Streaming Music: Good or Bad?

The services of Tidal, Spotify and Deezer has been widely analyzed, compared and criticized by many. Audiophiles specifically, seems not to take it seriously but the reality is that  millions of persons stream their favorite music everyday through one of these services (there’re more, but these 3 are the most used). The majority of the subscribers are young people who engage in their listening experience using their i phones with “el cheapo” headphones and seems to be perfectly happy with it.

As a professional Mastering engineer myself, recording since 1978, I have enjoyed the flexibility, availability, ease of use and abundance of tracks available from these servers. Surprisingly, sometimes the access of thousands of songs at the tips of my finger tips supersede the audio quality while the music transcends the service limitations, I mean; do you listen to music or do you use music to keep analyzing your expensive gear all the time? On my personal case I do both, but music goes first.

If you have a great audio system and want to stream high-quality music, Tidal is one of your best choices, besides Deezer. Spotify still mp3, but when paying for their premium service the streaming quality goes up to 320/kb, but still inferior to the lossless streaming service of the above two, or at least that is what you expect, no? “What are the differences?” asked a friend of mine and I replied: Supposedly a better stereo spread, crisper at the top end (listen to the hi-hats), less ‘muddy’ in general. Subtle differences and nothing like night and day as some people argue but yes, noticeable if you know the track well and if the original recording is of high quality. This last, folks, is the most important one. If the original recording was a disaster, no matter if you use Tidal, Spotify or Mickey Mouse streaming service, the results would not be good anyway. Even Hi Rez files you download from high resolution digital servers are not impressive when the original material sounded awful in the first place.

Now, let’s cut the “Hi End” stuff and get into “reality mode” so that we can analyze these services objectively. I know that as soon as you read the word “lossless” FLAC, your Hi End instinct would kick in and just immediately you’ll say “this should sound better”…sure! But how much, really? If the 320/kb streaming of Spotify Premium sounds very good,when I A/B test on familiar songs I can hear the difference but I am not sure how well I could do on a scientifically blind test on unfamiliar music. This difference is not detectable even if you have an above average stereo or decent headphones. The better your audio system, more pronounced the difference is. So, unless you are the obsessed audiophile type who spend onerous money on your audio gears, I don’t see a compelling reason to use Tidal’s lossless streaming for double the cost, but if you have a good system, lossless is definitely worth it. By the way, this test were already conducted by a well known magazine and for each 3 attempts, only one out of three were chosen correctly, the same rate as if they were guessing! In the real world, how many musicians and audio engineers do you see boasting about the sonic superiority of FLAC audio? “Basically none, because they know that the difference between FLAC and 320/kbps MP3 is utterly irrelevant to 99.98% of what you hear in a recording. This is what happens when you use these services to make compilations on a tape. Once you record it on a tape, then is even more difficult to distinguish the difference. We have done this test many times and when the recording is good, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two, that is; if you are only listening to the music! Some tricks make it easy to distinguish almost immediately, but that is something I would keep under my sleeve…sorry!

The fact is that Tidal sounds louder than any of the other services and it’s widely understood in the audio community that an increase in loudness of even just 1 dB can result in a higher perceived quality, all else being the same. It’s advisable, then, to take with a huge grain of salt their claims of audio quality. Bitrate doesn’t mean much when the underlying source has been bastardized. You have to listen it yourself. One of the biggest things with Spotify is the developer community. The add-ins, plugins, etc which turn it from an ordinary web stream player into your own personalized music vault. However I don’t think Tidal lossless is worth twice the Spotify premium subscription cost. That’s also up to you. One thing I must say is that Tidal is a decent service, with a lot to like about it. I’m fond of their editorial curation and the audio quality, but the apps aren’t as mature, nor as usable as Spotify’s, besides the catalog seems smaller, (admittedly infrequent) buffering is annoying, and to get Hi Fi, you’re splashing out an extra $10.00 per month. Tidal’s main differentiation is also, ultimately, a single feature. If Spotify switched on a FLAC option tomorrow, Tidal would be nowhere. That’s for sure!

I love to use these services to make my own compilations on tape. I don’t care if it has the ultimate sound quality as long as I can find the music I want and for the music style I like, Spotify Premium offers the best selection. Where in the world could you access thousands of tracks in a matter of minutes and build your own playlist from just one source? If you take into consideration that in order to make a mix open reel tape of 95 minutes, you’ll need several CD’s or Records, for just $9.99 a month Spotify is hard to beat.

I was asked by a fellow member of a forum I also write, “Why are you wasting precious tape recording from Sporify and not play direct from it?” Well, to begin with, my first reply was: “Are you paying for the tape?” I do this because once you transfer these digital files to a very good tape, using an stupendous deck like my Crown CX-822, the quality is transformed and the sound is immediately better. Again, as long as the original recording is of good quality, transferring it to tape makes it even better, or let just say that I like it much more! I just love the Analog quality combined with the digital flexibility. Also, I only use Spotify in my personal studio to make my own playlist on tape and then listen to it in other systems and decks around my house. That’s the main reason. Try it yourself. It’s fun, easy to use and cheap!

Long Live Analog!

Carlitos Guzman - Mono & Stereo Senior Contributing Writer