All I Have to Do is Stream – Streaming Music Basics

What is streaming music? 

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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. 

 

 

Sonos Music System – Part One

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The Sonos line. Frequently we use a zone player (pictured on left) in conjunction with in-ceiling or in-wall speakers.

The Sonos music system is a versatile way to enjoy music, and it is probably the product that people ask about the most right now.  Sonos definitely had a jump on other manufacturers in this growing segment  so it will be interesting to see what other products will be rolling out to compete.   I’ll add some additional posts on Sonos, but here is Part One, based upon a typical conversation with a potential client:

Client:  Do you sell that Sonos music stuff?

Me: Why yes, all the time.  Elite Media Solutions was recently designated as a Sonos Gold Dealer, and we have a nifty plaque from Sonos back at the showroom.  Would you like to see it, or have your picture taken with me and the award?

Client: Oh, wow! That would make me very happy.

Me: (Thinking – well, of course it would). So, what have you heard about Sonos?

Client: Well, it’s completely wireless, right?  So you could install some wireless speakers in my ceiling? That’s awesome!  I also want music in lots of different rooms. 

Me: It isn’t quite that simple.  For one thing, we have to be able to wire to your speakers.  So, in your living room we need to add speakers like we did in your kitchen and family room a few years back. Also, if you wanted to add some external Sonos players, such as the Play 5 or Play 3, they need electricity and then there is another piece that connects into your router.  There are different components we use depending what you want to be able to do. How is your wireless network here at the house?

Client:  Well, it is a little spotty actually (Note client quickly moves on to another topic…) Also, I would like to be able to listen to music outside. Can I do that with Sonos?

Me:  Absolutely that is something we could plan for you; but if your network is not solid or there are interference issues then you may not be able to enjoy your Sonos music system very well, but we can help with that.  

Client: Oh.  I’m sad now.   You made me feel sad Steve.  They didn’t mention any of this at (fill in the blank with a large retail chain store).

Me: Sometimes those stores just want to get a sale and move on to the next person.  I love Sonos, I use it as home, especially when entertaining, and we can help you get your network squared away if there are any issues, which is going to be well worth it for you and your family.  Depending on the level of performance that you want, there are also ways we can install Sonos to really improve the sound quality of your music system and make up for some of the compression in streaming music.

Client:  The only time my kids talk to me is when they can’t connect their iPhones or laptops to the network as a matter of fact!    I think you are right.  I do have depression.

Me: Not depression, compression. It has to do with digital music formatting. It can get a little involved, so we can chat more about that later if you like.  We can show you and your family how to easily use Sonos.  You can expose your kids to some different types of music and various artists.  Almost all the world’s music will be available to you by pressing a couple of buttons. Then when your kids hear a song on Glee later that you already played the original version of, your kids will think you are super-cool.   You can control the system easily from your computer, smartphone, or tablet. (Except for Nooks, Sonos does not support the Nook device as it is a different version of the Android Operating System).

Client: (Laughing at my witty humor no doubt) You are so funny Steve…and smart…and good looking.  Do you work out?

Me: Thanks. I haven’t exercised on purpose since the 90s and exist mainly on pizza, chicken wings, and adult beverages. I think the glare from that big window is impacting your vision. Did you know we also sell and install automated shades?   Do you have any pizza?

Client:  Oh. That’s nice Steve.  Would you like some yogurt or hummus? Or some Kale?  I can make you a delicious Kale smoothie.

Me:  Umm, no thanks.  Is it actually possible to use “kale” and “delicious” in the same sentence?   Anyway, let’s talk more about your system upgrades and the new addition to the house.

Client: I would like to learn more about the shades, and I’m excited about really enjoying music at home again. Sounds like it will be fun and that we will all enjoy it!  Here is a blank check for my Sonos music system, and an improved reliable network to make sure everything works as designed. (Client jumping up and down with unbridled excitement and anticipation).

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In Part Two, you’ll learn more about the Sonos music system and some typical deployments, as well as some tips for getting the most out of your Sonos or other streaming music system.

To experience the Sonos music system for yourself, please call Elite Media Solutions of Wellesley, Massachusetts at (781) 237-2929.  

Sonos music system dealer and installation pros in the Wellesley, Weston, Newton, Brookline, Boston, Cambridge, Wayland, Sudbury, Concord, Carlisle, Bedford, Medfield, Norfolk, and Lexington areas.