Demand better
Hi-Fi Choice|February 2021
Streaming is now an integral part of how we access music, but who is the current pick of the pack? Ed Selley gets online to find out
Ed Selley

LIKE A NUMBER of modern innovations, the familiarity of streaming masks just how extraordinary a concept it really is. For less than the price of a CD album a month (let alone, a vinyl release) you can have access to a significant chunk of the world’s recorded music. This content updates weekly with brand new releases and can be consumed on a medley of different devices. This was remarkable enough when the content being offered was compressed. Now, we are given the same breathtaking choice but with a significant proportion of it available in better-than-CD quality. Almost nothing else has had such a dramatic effect on our listening habits, be it making it easier to find new music to buy in a conventional way or completely replacing your existing physical media.

Never had it so good

The choice of service is as broad as ever and, for the second time, this is a test where all six services deliver lossless audio as a minimum. It is important to mention that most of them can also provide compressed content where convenience rather than quality is the order of the day, so you won’t be sacrificing any practicality either. Since we last ran this test, prices have come down too as providers apply the pressure on one another to win over subscribers, making some of these services incredible value for money.

Beyond sound quality, some other important features need to be judged here. Do you want the largest library or will a more specialized service work better for you? Will you be accessing your music on a computer or are you looking for integration with an existing hi-fi manufacturer? Do you simply want to stream content or is the option to buy appealing too? All of these shape the final decision on which of the digital wunderkinder is the one to beat.

Amazon

Music HD from £13/month

Amazon’s lossless service falls just short of greatness by some irritatingly small margins

DETAILS

PROVIDER Amazon

ORIGIN USA

TYPE Desktop/mobile app streaming service

FEATURES

  • Library claims: 50-million+ tracks

  • Web browser and mobile apps available

  • Format: 16/44.1 to 24/96 FLAC

WEBSITE amazon.co.uk

Amazon’s initial streaming offerings concentrated firmly on compressed audio and convenience, and these continue to be available should you wish. The lossless and hi-res service launched unexpectedly in 2019 and when we tested it shortly afterwards we felt it had huge potential. None of this innate potential has been eroded in the meantime either. Amazon claims a track library in the 50-million range (and your reminder here and for all services that follow: this does include plenty of repetition and does not reflect 50-million unique tracks) and these are available as a minimum in 16/44.1 lossless. A significant proportion is also available in resolutions up to 24/192.

The good news doesn’t end there either. Amazon knows its way around apps and both the iOS and Android versions are very good indeed. Search functions work well and the layout and blue background all look smart without impairing the basic usability of the app itself. All this was in place when we last looked at it, though. The issues that arise with using the service are, frustratingly, much the same as they were at the beginning.

This means there is still very limited integration with third-party manufacturers, which in turn means you’ll likely be using the desktop app. As a browsing experience, this is fi ne, but the USB audio management is crude. There is no way to bypass the sample rate management of the PC, meaning bit-perfect playback can only be secured by manually changing the computer settings to match the fi le. Unless you diligently do this each time, the quality of playback will be affected. The price remains unchanged, which means that rivals are rather closer than they were before too.

Sound Quality

If you are willing to change the sample rate manually every time, Amazon has a signifi cant quotient of hi-res and sounds competitive with any other service here. The Brahms piece is available in 24/192 and is very good. The placement of the orchestral sections is easy to discern and the tonal realism is consistently believable. The strings have a rich and almost analogue quality that’s very appealing and there is a perceivable sense of the space that the musicians perform in. The impressive dynamic range that this recording possesses is faithfully reproduced. The utterly minimalist recording of Adonaïs is available as 24/96 and Amazon maintains the same believable tonality and faithful recreation of the space it is performed in. Laura Holm is very much the centre of attention and she sounds both vivid and convincing.

With non-classical material, the performance still holds up well. The 24/44.1 Navvie sounds potent and rhythmically engaging, helped by some decent low-end heft from the drumming that complements the upper registers without dominating. The guitar work is clear and easy to follow and there is enough fine detail to be convincing. The 24/48 version of Hot Pan has some serious clout to the bass. Dieter Meier’s vocals are clear and easy to follow and the timing is snappy and immediate. The catch with all of this is that simply setting the laptop to one of these four sample rates and playing the other three tracks immediately undoes a fair amount of the good work that Amazon is capable of. The resampling the laptop performs (and not a cheap or underpowered laptop either) is clearly audible on all files played.

SPEAK UP

Amazon is realistically less motivated to add third-party integration than most other services here because it has its own ecosystem of devices that it would like you to use. If you upgrade to Music HD it will automatically be sent to Echo and Dot speakers and – although it’s not the easiest thing to confirm – it is likely that when you use Music HD this way, some of the jugglings with sample rates will be avoided. As this is the largest user group for the whole Amazon Music platform, it makes sense that this is being prioritised.

Perhaps as a result of being designed with voice assistant speakers in mind, it’s worth noting the voice search and prompt function is actually pretty good. Like most systems of this type, it is still of more use to locating single tracks or the most popular output of an artist than it is a specific album but it works relatively well nonetheless.

Deezer

HiFi £15/month

Deezer strikes a happy balance between convenience and quality for good results across the board

DETAILS

PROVIDER Deezer

ORIGIN France

TYPE Desktop/mobile app streaming service

FEATURES

  • Library claims: 52-million+ tracks

  • Web browser and mobile apps available

  • Format: 16/44.1

WEBSITE deezer.com/en

Now one of the elder statesmen of on-demand streaming, Deezer has had a lossless tier for some years, running alongside a cheaper compressed-only option. Unlike all the other services here, it’s exclusively lossless with no hi-res option. All content is available in 16/44.1 FLAC and the library of a quoted 52-million tracks seems to have very few holes in it. Where it also differs from the other contenders is its curated content. As well as playlists, the Flow system examines your listening habits and compiles material it thinks you might like that can be accessed as discrete playlists or an endless stream. Once it has some data to go on, it’s surprisingly effective at finding appealing new material you haven’t heard before.

Like others here, the desktop and web browser apps do not have dedicated USB management, but ironically the single sample rate it works at makes this less of an issue. Setting your computer to 16/44.1 will ensure bit-perfect playback for everything. The interface is clear and easy to use, with the search functions all performing well. There’s nothing radical here, but it all works in a reassuringly logical way.

Against this, Deezer has made some useful improvements since we last looked at it too. Third-party integration with other devices is among the best in the group, making it easy to use within a system. The mobile apps are slick and also easy to operate and are now able to access lossless content and spacial audio – which they couldn’t do before (they can still access lossy content too in order to save on data). Finally, the lossless tier has had £5 a month shaved off the overall cost, helping Deezer to look decent value in the current climate.

Sound Quality

Even with the notional disadvantage of no hi-res tier, with the sample rate of the computer set and locked, Deezer puts in a strong performance. The Academic Festival Overture feels very slightly less dynamic than it does in the hi-res iterations; the sheer gap between the quiet passages and the peaks is smaller and the space that the Halle Orchestra is in feels a little more congested, but even on the review equipment the differences are not huge. The tonality is very good too. Strings are free from harshness and the varying tones of the wind instruments are easy to discern. More than the individual details, the performance as a whole is something that is easy to enjoy.

Adonaïs is even closer to the hi-res content with only another slight diminishing in the perceivable space around the performance, but Laura Holm still sounds entirely believable. This is as much an argument for the quality of the hi-res material, but here the differences are very hard to discern. The more boisterous Navvie feels a little more constrained in the bass extension it offers, but it still hammers along in a lively and engaging way. It delivers Hot Pan with the bombast and swagger it needs to work and although the same slight constraint to the stereo image is present, it’s a fractional difference. As mentioned at a few points already, the differences between any of the services here are not huge, but there is a definite and consistent feeling of musicality to how Deezer presents material and the simple fact that everything is the same sample rate makes its lack of USB audio management less of an issue than the other services that also do without it.

SURROUND SOUND

Instead of heading down the rabbit hole of high resolution, Deezer has spent the last 12 months polishing its existing offering. As noted, the apps have been improved with lossless support and gapless playback added (in fairness to Deezer, the apps were never especially gappy before) and the interface has been tidied up. This doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but it does make Deezer great to use.

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