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Audio Files: Streaming Services Step Up

What do recent sonic upgrades to music streaming mean for jazz fans—and which one’s the best?

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Lossless streaming on Apple Music and Qobuz
Lossless streaming with Apple Music on a tablet (left) and with Qobuz on a phone

Music streaming services debuted about 15 years ago—and audiophiles’ criticisms of music streaming services debuted the very next day. Their complaints mostly ceased a few months ago, when major services upgraded their sound quality. But the differences among the services have left many music fans wondering if they should take the trouble to switch to a higher-quality service, or stick with the one they’re using.

Although high-quality streaming services such as Deezer, Qobuz, and Tidal have been around for several years, the concept really caught music fans’ attention in May, when Apple Music announced it would offer lossless streaming at no extra charge and Amazon Music responded by dropping the extra charge for its lossless service. Spotify plans a similar upgrade for sometime this fall.

So will switching to a lossless streaming service unlock previously unheard subtleties in Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme? Or will you end up forsaking your carefully curated library and playlists for no appreciable benefit?

Is Lossless a Win?
In order to conserve Internet bandwidth, most streaming services employ lossy compression techniques such as MP3 or AAC. They’re called “lossy” because they discard most of the data from an audio file—typically at least four-fifths of the 1s and 0s—although it’s done in a way that’s difficult for the ear to detect. Lossless audio, on the other hand, does not impact sound quality. It does use coding, called FLAC or ALAC, to cut the size of the data stream roughly in half, but that coding then restores the digital files to their original form.

Research shows that listeners can tell the difference between lossless and lossy audio, although it depends on the data rate of the lossy audio; the lower the data rate, the easier it is to hear the difference. At the maximum data rates offered by most streaming services—typically 256 to 320 kilobits per second (kbps)—it becomes a lot harder to hear the difference.

Typically, lossy coding most affects high frequencies; it may sound like someone swapped Jack DeJohnette’s cymbals for some cheapies ordered through Amazon. But its effects in the bass and midrange are very subtle and usually inaudible. If you listen at home, on a high-quality audio system, lossless is certainly worth using. But in the car, or through typical mass-market headphones, you won’t hear much difference. Thus, if you’re downloading a bunch of music onto your phone for your commute, use lossy files, because you’ll be able to fit at least three times as many on your phone.

In addition to lossless service, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Qobuz, and Tidal all offer high-resolution audio, which can capture higher frequencies and greater dynamic range than CD-quality audio. However, studies show that even experts can only rarely detect the difference between CD-quality audio and high-resolution audio, and on all of these services, only select titles are available in high resolution. To hear them that way, you’ll also need a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) that can handle high-resolution audio, but the DACs built into most phones and computers can do this, and standalone DACs are available at low cost.

One caveat: If you’re using a Bluetooth device, which itself employs lossy coding, it’s unlikely that switching to lossless will improve your sound unless you’re using a speaker or headphone equipped with the higher-quality aptX HD or LDAC Bluetooth technology, and an Android phone equipped with the same technology.

Money Jungle
With so many services now offering lossless, the choice may boil down to cost. Amazon and Apple charge $10 per month, Qobuz starts at $12.50 per month, Deezer charges $15 per month for lossless service, and Tidal charges $20 per month for lossless (some done with MQA, a lossy audio technology that claims to sound better than lossless). As of this writing, Spotify hadn’t announced pricing and availability for its lossless service.

Sound quality isn’t the only feature distinguishing these services. Tidal and Qobuz, for example, add editorial content and extensive production notes, and Amazon, Apple, and Tidal all offer selected tracks produced in Dolby Atmos immersive sound. Increasingly, the content offerings are similar, because digital music distribution services such as Distrokid and CD Baby transmit their files to all these services. But of course, some streaming apps offer a more friendly user interface. Fortunately, all streaming services offer a one-month, no-cost trial, so before you junk your library and playlists in the quest for better sound, give that new service a free spin.

DEFINITION: What Is Data Rate?
Data rate is the amount of data that an audio transmission technology streams, expressed in kilobits per second (kbps). Generally, the higher the data rate, the better the sound. CD has a data rate of 1,411 kbps. ALAC and FLAC lossless coding cut that down to about 700 kbps, while lossy technologies such as AAC and MP3 typically reduce it to somewhere between 96 kbps and 320 kbps, depending on the quality settings you choose.

Audio Files: The Controversy Over MQA

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.