Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Why I Don’t Stream My Music: A Somewhat Specific Set of Qualifications

Long-time readers of Wired magazine will recognize (with some sentimentality) their “wired/tired/expired” lists at the beginning of each issue. Happily, they ressurected the format for their year-end list. But — judging by the number of “expired” things I like and use — it’s a bittersweet reunion. I am perpetually the person who jumps on trends and ideas as they hit their close. Take their classification of music services, for example:

Wired Streaming Music

Tired Cloud-based Storage

Expired iTunes

My beloved iTunes collection is “expired”? And it’s out-hipped by some upstart streaming services like Spotify and Rdio? Geddafuggouttahere.

I’ve mentioned previously that I don’t see these services as replacements for a local library. I still think that’s true; however, I, admittedly, have somewhat specific requirements. Spotify and Rdio probably work really well for people who see music as a transient background interest. But I’m difficult and picky, and music is extremely important to me.

My moderate-sized library is largely encoded (via iTunes LAME) as V0 MP3s. It’s a high-quality variable bitrate format, which usually sounds as good as 320 kbps MP3 files, but with a siginificant reduction in the file size, especially important when spread across the entire library. I feel it’s the optimal balance between file size and quality, especially since there isn’t an iPhone or iPod which holds over 300 GB of music. A few important albums are encoded as Apple lossless files as well, and music from the iTunes Store is obviously in a 256 kbps AAC format.

My music is sent through a Bang & Olufsen Beomaster 2400 amplifier, to a set of bookshelf speakers. It’s not the simplest setup in the world, nor is it the highest quality one, but it makes a huge difference in the quality of the sound that reaches my ear.

Contrast that to Rdio, for example, which encodes their library largely as MP3s with a bitrate of 192 kbps.1 That’s not bad, but it’s noticeably worse on songs with punchier basslines or jangly trebles. Cymbal crashes, in particular, betray the heavy compression artifacts of that format.

Spotify chooses the inferior2 Ogg Vorbis format to stream their files. By default, those files use a 160 kbps bitrate, but premium users can opt to use a 320 kbps stream instead. The latter is a good option to have, and sounds very good. But 160 kbps is simply too low. Compare, for example, the bass line and high-hat hits on Parliament’s “Night of the Thumpasorus People” between Spotify and iTunes. The latter is noticeably better-defined than the former. You can run a similar comparison yourself with Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” or Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back”.

There are other issues besides audio quality to retain a local library of music, which may or may not apply to you. Spotify isn’t even available in Canada (let’s keep my account there between you, me, and my friends list on the service). Rdio is available in my country, but vast swathes of their library are only available in short, low-quality3 previews, including albums from artists like Led Zeppelin and Nine Inch Nails.

There are some albums that won’t ever be available at all on these services, too. Phish, John Mayer, and Nine Inch Nails fans will miss their live concert bootlegs if they rely on a streaming service. And rare early pressings, such as the Robert Ludwig-mastered version of “Led Zeppelin II”, will only be found on enthusiast and collector websites unless one is willing to shell out nearly a hundred dollars for a copy.

Finally, relying on a streaming service puts you at the whim of your internet connection, their server status, and their licensing deals. If you own your library, you can add whatever you want to it, back it up, and use it anywhere.

Rdio and Spotify have their place, but it isn’t a primary one. It supplements a local library in a meaningful way. When I hear about a new artist or album, I’ll check it out on either service first. But I won’t gamble with leaving my future enjoyment of that album in their hands.

  1. They don’t admit to this bitrate publically, but some snooping in Web Inspector shows that the site streams a file called full-192.mp3 which, yes, has a bitrate of 192 kbps. ↩︎

  2. Despite the clamoring of many in the open source community, MP3 files simply sound better at higher bitrates. While Vorbis has native metadata support and multichannel audio (and sounds broadly equivalent to MP3s at lower bitrates), the fact of the matter is that high bitrate MP3 files are superior to high bitrate Vorbis files in terms of audio quality, file size, and player compatibility. ↩︎

  3. A piddling 96 kbps MP3 file. ↩︎