In later issues, we’re going to cover all sorts of information about how you can bring the highest quality audio to every room in your home, and the products you can use to do so. However, because we know that this whole subject is new to some of our friends, we’re going to start with some of the basics.
Streaming Audio - What Are The Options?
By now, everyone we know has heard of streaming audio, but a lot of you may not actually know what it is, the benefits it offers, or its limitations, so let’s start at the beginning.
In the past, if you wanted to listen to music, you had a few options.
1. Live Music
You could go to your favorite bar, concert hall, church choir performance, or campfire sing along and listen to live music. Or, if you had talent, or friends with talent, you could make your own music.
You could listen to the radio. The radio played the latest hits, was available almost anywhere, and it cost nothing. Unfortunately, you didn’t get to pick what to listen to; at best, you found a station that usually played what you liked, and didn’t have too many commercials.
Maybe, once in a while, you could call in and make a request. However, you always ended up listening to a bunch of songs you didn’t especially like, most stations played a lot of commercials, and there were always a few songs they played over and over and over again, and some they never seemed to play.
3. Buy Albums
You could buy your own copies of all the albums you liked. For many people this was the best solution, but it was far from perfect.
First off, whatever format you chose, you had to have some sort of player; and, if you wanted to have music all over your house, you had to have a player in every room, or lots of wires. It got even more complicated if you liked more than one format.
Of course, you could carry around a portable player, or you could have one big stereo system, and run wires to other rooms. I remember listening to music in my basement – and running upstairs every half hour to change the record.
And then there was the cost; if you wanted to have a big music collection, it got expensive very quickly, and you ended up with shelves and shelves full of albums or CDs. And, finally, you had to worry about scratched vinyl, fingerprints on the CDs, and the dog – or your cheap portable player - eating your cassettes.
What Do Streaming Music Services Offer?
Streaming audio offers most of the advantages of all of those options – and very few of the disadvantages. However, many of our friends are confused about the details.
There are several different streaming audio services, and lots of different ways of playing streaming audio, and we’ll cover many of those differences in detail in future newsletters, and on our Rate Your Sound website, but for now let’s focus on the things that are common to all of them.
1. Subscription Services
i.e. streaming audio as a subscription service. You pay by the month and get access to all the music and other options the service offers for as long as you continue to subscribe.
With certain limited exceptions, the music remains on their servers, and they play it for you. If you cancel your subscription, or switch to a different service, you don’t get to take your music with you.
Some of the services also allow you to purchase music, and some do offer a free version. For example, Spotify offers a free version, if you don’t mind limited audio quality, and quite a few commercials.
2. Songs On Demand
You get to pick the songs you want to hear. The streaming service maintains an extensive library of music. You use some sort of program on your player to pick the songs you want to hear. Many of the major services have a list of tens of millions of songs to choose from.
Odds are, if the song you want to hear was ever released on CD, or even if it was a popular vinyl release, most of the major streaming services will have it. If you think of a song or album you want to hear, you simply enter the name, or choose it from some sort of list, and they play it for you.
While the major services all offer a huge list of available music, some do have better selections in certain genres than others.
3. Multiple Devices
With most services, your subscription allows you to play music on multiple devices, for example on your smartphone, on your stereo, and on your office computer.
Some of the services limit you to one or two devices at the same time, or charge extra for a family plan that covers several devices, and some may simply not have support for some of the particular devices you have.
Devices, like Sonos units, may simply work a lot better with some streaming services than with others, or offer different options with different services. We get into details like that in the product reviews on the Rate Your Sound website.
4. Sound Quality
Not all streaming services are created equal. A few streaming services, like Tidal, offer streaming of CD quality or even high-resolution files, but many limit you to files processed using lossy compression. For example, Spotify offers two different quality levels on their streaming service, and the sound quality on the higher tier is quite good, but neither is quite as good as a CD. This may not be a big deal to you but it is worth considering.
One of the biggest benefits of streaming music is playlists. A playlist is simply a list of songs that you can request your system to play for you. Most services let you add as many songs as you like to the list, save a bunch of lists under different names, or hit a button and save all the songs you’ve played so far today as a list.
While this is something many regular player programs do, it’s a lot more important with streaming services, because you have so many files to choose from, and because there are multiple devices involved.
For example, you could pick a bunch of songs to play today at home, from many different albums, save them all on a list named “Chillin Music”, then play that same list on your phone tomorrow evening, or share it with your friends. And, yes, most of them will let you list a bunch of your favorite songs, then ask for them to be played in random order if you prefer.
It’s worth noting that, while you can use the same playlist on all of your devices, if you change to a different service, you may not be able to take them with you, and you may not be able to share them with friends who subscribe to a different streaming service.
6. Curated Content
This is just a fancy way of saying that they select music for you. This may include being able to choose the equivalent of radio stations that play music chosen by a human DJ, listening to music chosen for you by intelligent software based on what you’ve played before and how well you liked it, and sharing playlists submitted by other listeners.
You may be surprised at how well some of the automatic systems are able to pick music you actually like; they’ll remember the songs you liked, pick more songs like them next time, and remember not to play the songs you didn’t like. It’s sort of like having a personalized DJ who only plays songs you like.
7. Deep Content
This is a fancy way of saying that, when you play a song or album, they look up or offer to look up other interesting stuff that goes with it. This could be anything from a list of other music by the same band, to interesting notes about how the album was made, to a list of their up-and-coming concert appearances, or maybe even an option to buy those tickets at a discount.
Some services, like Roon, offer an amazing amount of deep content, while others offer very little, and this particular feature may or may not be important to you.
In the next edition of this series we’ll talk about some of the options available for listening to all of this great music. Check out the rest of our high-end wireless and Bluetooth home audio website for more information like this, back issues of the newsletter, and lots of reviews and details about individual products you can use to bring more music into your life.
Here are some great informational music streaming videos to get you started: