decades of fun

Better Late Than Never: Hi-Res Music Streaming Comes to Amazon

Mark this moment – September 2019 – I just read a mainstream tech article about lossless and hi-resolution music streaming that didn’t claim lower quality is better for consumers! It didn’t use the term snake oil or contain snark against people who can hear quality differences It didn’t push pseudo-science claiming no one hears differences.

It didn’t confuse hardware, software, and rendering quality.

Amazing. Finally. Hopefully this era of ignorance re: digital audio will fade away.

This is dither. It covers up the jaggies when after downsampling digital audio. This is the first stage of loss. Almost all loss is needless given our bandwidth in 2019.

Amazon Music has decided to compete with Tidal (previously the only lossless streamer in the US) by offering new services Music HD and Music HD Ultra at a monthly price.

Music HD streams you CD-quality 16/44 lossless. Not great, but better than any lossy format out there.

Music HD Ultra is going to stream 24-bit master quality music, legally! Sadly their catalog is still small. But this could be really interesting if there’s some key 24 bit releases available and people can hear for themselves.

Maybe a big name like Amazon will improve the overall health of the 24 bit music market. New releases and re-issues are still slow. I hold out hope that this move will increase the incentive to re-issue more 24-bit back catalogs.

If you haven’t yet, you have to hear 24-bit digital played through a decent rig! I still buy and download 24-bit FLAC’s from HDTracks for my amazing PonoPlayer.

Hear it the way it’s meant to be heard. Too bad PonoPlayer can’t stream.

Prices aren’t horrible – if you are an Amazon Prime member, HD costs $14 and HD Ultra costs $19/month. If not a Prime member the prices are $15/$20. This is cheaper than Tidal, which starts at $20/month for CD quality.

They even include a 90-day trial period. I’m in. I have to test.

It will be interesting to see how this interacts with Amazon’s entire distribution ecosystem. I can think of 11 devices in my family that stream Amazon:

  • 3 mobile phones – iOS & Android
  • 3 PC’s – Windows 10 Pro & Mac OSX
  • 2 Roku streaming boxes
  • 1 Playstation 4 game console
  • 2 iPads
Time to get some levels done…

Each of these devices represents it’s own signal chain, and each will render the same file streaming from Amazon differently. This is because each playback device has it’s own specs for the critical parts:

  • quality of DAC chip to convert the digital file to analog audio
  • quality of post-DAC filters to render the audio musically
  • quality of amplification of analog signal to speakers
  • possible conversion back to digital to get to wireless speakers
  • possible software manipulation – EQ, boosting, splitting
  • general software controls and stability

Short of it – each playback device is it’s own platform — BEFORE you get to the speakers. Most people wrongly focus on speakers and ignore all the critical pieces of the signal chain before the speakers.

All devices have their limitations. Even the PonoPlayer, perhaps the most perfect digital audio device ever (so far), has limits. There’s almost no top when trying to build a perfect machine. But for actual consumer products, they have to make compromises.

For instance, I think streaming 24-bit to a modern phone is pointless, since it’s DAC and amp is going to degrade the signal hugely. You area burning up battery and increasing data usage for little quality gain. I’m even skeptical they can stream CD-quality well for the same reasons. They have been designed for multitasking with lossy files, the opposite of quality rendering.

Then if it doesn’t have a headphone jack — another round of conversion and loss. So most phones aren’t the platform for 24 bit audio streaming.

Same goes for the iPads. Same class of hardware inside.

jack of all trades

On the PC front, macs and windows 10 machines should render 16-bit CD quality audio well enough. PC’s are from the CD era, it’s a format they can deal with.

Achieving 24-bit quality on your PC will probably depend on your audio subsystem – do you have an audio interface or card? Is it spec’ed as a gaming or media system? How old is it? It just depends on your rig.

I have a new business-class Lenovo that probably won’t render great 24-bit, but a 10-year old mac with a 24 bit audio interface should render very nicely. Depends on the specs of the signal chain.

My Roku’s are old ones so I’m not expecting much in the audio department.

The Playstation 4 will be an interesting test. I know it’s got proper audio and DAC chips but I’ve never tested it’s music playback abilities. Streaming 24 -bit music should be an eye-opener on this system.

I’ll start my 90 day free trial and post some early reviews as comments to this post.

Update: Here’s a few more articles about this new Hi-res streaming. Most of them are actually fair and stick to facts and not bad theories about music listening.

It’s amazing how the power of the Amazon brand makes people react differently. Every other company that has approached the digital music sound quality issue in the last decade has been attacked and ridiculed by clueless consumers, internet influencers, and tech journalists.

Notice how some of them include Spotify’s supposed response. Apple has been quiet:

Amazon Music HD is a New Tier of Streaming Audio Quality, Priced at $13/Month – Droid Life

Amazon Music HD Launches, Spotify Says ‘Users Don’t Care’ – Hypebot

Amazon Next To Try High-Fidelity Audio – International Business Times

Amazon Music rolls out a lossless streaming tier that Spotify and Apple can’t match – The Verge

Here’s what you need to know about lossless Amazon Music Unlimited HD – AppleInsider

And if you are wondering about Neil Young’s involvement in all of this? I am too. I haven’t ready anything officially connecting him or the remnants of his Pono company to this decision, but he did put out a statement:

“Earth will be changed forever when Amazon introduces high quality streaming to the masses. This will be the biggest thing to happen in music since the introduction of digital audio 40 years ago.”

Neil Young, 09/17/19

I think he supports it πŸ™‚ Lord knows he’s been fighting for it for nearly half his life.

OMG it’s really happening! Everyone else gets mocked for this infographic. Let’s see how Amazon does.

Update II: My First Review is Posted! Get more details and get my opinion on Amazon Music HD: