Music Streaming - your options in 2023
Music Streaming in 2023
In the digital age, music streaming has revolutionised the way we listen to and discover music. With numerous platforms available, it can be overwhelming to decide which one is best suited for your needs. Here, we’re aiming to shed some light on the differences between music streaming platforms. Roon vs native apps? What sets the services apart? Streaming only or local storage as well? We’ll also explore the importance of a high-performance streamer for optimal audio quality.
Roon vs Native Apps: The Battle of Music Streaming Platforms
Roon is a popular music management and streaming software app that offers a comprehensive and immersive music experience. It takes all of your locally stored music and makes it easy to browse, while also helping you to discover new music. Its powerful features include advanced metadata organisation, extensive music discovery options, and multi-room audio synchronisation. Roon gives you a unique browsing experience that let’s you learn more about an artist, that’s perhaps best described as the digital equivalent of holding the record sleeve in your hands as you listen to an artist.
Roon allows you to have complete control over your local music library and offers excellent integration with various devices. There is now a long list of playback devices that are ‘Roon ready’ and can be easily added throughout your home. The Roon app is used to control playback as well as browse music and runs on both desktop and mobile devices, making it easy to manage both your locally stored and streaming music.
On the downside, Roon comes at a higher price point, requires a dedicated server of reasonable power to run and currently only integrates with Tidal and Qobuz. Roon's interface and functionality can sometimes be overwhelming for new users, and there is a learning curve involved in getting the most out of the software. While it offers a wealth of features, navigating and customising the interface may take some time to master for new users. We’ve written a whole article on getting the most from Roon which you can read here. Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music provide a slightly more user-friendly interface and seamless integration with a wide range of devices. All streaming platforms now boast extensive music libraries and personalised playlists, so that's less of a factor in choosing a plaform than it has been in the past.
Audio quality does vary between services and is currently limited to lossy formats in some cases. Spotify is perhaps the lowest grade of the main players, but has announced plans to launch "Spotify Hi-Fi," which will offer higher-quality streaming options.
The apps for these services are provided free, but obviously have a subscription cost (Spotify does offer a free, ad supported plan) and they may lack the advanced features and customisation options of platforms like Roon.
Online Streaming vs Locally Stored Music Collections
One of the key considerations when adding music streaming to your system is whether to rely solely on online streaming, maintain a locally stored music collection or a mixture of the two. Online streaming offers the huge convenience of instant access to a vast library of songs, eliminating the need for physical storage. However, there are certain scenarios where locally stored music collections still hold relevance.
Firstly, rare recordings, live versions or niche genres may not be available on streaming services. If you have a penchant for such musical gems, maintaining a locally stored collection becomes essential. Some streaming services offer an option to upload your own tracks that are then made available across all of your devices. Apple Music is especially good at this and it’s also offered by Spotify. Tidal doesn’t yet officially support music upload. Roon allows for local storage, but then only integrates with the Tidal and Qobuz streaming services, so decide what’s important to you and choose wisely.
Additionally, audiophiles often appreciate the sonic benefits of high-resolution locally stored content over streaming, as in some cases it can offer better fidelity and more nuanced sound reproduction. Note that you’ll need a reasonably good equipment setup to take advantage of the extra detail in these files. It’s also worth noting that due to bandwidth limitations, anything using Bluetooth isn’t capable of transmitting high resolution audio.
Pros and Cons of Leading Streaming Services
When comparing popular streaming services like Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music and Qobuz, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Tidal, Apple Music and Qobuz cater well to audiophiles with their high-quality sound options of at least CD quality (1411kbps bitrate). Spotify is generally thought to be a fraction lower when it comes to sound quality, but still delivers a respectable 320kbps with promise of a higher quality ‘HiFi’ tier to come.
Apple Music has a couple of extra cards up its sleeve. Spatial Audio is Apple’s name for Dolby Atmos and is best thought of as surround sound similar to what you’d find at the movies, but used for music. It’s an exciting technology that promises a different way of enjoying music and works best in a multi speaker home theatre setup to immerse the listener in the music. Because Dolby Atmos is being used, the effect can also be used with headphones (or any other speaker arrangement), just to a lesser degree. We’ve got a more detailed overview of Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos here. Apple Music also offers a ’Sing’ function that does an excellent job of removing vocals from tracks. Slightly gimmicky perhaps, but it does work well and is an interesting offering.
Tidal and Spotify have what’s known as ‘Connect’ functionality, which allows seamless control across compatible devices. Start playing a track on your phone for example, and then switch it over to your music streamer which will take over playback while you use your phone as a remote control. With the Connect function, the connection is directly between the device playing the music and the server of the streaming service. This is in contrast to the AirPlay system offered by Apple, where music comes first to your phone or tablet, and is then sent to the player. Here, the connection is from the streaming service to your phone and then phone to player. Both have their benefits and drawbacks so it’s worth thinking carefully about your needs and then talk to us for advice if you require some further help. Currently, Spotify Connect boasts compatibility with the largest number of devices.
Qobuz, known for its excellent sound quality, currently lacks a "connect" app, making it less user-friendly compared to Tidal and Spotify. However, its extensive catalog of high-resolution music compensates for this drawback, attracting discerning listeners seeking the best audio experience. Also worth noting here is the recent launch of Apple Music Classical. This is a separate app for classical listeners that provides over five million tracks of music in lossless quality. Importantly, Apple Music Classical also has customised search capabilities to handle the multiple movements and recordings of tracks, and also provides a custom interface to best present the genre.
The situation with Roon is slightly different with audio quality largely being determined by the files you send it. Its aim is to have no influence on the sound quality and deliver a bit-perfect stream to your audio devices. It supports all major audio formats at the highest resolution and if your gear can't handle a format, Roon transcodes content to play back at the best quality it supports.
With access to millions of tracks, all streaming services have the job of unearthing new music that they think you’ll like based on your library and listening habits. Music discovery is one of the biggest benefits of streaming music and shouldn’t be undersold. Spotify has enjoyed a reputation as having one of the better music discovery algorithms, although some would suggest it tends to slightly favour popular music in its recommendations. Apple Music, Tidal and Roon perhaps spread their net a little wider and introduce the odd track from left field and are therefore arguably better at new music discovery. However they all do a good job of finding new music, especially if you assist them with feedback on their suggestions. Qobuz is probably the least adept at offering new options and compounding this is the smaller music library it has to select from.
The Importance of a High-Performance Streamer
Regardless of the streaming platform you choose, the quality of your audio equipment plays a vital role in delivering an optimal listening experience.
High-performance streamers, such as LUMIN, are designed with precision to ensure superior audio output. These streamers prioritise critical items such as high-quality power supplies, well-designed circuitry, and top-notch components which all contribute to your listening enjoyment. Quality design and components seek to reduce electrical noise to an absolute minimum and allow for superior performance. This is clearly seen in the specifications of players, with sample rates of up to 192kHz in consumer level streamers, rising to 384 kHz for LUMIN units. Bit rate tells a similar story, with 16-24 being common for most streamers while LUMIN players extend this to 32 bit. What these numbers translate to is a more detailed and nuanced listening experience that will bring more depth and enjoyment to your music, likey revealing details in your favourite tracks that you’ve never heard before.
The LUMIN range offers plenty of choice depending on your needs. If you already have a good HiFi system that includes a DAC (Digital to Analogue converter) and just need to add a streaming option, then something like the the U2 streaming transport is a good option. If you’d like to include a high quality DAC then there are options like the D2 or T3 that will offer outstanding performance. If you have a locally stored collection then you have options like the L2 Music Library that can store up to 8TB of music. The advantage of LUMIN is that you can choose a system that does exactly what you need and be sure that each component is the best at what it does plus you’re not paying for features you don’t need. LUMIN streamers are also a great way to add multi-room music to your home. Setup is easy and the free LUMIN app makes it simple to send any music to the room of your choice.
All LUMIN models have Roon's streaming technology built in and have been certified by Roon Labs as being Roon ready, meaning they transparently discover and connect to Roon, with no network configuration and with bit-perfect delivery.
LUMIN streamers also provide built in access to most popular streaming services including TIDAL, Qobuz and Spotify. Apple Music isn't directly supported, but AirPlay is. No matter what your streaming source is, LUMIN streamers will make it easy to get set up quickly and start enjoying your music.
Another benefit worth mentioning is the ease of updates. The digital landscape is ever changing so as new formats arrive or features are added, LUMIN players can take instant advantage of them at the touch of a button, or automatically if you choose. This was recently demonstrated as LUMIN added support for the Plex music management service through a software update. Plex is a little like a simplified version of Roon but without the high cost. It lacks some of the music discovery abilities of Roon, but does integrate with Tidal.
While lower-cost streaming solutions like Sonos or Bluesound may provide a decent listening experience, investing in a high-performance streamer can take your music enjoyment to new heights. With todays streaming services, we now have a virtually unlimited source of music at our fingertips. It only makes sense to invest in a quality streamer that will fully exploit the detail in these recordings, bringing maximum enjoyment for years to come.