A decade or so ago, had someone, most anyone really, told me ten years hence streaming would reach the level of popularity it has today, especially with audiophiles, I would have thought them deranged. This was a time when companies like Pandoraand Spotify were in their infancy and while becoming growing concerns, both were still desperately searching for new subscribers. Audiophiles completely eschewed such online outlets for one simple reason, low quality sonics.
Enter Tidal and CD quality streaming. As this option became viable, as the catalog of available music became more widespread, as equipment availability became more market worthy and more affordable, audiophiles turned in practically record numbers to Internet based music and away from a physical format. And why not, CD quality streamed music sounded wonderful on many high performance systems and compared to low resolution Mp3 counterparts, shoot, it practically sounded otherworldly. Now there are multiple online outlets with CD quality or better music.
Streaming certainly offers some unique advantages as compared to physical media. Most obviously is the sheer volume of music – more, in fact, than one could ever hope to hear in five lifetimes. When Tidal started gaining in popularity, they advertised millions of available songs. Today, they boast having about fifty million songs. Fine enough but that also presupposes that one actually knows what they want to hear. What happens if, like I find myself frequently experiencing, the sheer volume of available music on Tidal sometimes gets in the way of finding something enjoyable? I typically spend a lot of time on Tidal trying out a variety of music only to find it doesn’t suit me. That, of course, is time I could have spent listening to music I actually prefer. Compared to my server, I know all the music already so separating what I like from what I do not is quite simple.
Apart from the above, streaming is a wonderful outlet for new music. For that purpose, streaming has no equal. No record store anywhere on Earth has such a huge variety of music that can be demo’d. There’s the rub, however. I use streaming to find new music I can purchase and copy to my server. I don’t, however, use streaming for serious listening. Many might say my method negates streaming’s cost effectiveness and the monthly fee I pay is completely wasted. I suppose that could be true given one’s viewpoint. In my case, I feel the monthly fee charged by Tidal is not obstructively expensive so I pay little attention to its cost. Besides, if it helps me avoid purchasing an unknown artist’s work based on the supposition of actually liking what I hear, only to find it undesirable, it only takes purchasing about two unwanted CD’s per month for the cost of streaming to be justified. Either way, I simply am not concerned about the cost of a Tidal subscription.
Streaming is a format not without its challenges, however. One of those would be the taxation that may be imposed on a Wi-Fi network. If the Wi-Fi network has a relatively low transfer rate, say 10Mbps or less, and there are a lot of Wi-Fi enabled products in the home, streaming music, particularly CD quality or better, may be problematic. Fortunately, these networks have not only improved in the last five or so years, the transfer speed and cost to the consumer has increased and decreased, respectively. One thing is for sure, if streaming is going to be the predominate method for audiophile music, a robust Wi-Fil network is certainly recommended. No one wants music interrupted because the Wi-Fi enabled refrigerator is sending messages to pick up milk to another family member at the grocery store.
For many audiophiles, especially anyone with a combination home theater / two channel system in the great room, for instance, streaming is a great choice, if not the predominate choice. For anyone with a large system complete with separate components in a segregated part of the home, streaming may be used as an adjunct to other sources.
Of course there is the elephant in the room and that would be sonics. This is generally a wide and varied discussion. And like virtually any aspect of high performance audio, there is pervasive disagreement.
On my system, I have four sources – music server, turntable, CD transport, and streaming device. If I rank the sonic excellence on my system from 1 to 10, with 10 the best, my server would be a 10, turntable probably an 8, and the CD player and streaming device probably about a 5 or maybe 6. On MY system. Why? Simple. Quality and cost of components.
My streaming device is a Bluesound Node 2. Fine enough for getting the minimum job done but a device that retails for $499.00 could never hope to compete with the disproportionate capability, and cost, of my server / DAC. Add to that, I connect the Node 2 using original cables and power cords supplied by the manufacturer. Could I step up the game by investing in a better streaming set up? Absolutely. Because my DAC is not MQA capable, that format is not delivered at its highest fidelity. All these factors affect the quality of streamed music on my system. I choose instead to not pursue such changes partly because of the additional cost, but also because of my skepticism in the sonic excellence of streamed vs. my server. And that includes MQA.
Streaming is not going away anytime soon. It will almost certainly continue to gain in popularity, improve sonically, and expand upon a widening variety of music. I would say the cost factor could potentially and dramatically change. That remains to be seen. For sure, streaming will continue to bring endless music, sometimes stunningly reproduced, sometimes not, into audiophile’s homes. So streaming, friend or foe? Or maybe that cantankerous uncle only seen on holidays? No matter how it is viewed, streaming is a very viable choice, one well beyond derision, that audiophiles can at last use and enjoy.