The online services
With the advent of streaming audio, the world of online music services has been given a pendulum. Think Spotify, Deezer, Qobuz, Tidal, Soundcloud… et cetera. Or of course Netflix when we talk about movies and series. Now there used to be a lot of differences in supply. Spotify had by far the largest library. Along with maybe Deezer. However, the differences are not so great nowadays. Of course, services in the niche will have a smaller library – think Primephonic – but most of the ‘regular’ music services have a similar offering. Only they present it differently. Tidal focuses more on pop. Qobuz on Jazz and French.
However, there are big differences in the support. If you choose Sonos, you don’t really have to worry: Sonos supports almost everything. But certainly not the rest of the industry. Roon, for example, doesn’t get any further than Tidal and Qobuz. And, of course, the music on your NAS or external drive. Bluesound has a fairly broad support, but also doesn’t support everything. So do good research into which service suits you and see which streamers support it.
Lossless and Lossy
Just a quick word about compression. Because know that online services do not stream ‘uncompressed’. The music you ‘import’ from the internet, is ‘zipped’ to save bandwidth. That ‘zipping’ can be done in two ways: with and without loss of quality. Think of it as a raw picture that you make smaller by making it a jpg. Colour depth and resolution are lost. The raw picture can also be saved as uncompressed tiff. Then it gets a little smaller (not much, but still), but you don’t lose quality. With music, you can turn an uncompressed wav into either an mp3 (with loss) or a flac (without loss).
There are services – Tidal, Qobuz and Deezer Elite – that can stream flac. That will cost you a little more money a month, but it sounds better. On some systems it will almost not be audible, but on a good hi-fi system it is audible in terms of fluidity, space and refinement, especially in the high frequency range.
AirPlay and Google Cast
There are some workarounds to stream services that are not officially supported. Know, however, that it does involve losses. Partly due to the fact that it has to be transcoded. This means that it is ‘converted’ so that the receiving device can do a little more.
If you have a house full of Apple devices, Airplay is a way to stream everything. You can send what you play on your phone to the player via Airplay. Think of a Hegel all-in-one. It picks up the stream and plays. Does it sound as good as native? No, Definitely not. But it works.
If you have a household with Google equipment, then Google Cast is an option. Most Google Chromecasts or hubs simply accept a Cast stream. So you can also send streams over the phone. Again, it’s audible, but it works. Just like Airplay. The advantage of Google Cast is that slightly higher bitrates are supported.
Speaking of bitrates: Qobuz and Tidal can stream in high-res. Qobuz does that native with 24 bit streams up to 192 KHz. These are serious streams in terms of bandwidth. Tidal didn’t feel like going in that direction (high bandwith) and that’s why they joined forces with MQA. MQA is also high-res but in a smart way. It’s a kind of digital origami that uses MQA.
It is important to note that MQA is not supported by all players and dacs. The nice thing is that MQA is always backwards compatible, which means that you can play the file, but then you get the normal CD quality; no high-res.