What is streaming music?
18 music zones installed as part of a recent project featuring Sonos devices.
All the cool people are streaming these days. When you stream music, you don’t download a file to your computer or other device so you can access it again later, but the media content is delivered to you by a provider, or from your own music library. For this post, I’ll focus on streaming music from a service, such as Pandora or Wolfgang’s Vault.
Instead of purchasing a single song or album, content is delivered through music services. Some are free while others are subscription-based. While many services provide free content, a paid subscription adds features and sometimes higher quality formats, and you won’t have to interrupt your music with advertising.
Streaming music is just one aspect of the digital music universe. Some people love digital music formats such as streaming and downloads. Others predict the end of civilization as we know it. Like most things, there are pros and cons to streaming music.
Bandwidth On The Run
Generally speaking almost all streaming music files from services such as Pandora, Spotify, and internet radio suffer in quality due to the format itself. It is all about bandwidth, so just remember there’s a trade-off in music quality for convenience. When I want to listen to music, as opposed to having music playing in the background, I much prefer CDs, including SACDs, played from on a quality disc player.
Will streaming music quality continue to improve with time? Sure – and improvements are already happening, with some services offering better quality streams (more bits of data means less missing music). It is important not to confuse bits of data with Kibbles & Bits, or naughty bits for you Monty Python fans out there. So, a bit is simply the packets of data (bits) that are processed over a specific amount of time. In audio, this is usually kilobits per second (kbps).
MOG for instance, offers 320 kbps. iTunes allows people to “upgrade” to 256 kpbs AAC. A standard CD is 1,411 kbps. Thus, there is a significant difference in the format quality. Almost everyday, a potential client will tell me “Well, I’m not an audiophile…” This statement is usually made to justify purchasing one thing over another. That’s fine, but you definitely DO NOT need to be an audiophile to appreciate the difference between something that sounds good and something else that is much better.
Why Should You Care A Bit About Bits?
Not having enough bits means missing music, and that bites. Remember when you thought the $12.00 bottle of wine tasted good, and then you tried the $25.00 bottle, and it was sooo much better? At first, you were probably fine with the less expensive wine. Although it lacked complexity, it was OK.
Streaming music for the masses is not unlike like an inexpensive bottle of wine. The music is missing parts, so we don’t experience all of the sounds as intended by the performers and the recording engineers.
In terms of how the music actually sounds to our ears, the equipment you are listening to is obviously another big link in the chain. So, when people say “well, I’m not an audiophile or anything…” it is a lot like assuming you cannot tell the difference between a good bottle of wine and a mediocre one, or a good cup of coffee versus a lousy, bitter cup of mud.
True, if you are listening on inexpensive headphones or speakers you may not notice the difference in compression. If you are using decent equipment – even just moderately priced components and speakers – then music with low bitrate streams can sound somewhat lifeless, but still OK.
For instance, when we install distributed home audio systems, using a quality amplifier and a digital to analog converter will improve the listening experience quite a bit. (Ha! “a bit” – get it?)
The Good News
So now that you understand a little about compression due to lower amounts of data being sent (in downloaded music, a file is compressed so not to take up as much storage space on your hard drive) and how your source material can impact your listening experience, let’s consider the many positives of streaming your music!
- Convenience – as long as you have access to the internet you can access music through one or more of the many services out there. Thank you Mr. Gore.
- You can easily find a variety of music, and set up your own playlists or “stations” based upon your input through your smartphone, tablet, or computer.
- You don’t need to take up a lot of space with a large CD collection (hey, that’s me!)
- Variety – You might hear an artist that you were unfamiliar with that you really enjoy. If you like it, then you might want to get the CD so you can hear what the artist really wanted it to sound like?!
- No waxy build-up or added preservatives!
- From a music industry and performer stand-point, more musicians may be able to get exposure, and lower expenses make independent music releases less burdensome.
In a future blog post, I’ll look at some of the different streaming services in more detail.
Streaming music (and video for that matter) is here to stay. My advice is to make use of it when convenience outweighs the potential negatives, but try to make time to enjoy your music in higher quality formats, such as CD, SACD, or high quality downloads, which could be an entire article to itself!
If you want to learn more about enjoying music in your home, including systems such as Sonos, Nuvo, Autonomic Mirage System, Kaleidescape and others, and you live in the greater Boston area, including Wellesley, Weston, Wayland, Dover, Sherborn, Needham, Natick, Brookline, Boston, Norfolk, Medfield, and Newton areas, please call Elite Media Solutions at (781) 237-2929. Later in 2013, many manufacturers will be rolling out new products with enhanced music streaming capabilities.
By Steve McDonough of Elite Media Solutions. Elite Media Solutions provides music, video, home theater, automated shades and control systems to clients in and around Boston. Please visit us online at EliteMediaSolutions.com, or visit our showroom in Wellesley, MA.