Spotify / Tidal / Qobuz / Google Play / Apple Music
As much as I might question the benefits of lossless streaming here, who am I kidding. I am the kind of person who thinks that keeping everything lossless (flac or wav ideally) is the way to go. It just makes sense to me at some level to keep everything uncompressed for as long as possible down the chain. As such, I also want to do a quick and dirty comparison between audio from Spotify Premium (my current streaming service) and the new account that sells itself largely on being one of the few lossless streaming services out there. The accompanying video on our YouTube channel looks at this in a bit more detail using the basic analysis tools within Adobe Audition.
- A French music streaming and downloading service founded in 2008.
- No free offering. Prices ranging from £9.99 to £19.99 in the UK with an annual contract on it’s Sublime service.
- Offers 16-bit 44.1KHz lossless streaming and 24-bit downloads & purchases.
- New investors at the end of 2015.
- Catalogue of over 30 million tracks.
Why Qobuz Isn’t For Me
It’s just looks a bit amateur. It’s like a starter project once you get into the main area and has a feel of a website from 2008. It sells itself on Hi-Res 24-bit streaming on the ‘Sublime’ package (what an awful and slightly pretentious choice of wording) which is only available on an annual subscription coming in at just over £18 per month (actually less than monthly 16-bit 44.1KHz package). I understand the whole 16-bit vs. 24-bit argument. The differences are technically clear however, the practicalities are different. How much content is available that was truly mastered in this format? How big is the 24-bit catalogue? No mention is made of that at signup. Maybe I listen to the wrong sort of music to really appreciate this.
The 24-bit offering is a bit misleading. Maybe I have misunderstood. This is a 24-bit streaming service but only if you buy the content from the catalogue (on top of the monthly cost) and you can then either download or stream this in 24-bit.
Then there’s the questionable financial status of the company. I don’t want to make any false statements on this so I will simply quote Wiki and say,
“At the end of 2015, after a period of financial uncertainty, Qobuz attracted a new investor which allowed the service to continue operating.”
So it only exists today because of last minute investment. Hmmm….that doesn’t inspire confidence in the viability of such a service. Perhaps it is too much of a niche service for me with its target market sat with the classical listeners where the content really needs greater dynamic range, people who can afford to spend £10,000 upwards on their equipment and can possibly appreciate this wonderful quality. Or possibly those who convince themselves that their old ears really can hear anything over 15KHz :-)…I know I probably can’t.
- Launched in mid-2015
- No free offering. Pricing is £9.99 or £14.99 for the family offering
- 3 month trial
- Offers over 30 million tracks (this seems to be a stock number for service now)
- Promotes other benefits such as iTunes Radio, Beats 1 and the Connect platform
Why Apple Music Isn’t For Me
iTunes is not something that has a place on any of my systems and Apple Music is not something I’ll look at much further. I don’t like iTunes and I try to avoid it. That’s just a personal choice. It’s a fine music library but it doesn’t work for me due to the limitations around moving files around and being locked to one system with CD conversions being done in a proprietary format. I use an iPhone because they are wonderful pieces of technology, software and design but that’s my limit with Apple at the moment. I just don’t like the rigid, locked in approach. Agree or disagree, I have tried it multiple times and have never enjoyed the experience.
Apple Music will probably slot itself very neatly into the world of either iPhone & Mac users today or even iTunes users from older iPod days and with the marketing prowess and power of Apple, it will undoubtedly become one of the biggest players in streaming music as we go through 2016 and 2017, if it isn’t already.
Google Play Music
- Launched in 2011 expanding to paid service in 2013
- 1 month free followed by £9.99 per month or £14.99 for the family offering
- Catalogue of 35 million songs (I wonder what the extra 5 million are on Google)
- Allows storage and streaming of your own music library (up to 50,000 songs)
Why Google Play Music Isn’t For Me
I am actually a huge fan of Google services. In fact, my initial draft of this post is being written in Google Docs and I use Google Drive, YouTube, Google Photos etc. as part of my daily online life. The problem with the Google Play music
The Two Selected Services
I currently use both of these side by side but in different ways. I’d prefer not to have to pay for two services and will eventually go back to one, but here’s a look at the pros and cons of both Spotify and Tidal.
- Launched in autumn 2008
- User base of over 75 million (20 million paid)
- Available natively on over 10 OS platforms
- Free service available with adverts, lower bitrate and shuffle play only options on mobile app.
- Priced at £9.99 for Premium service
- Both the desktop and mobile app are well designed, very mature, functional and extremely stable. Both receive regular development updates, bug fixes and enhancements.
- So many people use it meaning the community aspect is the best. Following the crowd isn’t always the way to go but it’s nice share playlists with friends and see what they’re listening too.
- Third party sites such as spotifynewmusic.com offer great insight into what is being added, newly released onto the service outside of what Spotify choose to push.
- The ability of the mobile applications to link to both each other and the desktop app is superb. It’s not completely free from problems but it gets better all the time and is a truly great example of mobile and desktop technology working together. I love this.
- Sound quality / bitrate on the Premium service is advertised as 320kbps which is as good as it gets in mp3. Is this enough? Have a look at our comparison of audio captured through Spotify vs. Tidal to get a bit more information.
- Desktop app allows syncing to your own music library if available.
- As the biggest music streaming service, Spotify suffers the most in the hands of the media and, if you believe those stories (I say that as I only base this on what I have read), I do start to question their morals. Bad press in 2015 around user usage data being harvested and shared without consent is one thing but the main bad press lies around their business model and how they pay the artists when music is streamed. Artists want to use the service so the world can hear their music but in turn this drives down download purchases and the amount received from Spotify streams can be as little as $0.0011USD (according to Wikipedia). To do some simple maths here, if a song were played 1 million times, this would only equate to $1,100 or £763 at current exchange rates! Even some of biggest songs on Spotify ever have only been streamed about 600 million times giving a total income of $644,600 or just under £0.5 million. Yes, that’s a lot of money but that is a long way the exception.
- All content on Spotify is compressed using the mp3 format. On a premium service, you get some tracks at 320kbps but don’t be fooled into believing that all tracks are at that bitrate. Many are still at 160kbps. Increased internet connection speeds mean better rates can easily work and lossless streaming is a real option.
- Limited music videos available on Spotify. Video services are being expanded but not a main feature.
This is where my other music streaming payment sits at the moment. It’s quite a kick each month at £19.99 but I don’t plan to cancel right now.
- Launched in Autumn 2014
- 35 million tracks and over 85,000 music videos
- Owned by multiple artists
- No free option. Priced at £9.99 (standard) or £19.99 for the lossless version
- Available on Windows, OS X, iOS and Android
- The number one advantage and key selling point for Tidal is lossless streaming. It’s a little confusing because it’s often sold as HI-FI streaming, sometimes FLAC streaming and sometimes 1411kbps streaming. FLAC is not 1411kbps as it’s lossless compression usually with a ratio of about 50-70% of the original which would be at 1411kbps (the bitrate of 44.1KHz wav files). Either way, what you listen to is audio with nothing thrown away. It has all the recorded nuances intact. This cannot be a bad thing…except when the privilege doubles the price of the service (see cons section).
- Contrary to Spotify, some of the music industry are proud of Tidal (some very much not, I must add). It has their interests in mind and theoretically offers a far better royalty payment than Spotify. There is some high profile (at the moment at least) investment in the service from artists which does give the service a certain amount of credibility.
- Despite the slightly dev style software, I really like the way the catalogue is presented on the desktop app. It’s clear and simple in a block gallery structure with main sections that make it easy to find new material but also simple to navigate. Since using Tidal, I have grown to like the desktop interface more than Spotify. It does what I need and doesn’t try to do anything more.
- Due to artist backing, Tidal is able to offer some exclusive content (such as sponsored concerts or track firsts) that other services cannot do. This is a really strong feature if you’re a big music fan but less so if you’re more of a casual listener.
- Music videos are not something I go for. I prefer to hear a song and have it create an image in my mind (or something like that). I do, however, like the way videos are offered on Tidal. They’re well separated from other content and use the same simple presentation. What I’ve started doing is watching a track once and if it grabs me, investigating the artist further and then only listening to the audio in future. It works for me.
- Both the desktop app but primarily the mobile app need work. They’re just not up there with Spotify by a long way. Basic fonts and a dated look and instability (at least on the iOS app which I tested). This is not a dealbreaker as this will improve over time on a project that is under active development. It’s just surprising given the background of the owners….then again, Jay-Z is one and I’m not sure he’s all about artistic talent.
- Price, price, price. It’s too expensive. It almost feels like it’s owned by rich people to charge ‘rich’ prices to promote their work to make them even richer while their marketing team sell it on a point which has questionable validity (lossless ‘hi-fi’ streaming) unless you’re using extremely high end equipment, reference headphones and have the ears of a 5 year old child. You could just opt for the 320kbps £9.99 service but then the only differentiator is videos and you loose a superb app (Spotify) and the great linked devices (Spotify again).
- They appear to use MPEG-TS delivery which is usually MPEG2 rather than H.264 (I’m not clear on this). This would probably explain why their videos are 8mbps at 1080p rather than a more normal 3-5mbps on YouTube or Vimeo for similar content. Either they’re delivering excellent quality H.264 or using a bandwidth intensive delivery via MPEG2 with no quality gains over H.264 (except lower CPU overhead on decoding).
At the moment, I’m going to continue with them both. I can see that I might go back to look more at Google Play in the future as it sits well with the other services I use. At the moment Tidal is a novelty for me. It’s nice to know that the audio is lossless. The problem is, I can’t tell. I can’t prove it and if you watch the video here, you’ll see (very unscientifically) that the differences are minimal. Equally, I do like the in-concert exclusives. It’s a nice touch. Overall Tidal is a sold music streaming service with lots to offer. Just think about that price. Consider making it £14.99 and I believe many more people would consider that switch. Just my two pence worth.
I don’t think Spotify is going anywhere at the moment. 320kbps mp3 is just fine for probably 95% of users and I’m sure Spotify will be perfectly happy with this percentage. It’s a household name which is more than can be said for most other music streaming services.