There are a number of different styles of streaming services. Some, like Jango, are totally free with limited customization and feature “stations” that are directed toward a particular artist, genre or mood (e.g. “Rock BBQ”). Others like Spotify have a free tier with limits (limited skips, ads, etc) and a subscription model which removes most or all of the limitations.
Now, remember, these services provide a digital stream and the quality of the sound can vary greatly depending on a number of factors. Two that affect the sound a lot are “bitrate” and “lossiness” (see https://go.ttot.link/BitRate for more detail). There’s a lot of technical discussion I could go into but suffice it to say, in general, the higher the bitrate, the better the sound quality and “lossless” is better than “lossy”. Many services provide streams that should be as good as CDs (aka “CD-quality sound”) but some provide much higher quality (e.g. Qobuz, Tidal, some Amazon Music tracks and some Apple Music tracks). Is there a discernible difference? It’s subjective and depends on your hearing and the equipment you use to listen. Qobuz and Tidal charge more for higher quality streams. Over the years I have subscribed to most of the streaming platforms. Currently, I subscribe to Spotify and Youtube Music, the latter the result of an early subscription to Google Play Music which was discontinued and my subscription was grandfathered into subscriptions to both Youtube Premium and Youtube Music.
A subscription to a good streaming music service is a good way to build up your music collection. But be aware that you don’t OWN any of the music! When your subscription ends, for the most part, your collection disappears, so, if you decide to build a music collection with a subscription service, consider it to be a long-term commitment. That said, there IS a subscription service that lets you copy playlists between services and I subscribe to that, too, (Soundiiz – https://go.ttot.link/Soundiiz) which is currently $36/year. With it, I sync my Spotify and Youtube Music playlists. It’s not perfect – it misidentifies some tracks and there are tracks that one service has that another doesn’t, but it’s pretty good., And it supports all the major services as well as any minor ones.
What if you want to OWN the music? There are many places where you can buy vinyl and there’s nothing like a physical record. But they require care and, well, it’s difficult to play your vinyl in your car. I prefer to purchase digital versions and generally buy the highest quality (i.e. lossless high bitrate) but there are many options for buying regular, CD-quality digital music. Amazon and Apple are two such places. This format is known as MP3 because that’s the format in which the digital music is provided (see https://go.ttot.link/MP3 for more detail).
Sure, I’ve bought quite a few MP3s. Is it worth it to pay extra for higher quality? Again, as I said above, it’s subjective. I’m very selective when it comes to buying high-quality music because it can often be much more expensive than a lower-quality format (for instance, Heart’s album “Dreamboat Annie” costs around $20 in the highest quality format versus about $12 on vinyl and MP3). And I tend to listen to them with higher quality equipment – yes, I believe I can tell the difference.
When I buy high quality, I buy FLAC (see https://go.ttot.link/FLAC for more info and a comparison with MP3). It’s a lossless, high bitrate format and the music is often taken from the original master recordings. I believe I can hear things that I’ve not heard from other formats, including vinyl, and I attribute it to the source (original master tracks)…if I listen to an equivalent MP3 on the same equipment, those things are missing (the song “Cars Hiss By My Window” from The Doors album “L A Woman” and the song “Parachute Woman” by the Rolling Stones on their album “Beggars Banquet” come to mind). I buy from HDTracks.com and ProStudioMasters.com and have several high-quality FLAC albums.
What should you do? You have to decide for yourself what you want. If you want to own the music and enjoy a high-quality listening experience, I recommend buying ONE FLAC track and comparing it against an equivalent MP3. Get one you really enjoy and are very familiar with. Otherwise, try out several free services and also use the free trials the paid services offer. As I said, I subscribe to Spotify and Youtube Music and I am quite happy with them, especially since I also have a subscription to Soundiiz. Those services and the few internet radio streams keep me quite satisfied, musically.
Oh, I almost forgot! What do you do if you hear some music and you don’t know or can’t recall the title or artist? I use Shazam and it’s available on both Apple and Android. A big plus in my opinion is that it will add identified tracks to a Spotify playlist called My Shazam Tracks if you have a paid Spotify subscription. There are other music identification services but I find Shazam to be the most reliable and accurate. I have a LOT of tracks in My Shazam Tracks playlist because I use it so often. Hear a tune in a movie or TV show that sounds interesting? Fire up Shazam!
Next week I’ll talk about headphones, headsets, and earbuds. Wired and wireless. On ear, over ear, in ear, open ear – these are all terms I’ll address to arm you with the terms you can use to navigate that market. And, on the heels of this column, I’ll talk about sound quality – what good is a high-quality stream/purchase if your headphones can’t reproduce it?
That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.
Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.