In the month of April, several different events captured the current state of recorded music. On April 6, Stockholm-based Spotify Technology SA went public, in an self-directed IPO that saw 10 million shares traded in 15 minutes. The stock opened on the NYSE at US$165.90; on April 20, it closed at US$158.45. As Fortune.com noted, that gives the music-streaming leader a higher market cap than CBS, Twitter, Sprint, Dish Network or Viacom.
Another telling event was the AXPONA (Audio Expo North America) audio show, held in Chicago on the April 13-15 weekend. According to coverage by The Absolute Sound, many exhibitors used TIDAL as their primary music source. File-based digital playback has been a staple at audio shows for the better part of a decade. But using Internet streaming for product demos is a new development.
April 21 was Record Store Day. At locations like Toronto's Sonic Boom Records, shoppers lined up around the block hoping to snag special releases by artists like Arcade Fire, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, The Sheepdogs, Taylor Swift and Neil Young (to name but a few).
According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), global revenue from streaming grew 41.1% in 2017. For the first time, streaming is the largest contributor to music-industry revenues.
On April 24, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) published its 2018 Global Music Report. After growing by 65.1% in 2016, global revenues from streaming rose another 41.1% in 2017. Streaming is now the largest contributor to global music-industry revenues, more than digital downloads or packaged media. At the end of 2017, there were 176 million users of paid subscription accounts worldwide, up 64 million from the previous year. In the U.S., paid subscription revenue grew by 59.6%.
Downloads and CD sales continue to decline, but vinyl sales are still growing. Globally, revenues from vinyl sales increased by 22.3% in 2018, and now account for 3.7% of worldwide music sales.
In a bizarre way, I think the popularity of vinyl and streaming are linked. Streaming can expose you to a huge range of music for a very modest outlay (or free, if you use an ad-supported service). But it doesn't satisfy music-lovers' innate desire to collect. LPs (and album covers) connect us with our favourite artists in a way that no other medium can match.
With 75 million paid subscribers and 170 million active users, Spotify is the leader in on-demand streaming. After a self-directed IPO in early April, the company has a market cap greater than CBS, Dish Network, Sprint, Twitter or Viacom.
And there's something comforting about having your favourite music on your shelf. A year ago, in an interview for WiFi HiFi, Toronto author David Sax (The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter) compared streaming to a "Vegas buffet. You don't really want to eat anything, you just want something sort of smaller. ... You'll find something, but it's stressful.
When you consider the huge amount of content offered by music-streaming services, it's easy to see Sax's point. With 75 million paying subscribers and 170 million active users, Spotify is the market leader. It has 35 million tracks available for on-demand streaming, and adds 20,000 tracks each day. The number-two player Apple Music, which had 40 million subscribers an 45 million tracks as of April 2018.
Google Play Music (shown at left is said to have 40 million songs. Amazon Prime Music has only two million songs, but it's free to Amazon Prime subscribers, whose numbers now surpass 100 million worldwide. That alone gives Amazon the potential to take on the Spotify and Apple. Like Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Prime Music a nice value-add for e-shopaholics. Listeners in some countries (but not Canada) who want more songs can opt for Amazon Music Unlimited, which costs US$8 per month for Prime members, and US$10 for non-members. Users who want to stream music for free can also opt for the ad-supported tiers of Spotify, Google and Deezer; but their playback options will be very restricted compared to a paid subscription.
There are many other on-demand services, all of which eat Spotify's and Apple's dust. TIDAL claims a catalogue of 48.5 million songs, and says it has three million users. Deezer is said to have 53 million tracks, 14 million active users and six million paid subscribers. Coming to North America later this year is the French service Qobuz, which has 40 million tracks.
If you drew a Venn diagram of the music available via on-demand streaming, the circles representing individual services would almost entirely overlap. A few years ago, exclusive content was an important competitive tool for streaming services. Now labels are reluctant to offer exclusives on new album releases. That said, content still is a differentiator. For example, artist-owned TIDAL offers some exclusive concerts and music videos. While it covers all genres, Qobuz appears stronger in classical, jazz and world music than its competitors.
Sax's observation hits on a key difference between streaming services: how easy do they make it to find the music you want to hear?
All of them have search tools, and all of them let you specify your favourite artists, albums, songs and playlists for easy recall later on. And some services offer ways of accessing local and streamed content from a single interface. Spotify will import playlists from other areas of your device, offering a way to integrate local and streamed libraries. Apple Music of course offers tight integration between your iTunes library and streamed content. As part of its subscription package, Google Play Music offers free cloud storage of up to 50,000 tracks, which you can then access anywhere.
A useful (and universal) feature is the ability to download music to your device, and listen to it offline. You can load up some a bunch of music via Wi-Fi, and then listen to it when you're out and about without using up mobile data. If you log out (or cancel your subscription), those downloads will be deleted from your device.
An even more important question: how do these services help you discover new music you might like? To that end, all these services provide playlists of new music. All of them let you choose playlists by genre, and by mood or activity as well.
Radio stations are another great feature. Apple, Amazon, Spotify, TIDAL and Qobuz all have stations that play music based on a genre of your choice, or music by your favourite artists. I particularly like a feature in Spotify's desktop app that lets you customize a station by entering the name of an artist or album. It does a great job of finding music related to your choice. I also like the way Apple Music recommends music based on my listening habits.
The user interface and discovery tools are two areas where personal preference plays a huge role. There's no substitute for signing up for a free trial, and trying different services for yourself.
Listeners can access all these services from dedicated apps running on an iOS or Android device, or on a PC or Mac. (Even Apple Music has Android support; and there's an iOS app for Google Play Music.) Some services also allow access from a Web browser. You can use any of these services for listening directly from a smartphone or PC, using headphones and Bluetooth speakers.
But they differ in their compatibility with network playback components. Just about every audio component that can connect to a home network has embedded client software for at least one streaming service; and most support several.
Sonos supports a huge range of streaming services, allowing music selection from within the Sonos app. Other multi-room platforms, such as DTS PlayFi, Bluesound and Denon HEOS, support a smaller (though still considerable) range of services. The same applies to AV components from brands like Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer and Yamaha. In all these cases, you can select music from a supported streaming service, and send it to a specific zone, from within the hardware manufacturer's app.
Launched in 2015, Apple Music is quickly catching up with Spotify. As of April, it had 40 million subscribers, and a catalogue of 45 million tracks.
There are some special cases. With Apple Music, you can stream from your playback device to any component that supports AirPlay. (You can also stream from other streaming services to AirPlay devices if you're playing from an app running on an iOS device.) With Spotify, you can control audio components that support Spotify Connect from within the Spotify app. Google Play Music can stream via Wi-Fi to a Google Chromecast dongle, or to any component with Chromecast Built-in. Of course, everyone can send music via Bluetooth.
TIDAL is the only streaming service supported by Roon Labs' music management software. Roon will integrate your local library with My Music on your TIDAL account, and control playback to a huge range of Roon-ready components. One thing Roon users are still waiting for is software decoding of high-res MQA streams from TIDAL. Roon has been promising MQA support for several months, but as of late April, had still not delivered.
Car playback is another issue. Android Auto allows control of many streaming apps on Android devices from the dashboard. Supported services include Amazon Prime Music, Spotify, and of course Google Play Music. Apple CarPlay does much the same for iPhone users. Streaming apps supported by CarPlay include Spotify, TIDAL, Amazon Prime Music, Deezer and of course Apple Music. Apple Music has a real advantage here, because users can select music by voice using Siri voice control - not just in the car with CarPlay, but at home with Apple's HomePod smart speaker.
For home playback, listeners can use one of Amazon's smart speakers (or a third-party speaker with support for Amazon's Alexa voice protocol) to control playback from Amazon Prime Music and Spotify. On the go, Amazon Prime subscribers can cue up music by voice from within the Amazon Mobile app for iOS and Android. Playback from Spotify and Google Play Music can also be controlled by voice from a Google Home smart speaker, or a third-party product that's compatible with Google Assistant.
It's impossible to construct an exhaustive list of all the permutations between streaming services and playback equipment. Suffice it to say that helping customers sort through these options is an area where AV retailers can add real value.
All streaming services use employ some form of lossy compression for their basic service. Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis; Apple Music and Tidal use AAC; Qobuz and Deezer use MP3. Most services let you adjust bitrate, so that you can find a suitable tradeoff between sound quality and data consumption.
TIDAL, Deezer and Qobuz also have HiFi tiers that deliver lossless CD-quality audio - for a price. The monthly fee for TIDAL's and Deezer's lossless HiFi tier is $20, twice as much as their premium compressed tiers. Qobuz will confirm pricing when it launches in North America, but currently the fee for its lossless HiFi tier is US$20 per month, compared to US$10 for its Premium tier, which employs MP3 compression at 320kbps.
With all three lossless services, you can specify resolution in their desktop apps, with separate setting for cellular and Wi-Fi connections. Using compressed audio for mobile listening will help you blowing through your data cap, and getting a surprise bill.
Most listeners will be satisfied with 256 or 320kbps compressed audio, especially for casual listening. But for sit-down listening at home through a good audio system (either speaker- or headphone-based), these lossless services provide an audibly superior experience.
The French streaming service Qobuz is preparing to launch in North America later this year. Qobuz claims to have the largest high-res catalog in the world, with two million tracks ranging in resolution from 24/44.1 to 24/192.
Listening to a wonderful new recording of Haydn Piano Trios by Trio Wanderer (Harmonia Mundi) from my MacBook Pro, Chord Mojo DAC/headphone amp and HiFiMAN Edition X V2 headphones, Spotify's 320kbps Ogg Vorbis stream and Apple's AAC stream sounded drier and more wiry than the lossless 16/44.1 stream from Qobuz. The sound from Spotify and Apple was definitely acceptable, but the lossless stream was audibly better.
TIDAL and Qobuz also have high-res options. TIDAL has about 11,000 MQA-encoded "Masters" albums, which are available to subscribers of its HiFi tier. Qobuz claims to have the largest high-res catalog in the world, with a claimed two million tracks, in resolution ranging from 24/44.1 to 24/192. Pricing may change when the service goes live in North America. Currently you have to subscribe to the Sublime tier to stream Qobuz's entire CD-resolution and high-res catalog. The cost is US$350 per year, so this is a very pricy option.
There will be a soft launch for the U.S. version of Qobuz at CEDIA Expo in September, followed by a full launch at Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October. Qobuz "will launch in Canada a month or two later," says Spokesperson David Solomon, "but as quickly as possible."
Through the Mojo DAC/amp and Edition X 'phones, Qobuz's 24/96 stream of those Haydn Trios sounded a little smoother than the lossless 16/44.1 stream, with greater space around the instruments. It wasn't night-and-day, but it was audible and worthwhile.
With Qobuz, you can play high-res audio on a PC or Mac running the service's desktop app, or on a smartphone or tablet running the mobile app.
Currently, TIDAL allows high-res playback from the desktop app, and on some dedicated components such as Bluesound products. The desktop app will perform the first "unfold" of the MQA-encoded stream, for resolution up to 24/96 even without an MQA-capable DAC. But for full decoding, you need an MQA-capable DAC. (For a fuller explanation of MQA, see my feature "Master Class" in the October 2017 issue of WiFi HiFi.)
On its HiFi/Masters tier, artist-owned TIDAL offers lossless CD-resolution streaming of its entire catalogue of 48.5 million tracks, as well as several thousand MQA-encoded high-resolution albums.
TIDAL's mobile apps do not support MQA, so currently there's no way to stream high-res on a portable device. That may be about to change. LG's V30 and G7 smartphones are MQA-capable, and TIDAL is reputed to be close to releasing an Android app with MQA support.
Last fall, Deezer announced that it planned to offer MQA-encoded high-res content, but those plans have yet to come to fruition.
I've been subscribing to TIDAL for a couple of years now, and have been using a demo Qobuz account since CES 2018. So I've had ample opportunity to compare their high-res offerings. Comparing TIDAL's MQA-encoded 24/96 stream and Qobuz's 24/96 FLAC stream of After Bach by the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau (Nonesuch), I found the Qobuz stream slightly more incisive and the TIDAL stream a little weightier. But the differences were very slight. Similarly, I found TIDAL's MQA stream of What Was Said by the Tord Gustavsen Trio (ECM) slightly more organic, but less incisive, than Qobuz's 24/96 FLAC stream. Forced to choose, I think I'd opt for TIDAL, but the differences were very, very slight.
However, Qobuz wins on other counts. I prefer its desktop and mobile apps to TIDAL's; they're cleaner and easier to navigate. A factor in TIDAL's favour is CarPlay support, allowing me to access the service from my dashboard. But Qobuz's metadata is superior. Especially with classical and jazz, TIDAL sometimes fragments album listings on artist searches, making it harder to find the music you want. I also like Qobuz's Press Awards listings of critically acclaimed new releases. Another great feature is the ability to read a digital version of CD liner notes in the desktop and mobile apps.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE
Later this year, when Qobuz goes live in North America and my demo account expires, I might switch from TIDAL. But that will depend largely on pricing. Twenty bucks a month is fine; $30 or more isn't. I'll miss TIDAL's CarPlay support, but Qobuz's vastly greater catalog of high-res music, more polished interface, and superior cataloguing more than compensate. Qobuz also has more of the music I love (especially classical), and its discovery tools are better suited to my preferred genres.
Other listeners will have different priorities. Heavy e-shoppers who want a free streaming service should give Amazon Prime Music a try. If your musical tastes are fairly mainstream, it may be all you need. People whose musical lives revolve around iTunes and Apple should check out Apple Music (if they haven't already).
If you have a large library of downloaded and ripped music, you may be swayed by Google Play's music locker feature, which lets you access your library anywhere you have an Internet connection.
I really like Spotify's discovery tools (especially the ability to create radio stations based on your favourite artists and music) and interface. Spotify's leading position in streaming is well justified.
No surprise then that streaming is quickly becoming most people's default source of music. It's certainly changed the way I discover and collect music. High-res downloads used to consume a good chunk of my disposable income. Now I'm just as happy to stream.
The evening before filing this story, when I was too knackered to continue writing, I just put on the headphones and played a few new high-res releases from Qobuz. It was glorious. This truly is a golden age for music lovers.