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High-Quality Music Streaming: Is It Worth It?

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  June 21st, 2019  By Danika Miller

The majority of people are unlikely to detect the improvement that high-quality music streaming promises. There are too many factors that will influence the listening experience (from technology to internet speed) for the extra cost to be worth it for most listeners. But for audiophiles who truly crave a richer listening experience, and who have the high-end equipment to support that experience, it’s a pretty simple way to stream studio-quality tunes.

What Does High-Resolution Audio Streaming Mean?

High-quality music streaming appeals to a certain desire: When the new Jonas Brothers album is out and you want to jam like you’re right there in the studio with them — every falsetto note and soft bass beat thrumming loud and clear. Today’s music streaming services have to compress the songs to such a small digital file, that some of that original quality of the master recording is lost. However, some streaming services tout a more premium experience with “higher quality” audio streaming, for a higher monthly subscription price.

When a musician creates a record, they’re using instruments and technology that have to be compressed into data files to be read on things like a record player or CD. That compression is typically much higher quality than when that same song is compressed to an MP3 file for online streaming. Theoretically, a higher quality compression will produce the full range of sounds that you’d hear in the recording studio — basically a sharper sound with more depth.

“High-quality” audio from a streaming service aims to deliver an audio file that maintains better quality than you’d even find on a CD. This preservation of the original mastering is also called “lossless” audio.

Can You Hear the Difference?

Despite the significantly smaller audio data in streamed music, most people aren’t likely to hear a difference. There are too many factors that can influence the quality of the music you’re playing — headphone and speaker quality being two of the most obvious components. Jay-Z, a co-owner of the music streaming service Tidal, has admitted that if you have a $10 set of headphones, you shouldn’t bother with the “lossless” quality subscription. Your internet connection could influence the quality of the music, too. And frankly, your own hearing ability could dictate what nuances you pick up in a song as every pair of human ears are unique.

CNBC conducted an experiment to determine if people could tell the difference between regular streaming, and high-quality streaming. They concluded that most of the time, people couldn’t tell the difference between the two. In CNBC’s test, people could determine the higher quality audio about one-third of the time (which was the same number that listeners would have gotten from randomly guessing). You can test your own ability to pick up on the differences with NPR.

In the best circumstances and with some impressive equipment, a trained ear could probably pick up the subtle additions that a higher resolution audio file maintains. But the average person listening through average headphones or speakers probably won’t.

Is It Worth the Upgrade?

For most people, probably not. Streaming higher quality music takes up more of your data allotment — just like streaming movies in HD uses more data than streaming movies in SD. If you listen to a lot of music, that could eat up a large chunk of your monthly data for a difference that you’re unlikely to notice. And if your internet connection isn’t strong enough, the music may cut out or default to the lower quality stream anyway.

Audiophiles and those equipped with high-tech audio tools may delight in premium music subscriptions, but we suggest taking advantage of a free trial first. If there’s an album you’re particular in love with, you can also buy a physical or downloadable copy and enjoy its higher quality audio.

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