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Advice & Tips: Streaming Music Is Not As Bad as Some People Think

By Derek Howie

 I am sorry to announce this, but as I see comments like “...streaming sounds shit.”, “ is all compressed.”, “...the artist only gets $0.00437 per play.” All too often, I can only shake my head and chuckle because I know it is not the whole picture. If those quotes sounds like you or you believe them to be true, then the problem with streaming is likely you.

Now, there is a smidgen of accuracy to those all too often parroted internet posts but they are polarising, sweeping statements, it’s just like saying “...vinyl sounds the best” but that clearly doesn’t apply to playing $1-bin G+ graded records on one of those $60 portable turntables, or that “ music sucks” while only basing the “new music” to the songs heard on the Billboard Hot 100, does it?

The reason behind this editorial is that I have just spent those last few hours streaming some brand-new music and it sounded fantastic and was highly fulfilling. The vocals were pronounced and frontal, the instruments sounded fresh and airy, alive, and well defined, with the drums being punchy without being overpowering. Yes, I am getting all these verbs from streaming digital music! So, what did I hear this evening that reversed all the negative press and rose me sufficiently enough to write about it? Well, I think the answer to that is what I streamed and how I streamed it.

Let us talk about the audio first, as a good quality source is so important. I bought the music for $6 each from Bandcamp, so there is one myth busted about streaming not paying the artist enough! Then downloaded the files to my phone, which acts as one of several copies of my digital collections, it has plenty of room with an additional 128GB micro-SD card; only amateurs fail to back up their digital music files more than once!

Before anyone chimes in to try and claim,this is not streaming, you are just playing a download, this is the whole point of my article, the problem with streaming music might be your knowledge of it. Here is a dictionary definition of streaming.

3: Digital TechnologyA technology for transferring data so that it can be received and processed in a steady stream: 

It does not matter where the source files are stored, whether be it on my phone, in my hand, on a personal server such as the popular NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive housed in another room or in one of Apple’s data servers in another country. If you think about it, all streaming sites must store the music files somewhere before the consumer can stream them. Furthermore, two of the three releases I used below are not available on either of the streaming services I subscribe to, Tidal or Spotify.

Now that I’ve cleaned up that misconception, I can get back to the music I heard tonight! “Salvation EP” is the debut release from a new band out of Sheffield, England called Haus Horo, they have a noisy goth sound to them. I was so blown away by the vocals on the first track “Issa”, it was the initial catalyst for this article, and the rest of the EP did not disappoint either; incidentally, I have enabled the links for each album below as a wee taster for you.

Haus Horo “Salvation EP in 44.1kHz/24bit WAV [2116kbps]

Next on was ambient legend Pete Namlook, who’s album discography is in its hundreds, this is one of the eponymous compilations that was released after his premature death. The array of depth within these compositions is mesmerising, it really does take you into another realm.

Vocally-lead Synthwave has been a particular hit with me recently, as with Melt Motif’s debut album “A White Horse Will Take You Home”, I first bought it digitally, then on the limited-edition white vinyl. The artist contacted me as they had seen I had purchased both formats through their Bandcamp page to gift me this 8-track EP of remixes for free as a touch of gratitude!

Melt Motif “Vandalism Vol.1” in 44.1kHz/24bit WAV [2116kbps]

These names or titles might be as unfamiliar to you as the numbers and abbreviations that precede them. The 44.1kHz sample rate in kilohertz refers to the original audio being recorded by sampling it 44100 times per second, and then these samples are used to reconstruct the signal when playing it back. As for 24bit part, it is the number of bits of information in each of those 44100 samples has and directly corresponds to the resolution of each sample's depth. Confused? Well, you will soon get used to it as it is the industry-standard parameters. However, I have included another figure that spans many layers, which is the unit of kilobytes per second or kbps. It will make sense if I explain that Spotify uses a format that has a maximum speed of only 320kbps and YouTube audio output is limited to less, at just 256kbps; this is where the idea that streaming is of poor-quality predicates. You can see my approach to streaming uses far bigger files, this simply breaks down to the higher the kilobytes per second, the more data is sent, so that more information equates to ‘more’ of the music is reproduced and therefore heard!

Now, if we step away from the prevalent low bitrate behemoths of Spotify or YouTube, there are several other players in the streaming industry, and they all stream higher kbps. Apple, Amazon, Tidal, Qobuz, Napster and Deezer have so-called “HiFi” tiers to their platforms. The magic number here is anything from 1411kbps and above. This figure is often referred to as CD-quality, which will also be seen as 44.1kHz/16bit, and if you have ever ripped a CD to a computer, you will find a kbps in the metadata. Hopefully, you have understood my explanation that not all digital music files are the same, and now know that you can get very high-quality music from the Internet. Now, I can carry on and talk about the hardware. 

If your idea of someone streaming music is playing tracks from YouTube on a computer, then the problem with streaming music is really you. It might be an option and a popular one, but it is certainly not the only or even a good one! Like so many music fans nowadays, I utilise the technology already in my home to stream high quality digital music files to a dedicated playback device. In my case, my smartphone, a Samsung A71 sends files through my Wi-Fi router, to my network receiver, a Denon AVR-X2700H. This new breed of AV receiver has an inbuilt HEOS streamer, the phone acts as both the storage cell and remote control that links the two seamlessly over the broadband network. Also, within the streamer I can access my Spotify, Tidal and SoundCloud accounts amongst others, so I can switch between platforms and testify to which source or formats sounds better. Just like the A/B tests I have done previously as my turntable set-up of a Pro-Ject Debut III/Nagaoka MP-110/Acryl-IT platter/Ali’ sub-platter/Speedbox1/Phono Box S2 Ultra, Rotel CD11 Tribute CD-player, Kenwood KXF-W6010 tape deck, external USB drive, and HP250G7 laptop/iFi Zen DAC are all integrated to the Denon. This is part of the fun of collecting music and playing, different pressings, and formats, both physically and digitally, and as Discogs has acknowledged for years now, digital music can be collected!

I have deliberately omitted using a computer whether portable or fixed model to stream music in this piece, but I have plenty of experience of this, we all start there, you are simply learning from the results of my trials and tribulations of digital playback across many, many years. Whereas vinyl and CD technologies have stagnated, the quality of digital music reproduction has processed significantly over the last decade. All my streaming platforms sound significantly better in the most direct route, Wi-Fi to the Denon, rather than the protracted path via the Wi-Fi, laptop, DAC, then Denon, there is an audible improvement in clarity and depth to the music. These are my own findings on my system, in my room, through my ears, but a few audiophiles I follow online have also mirrored my results, several have boldly placed a $2-3k price tag on a turntable set-up able to reproduce the same sound quality level of a modest, dedicated streaming arrangement like mine. 

I hope I have opened your eyes and ears to new possibilities, a fresh approach to enjoy your music, something you can experience and experiment with and expel the presumed online rhetoric that there is a fundamental problem with the streaming of music, because now you know that the problem with streaming music is not you!

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