, is not only embarrassing to him, but to the industry itself.

      I lost all respect for PS Audio when Paul ‘Reviewed’ the Raspberry Pi. There was so much misinformation and lack of understanding in that review that I no longer trust any information coming from him.

      1. Kevin, one of us is certainly confused. 🙂 I think it’s more a matter of communication than knowledge. I am sure you’re quite knowledgeable but do please give me a little respect. If I said something that doesn’t agree with your thinking it isn’t a sign I don’t know what I am talking about. Instead it might mean that either we’re on different pages or there’s a communication lapse. More likely the latter.

        For example, I never implied nor meant for it to be understood that Tidal or any streaming service is streaming DSD. They are, of course, not. That’s misunderstanding the point of my post – and probably my lack of skill as a communicator.

        My apologies.

        Maybe let’s try giving each other the benefit of the doubt? 🙂

    2. I think you’re missing the point. Let me try and make it a bit clearer. First off, this has nothing to do with the type of file. But, to your point I did write:

      “If I upload to Dropbox an Octave master DSD file, then download it and capture it to a USB memory stick, and play that stick in our PerfectWave SACD transport, it sounds absolutely identical to the same file as played on a DVD data disc.”

      This still stands on its own merits as accurate. But it applies to any file format be it DSD or PCM.

      The point was simple. If I take a file, any file, and store it in the cloud or instead transfer it locally, as long as the bits are identical when received then they should sound the same.

      What’s the difference? Depending on how you are transferring the data—noise from the sending device or its ground. A USB memory stick hasn’t any noise but a computer connected via USB does.

      Hope that helps clear the air.

  11. There’s no comparison from what streaming I’ve heard on a really good system. I wouldn’t tolerate such crappy “hi-fi” sound of streaming in my dedicated room. SACD sounds the best and I know what I’m playing on my transport, not whatever corrupted file the music service gets from the label. We need a quantum improvement in streaming technology.

  12. My experience is different from Paul’s. In my system SACD sounded best, streaming sounded second, and USB stick sounded worst. I transferred the Qobuz 96/24 files into a USB stick and the music playback was flat and uninvolving playing through PST. This may be due to my PST was brand new and needed time to burn in. But the disks sounded better then too.

  13. FWIW, I also find that Qobuz sounds notably better than TIDAL. I ought to have done a bit capture from both and compared them, but my TIDAL subscription has lapsed.

  14. Ooooh! Like a 60s TV cliff hanger!
    Will our Caped Audio Crusader defeat the nefarious bandwidth audiophile phantom distorting our audible airwaves?
    Will the Man in Blue solve the case of the malevolent musical mastermind behind our degrading digital frequency discrepancies?
    Will The McGowanator restore aural peace and tranquility to the inhabitants of our audibly distorted earth?
    Or will this be the last we see of our mild-mannered, tangent-telling wisdom-wielding Hero Paul?

    Tune in Tomorrow….”

  15. In my experience and why I choose a dedicated transport for the optimal and more serious listening, it is the transients.
    The effect of the ‘timing” of information is really noticeable through streaming and or Bluetooth. Transports or any other physical media have always given me the best and most accurate listening experience. Using a computer like a laptop as the main music server I’ve never had success with, but that is mainly due to the computer’s construction. They’re noisy and like cell phones aren’t dedicated music devices. For Instance I used my 1500$ HP laptop connected to my Chord Dac, then switched using my Cyrus Cd i out of the same DAC (chord) and it is not freaking the same.
    The cyrus crushes it.

    What can I say? Yeah. I’m a hard line kind of guy. I’m also glad physical media kicks ass because it in term gives me more of an excuse to buy it. 😉

    1. Have you tried using some good footers under your laptop? It makes a marked improvement. While it may not close the gap completely for you, it may be a useful improvement for some listening situation.

  16. It is all very subjective. I find streaming via ethernet from ripped or downloaded files stored on PC beats everything I have listened to before including cd and SACD with high end Shanling and Musical Fidelity players. Streaming from Qobuz comes second.

    For a while I installed a hard disc inside my Auralic Aries G2 streamer and stored my music on that. To me it did not sound as good as streaming from a networked pc so I took it out again. That seemed entirely bizarre.
    I suspect it all has little to do with file formats or media and everything to do with your hardware.

    A superb streamer like the G2 will stream to an outstanding level. A state of the art SACD transport will play SACDs similarly well. What we find most satisfying relates to the strengths of our individual systems rather than reflecting an inbuilt superiority of one format or another.

  17. Welcome to the wonderful world of the variance of clocking and jittter. This is why I use an ESS Pro DAC that deals very effectively with this very issue.

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