Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A tidal wave of streaming services

It's no secret that physical media is on the endangered species list for the serious collector. I don't mean that there aren't plenty of releases to tempt one into parting with a portion of one's paycheck, but it's difficult to find information about new issues and reissues. If you narrow that down to new reissues that aren't retreads of well known chestnuts of recorded history, it's even more difficult. If one leans toward desiring the best audio quality available, there's the question of high resolution audio and the various available formats (SACD or digital downloads and now BluRay audio). To date, there is not terribly much for those interested in "historical" classical recordings in "hi-rez". The situation is very much better for the historical Jazz collector, with many high quality SACD, downloads (from HDTracks among others) and newly mastered LPs to acquire. The debate as to hi-rez audio's true qualitative difference is raging on at quite a pitch these days. When this survey appeared, many were adamant that no difference could be heard at all, and to hell with all of that audiophile stuff. Of course, the variables involved are immense, from audio equipment to one's hearing and cognizance of what audio quality is, and perhaps a bit of patience as well. Recently Neil Young's Pono player was introduced and lambasted by many "critics" who have no idea (or could care less) what a DAC is. When it comes to streaming music services one must accept an even lower standard of quality, generally that of an mp3 file, give or take this or that improved compression scheme. Apple Music recently entered the fray, and reportedly they settled for a lower bitrate than Spotify or Google Play Music (256kbps). I tried Apple Music, and aside from the further restrictions that Apple forces one to accept (if you MANUALLY manage music on an IOS device, you can't even use the Apple music cloud to sync one's virtual library of selections!), I have found the quality pretty abysmal. Spotify's free tier of service is limited to 160kbps (subscribers get 320kbps).

Obviously, if one is already conscious of audio quality, and is hoping to bump up to hi-rez from CD quality, these mp3 quality services are not going to stand up to scrutiny. So, I thought I would try Tidal's premium service, which is double the price of their competitors if you want their "HIFI" quality (which is in 1411kbps Flac compression format) at $20 per month. Is it worth it? If you are using it primarily for car stereo use, or on a phone or tablet with a pair of standard issue earphones or earbuds, I would say no. However, add a good quality pair of headphones, or laptop/desktop computer with a DAC and now we're talking! Routing my laptop through my Apogee Duet, acting as a DAC, whether through my home system or my Oppo PM-3 headphones, the improvement was obvious when comparing the same tracks between Tidal HIFI and Google Play Music. I also compared Tidal tracks to various CDs that I own, and I must say there was no qualitative difference that I could tell.

Tidal's library is pretty deep, and there is much to keep one occupied searching for listening fodder. Ah, but here's the rub...their search system is, as I'm sad to say is true of ALL of these services, absolutely lousy for classical recordings!! When will we ever get a proper differentiation between "artist" and "composer"? It's a hopeless muddle between these warring factions, and all I can say is, happy hunting and searching! I'm not sure who to blame here, because the tags supplied with streaming titles seems to be set by the original record company, judging from the consistent repeated mistakes that crop up across all the services. Here's an example:

Yep, to compound (or perhaps obfuscate) this set's origins (it's a clone of the "History" label 10cd set which pilfers the fine transfer work of Mark Obert-Thorn from various previous issues), we have here Eugene Ormandy's doppelganger, Mr. Normandy! This mistake is repeated for every streaming service, and even appears on Youtube. Sure enough, this does NOT show up if one searches for "Ormandy"!

Perhaps Gerhard Hüsch would have taken this mis-spelling as a compliment? In any case, this title will be missing in action if a correctly spelled search is entered.

Whether one searches for Vaclav Talich or Václav Talich this wonderful series will still be missed:

You must search for "Talich Special Edition" in order to find them. There are many other Supraphon goodies where the ONLY artist tagged is the Czech Philharmonic, so a conductor search will not yield all of the results. It also took me quite a while to find a treasure trove of Archiphon titles, included nearly thirty by Otto Klemperer, many of which were never issued on CD by Archiphon, including this wonderful 1955 Concertgebouw concert which includes perhaps OK's best Mahler 4th Symphony. The whole series may be browsed by searching for "Klemperer Rarities".

This brings up another issue, which is the growing number of titles issued ONLY as downloadable or streaming releases. Archiphon is one label doing this, and Suprarphon is another. I'm going to make Supraphon the subject of another post, because there's a wonderful (and inexpensive) way to buy Flac downloads of Supraphon titles, but it involves using their Czech language site. Since it's nearly impossible to find most of the many treasures hidden in the streaming services, I recommend spending some time at Supraphon Online....the Flac downloads are cheaper that the mp3 versions from iTunes!

To sum up: I DO think it's worth the outlay for Tidal despite the searching horrors. The quality is finally such that it's a toss up between pulling the cd off the shelf or streaming, and eventually you'll find a huge number available titles from EMI, Archiphon, Preiser, Universal among other stables. Just hit the "favorite" button and you'll be able to find the fruits of your labors next time! The IOS and Android apps are pretty good, and one may download in full quality for offline listening. Unlike Spotify, once you remove a title from your mobile offline area, it IS actually deleted. Spotify doesn't seem to believe that you really want to remove an offline title, and it sits there taking up space unless you delete the whole app and re-install it.

One final minefield that the "historical" collector has to deal with with all streaming services is the large number of terrible quality needle-drop "transfers" of titles derived from EU sources, taking advantage of the 50 year limit on copyright. Often these have pretty original artwork, but terrible sonics. One plus on Tidal is that after the track list they (usually) identify the company supplying the album. As discouraging as this is, it beats putting out the money and ending up with a CD of this material!

Happy listening!


  1. Thanks for the detailed report, Neal.

  2. Ah, the perils of leaving the typing of information about classical music to people who may not be all that familiar with classical music.

    I love "Eugene Normandy". (I can imagine somebody on the phone: "Can you say that name again? You. Gene. Normandy. OK. Got it.")

    1. Next will be "you got that record of George Szell's mother?". "You mean Maazel"? (ba-dum-dum-CHING.....)

  3. Some late comments...
    Many thanks for this report.
    IMO tagging systems have always been pop music-oriented, but regardless, I have never been able to determine the difference between "artist" and "peforming artist", for example. There are "composer" fields available, but then some audio equipment, such as my Cambridge Audio Strem Magic, don't recognize these tags.
    As to streaming quality - it really depends a lot on the compression algorithm. More, I think, than on the bit rate itself. Some streams, such as the Concertgebouw's live recording stream sound really very, very good (listening on my regular audio equipment through the Stream Magic) - maybe not CD quality, but at least as good as a decent FM station. Others are terrible, even though the bit rate is the same.

  4. ...and many thanks for the heads up on Supraphon online shop. They seem to have evolved a lot since I last visited...