Ever since the hi-fi war began with the first tape recorder in the 1930s, the sound quality of music has only improved. This is due to ever better recording and playback equipment as well as better knowledge of its use. When the CDs came out in the 1980s, many people thought the sound was perfect.
Then came the MP3 format and ruined it all. The format was developed in the 1990s and was originally intended for use as a soundtrack on compressed video, but it also came to stand on its own two feet as a music format. It could be compressed down to a tenth of the space required by CD quality and still sound okay. And it was needed back then due to slow internet and pigsty storage space.
So when the music streaming service Spotify became the start of a revolution in 2009, it was not surprising with rather heavily compressed sound. Initially about 96 kbit/s for free subscribers and 256 kbit/s for paying. Fine enough, as broadband in Norway at that time was defined as internet speeds above 640 kbit/s, while the rest of the EU believed that the limit went at anything above 256 kbit/s.
Call for better sound
But that changed quickly, and already in 2012, I had my first discussion about whether or not it was time to get proper sound quality from the music streaming services. It was with my colleague Peter Gotschalk, where I myself thought it was idiotic that one could not even buy downloaded music with uncompressed sound quality.
But Peter just snorted: “If Geir got his way, then it’s not good to know how much it would cost to subscribe to services like Spotify, WiMP or Music Unlimited. More than I would like to pay at least.” Fast forward to today and the mass market has given Peter the right.
However, there is no shortage of offers. The French music service Qobuz has been offering CD-quality streaming to a small niche market since 2008, with the option to purchase high-resolution music for download.
In recent years, it has also been possible to stream high-resolution sound up to 192 kHz. This is done in the FLAC format, which compresses data to fill less, but without losing data when unpacked again at the other end. This year, the service opened the borders to also include the Nordic region. To great applause from hi-fi enthusiasts, including us at LB Tech Reviews.
The Norwegian music service WiMP gave us the opportunity to stream in true CD quality already in 2013. The service later changed its name to Tidal, and in 2017 they launched music in “studio quality”, ie better than CD.
The audio format that Tidal uses is MQA, which was developed under the direction of Bob Stuart, the founder of the high-end manufacturer Meridian. It is a proprietary music format that is not without controversy. Because while the debate about high-resolution sound is about whether one can hear the difference (it is!), the debate about MQA is about whether the format can be called high-resolution at all.
What is put in by data is not the same as what comes out again, and technically it can therefore not be called lossless. The MQA itself claims that it can rightly be called loss-free because what has been removed cannot be heard anyway.
But MQA is very secretive about how the format works, and when a musician documented on YouTube what happened to his music files after converting to MQA during upload to Tidal, the company did not respond again by taking the debate as ordinary people would. No, they removed his music files from Tidal instead.
It did not go unnoticed, and Neil Young himself is one of the artists who in protest has removed almost his entire catalog from the service.
As an alternative to Tidal and Qobuz, in 2015 Deezer began offering lossless music quality to Sonos owners in the form of the Deezer Elite service. It was renamed the Deezer HiFi in 2017 and is now offered for all products with built-in Chromecast. We emphasize that this is about CD quality and not higher resolutions.
As an alternative to Tidal and Qobuz, in 2015 Deezer began offering lossless music quality for Sonos owners, with the Deezer Elite service. This was renamed Deezer HiFi in 2017 and offered for all products with built-in Chromecast. We emphasize that this is CD quality, and not higher resolutions.
Do consumers care?
The debate about streaming, CD quality and high-definition music has probably gone over the heads of the masses anyway. Because whether hi-fi enthusiasts are split between services like Tidal and Qobuz, the numbers speak their clear language about what most people listen to.
Spotify was able to report 158 million paying subscribers in the first quarter of this year, while Apple Music’s latest official figure (June 2019) was 60 million, which is expected to have grown to just over 100 million today. YouTube Music, which also offers compressed audio, had 30 million paying subscribers per year. October 2020.
By comparison, Deezer had seven million paying subscribers in 2019, and Tidal had three million users in March 2016 (we do not have newer figures). Qobuz had 200,000 (!) In 2019. In other words, no consumers seem to care.
Now comes the rest!
Or do they? Amazon Music might tell a different story. The service, which offers music in both CD quality and higher, had 55 million paying users in January 2020. We do not know how many of them were HD subscriptions. But today, you no longer have to pay extra for Amazon’s HD subscription.
This means that Amazon now has the market’s cheapest music streaming subscription with HD audio, for approx. $10 a month. But unfortunately the service is not available on all markets.
Now the big services are finally following! And would they do it if they did not think it was important?
Spotify has announced that they will launch a hi-fi subscription with lossless CD quality later this year. No mention of high definition, but true CD quality (16 bit/44.1 kHz) is a big step up from the compressed sound they give us now (256 kbit/s Ogg-Vorbis).
Apple has also confirmed that they are on their way with high definition music. In early June, the Apple Music library will be updated with lossless audio in ALAC (Apple Lossless) format. In addition, there is support for music with Dolby Atmos, which provides 3D sound with headphones from either Apple or Beats. This is done automatically for the subscribers, at no extra cost.
Apple will also offer a more expensive Hi-Resolution Lossless subscription, which provides high-resolution audio up to 24 bit/192 kHz.
The future looks bright
In other words, it looks brighter for high quality music in the near future. Finally, we can say that the quality is improving after a long break with compressed sound. Then we can hopefully end the discussion about sound quality for now and instead choose the music service that has the user interface and the content we like best.
The question is what will happen to the smaller niche services when the giants are likely to attract their customers. Let us hope that diversity prevails!