Best hi-res streaming services

  • 24 December 2021
  • 26 replies
  • 4807 views

Hi all,

  I’m currently setting up my Sonos system and would appreciate your views on the best streaming apps to use.

  My understanding is that if you want 24-bit streaming, the options are Amazon Music Unlimited Ultra HD and Qobuz. Other services like tidal offer lossless 16-bit (CD quality).

  Any suggestions as to what’s the best route, including whether I’ll even be able to tell the difference between 24-bit/16-bit lossless/standard streaming?

  Many thanks,

                      Justin


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26 replies

Userlevel 7

Both services offer a free trial. Try them both out and see which service you like better.

Whether or not you can tell the difference between hi-res or “standard” quality music is up to the individual. Some can hear the difference, some can’t. Some think hi-res music is a joke. Some love the fact that they are getting the highest quality audio.

If you plan on getting an Arc or Beam (Gen 2) and are interested in Dolby Atmos music, Amazon Music Unlimited is currently the best option.

In terms of peer reviewed studies you’ll not be able to find any proving that 16-bit is inferior to 24-bit distribution to consumers. There are good reasons why 24-bit is better during studio processing prior to generating the final 16-bit distribution. In some of the “hi-res” tracks a better sounding master is used and this copy might sound better than the common retail release.

It is standard practice for general retail releases to be highly compressed. It is well known that compression sells more copies because typical listening environments are very noisy and compression enhances the listening experience in noisy environments. These highly compressed tracks don’t sound good while listening through high quality equipment in a quiet room.

In some cases the “hi-res’ version is simply up sampled from a 16-bit copy. This is pure snake oil.

While not good enough to be passed as a “peer reviewed study” I can recall an album where I had British, Japanese, and US retail LP pressings, along with a premium LP and CD release generated from a high quality master tape that was not available to the other releases. Listening was done through a premium system, using a premium turntable. The differences were so stark that I had some difficulty proving to myself that all versions came from the same recording session.

Bottom line -- “best” is in the ear of the listener. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that you are a bad listener.

whether I’ll even be able to tell the difference between 24-bit/16-bit lossless/standard streaming?

 

You will find a lot of threads here by people that need to see the HD label to know that they are listening to Hi Res. That need should tell you something about the answer to your question.

For a lot more, see:

https://en.community.sonos.com/music-services-and-sources-228994/the-beginner-s-guide-to-hi-res-audio-6863305

Userlevel 7
Badge +22

I’d not pay for higher than CD quality because I can hear no differences in the sound.

I would pay extra for a stream (as Buzz mentioned) where the studio engineer hadn’t chopped off the bottom of the bass and over-boosted the rest, compressed the dynamic range and all the other evils needed to push mass-market music to folks with low quality systems or using ear-buds.

Going back to LP days, what the studio engineer does to the master has more audible impact than the equipment used to record, mix, or press the LP.

 

As an example, scroll down a bit to: The Sound Mastering (below the booklet section)

http://pinkfloydarchives.com/Discog/Japan/DSCD1/JADS1.htm#_[1986_%E2%80%93_The

[quote]Mastering: This release uses the very first EMI mastering of Dark Side of the Moon for compact disc. Both the EQ and levels have changed from the prior Sony mastering. Using Exact Audio Copy (EAC) software to read the peak levels for each track on the CD, the results are:

1985/1986 Toshiba-EMI mastering track peak levels: 87.8 / 94.7 / 100 / 97.2 / 100 / 99.1 / 100 / 96.1 / 100

This is a substantial change from the previous Sony pressings, which were:

1983/1985 Sony mastering track peak levels: 39.9 / 43.3 / 70.1 / 55.2 / 72.3 / 44.5 / 53.9 / 54.6 / 61.2

Pre-emphasis: The EMI mastering of the Dark Side of the Moon CD does not have pre-emphasis.

snip

So although the CD basically looks identical to the earlier pressings, there was a substantial change in the sound of the CD. And the only way to visually differentiate between the Sony pressings and the Toshiba-EMI pressings is to check the matrix information on the CD.[/quote]

Good read: http://www.itwriting.com/blog/91-the-loudness-wars-why-many-cds-sound-bad.html

 

 

Userlevel 7

whether I’ll even be able to tell the difference between 24-bit/16-bit lossless/standard streaming?

 

You will find a lot of threads here by people that need to see the HD label to know that they are listening to Hi Res. That need should tell you something about the answer to your question.

For a lot more, see:

https://en.community.sonos.com/music-services-and-sources-228994/the-beginner-s-guide-to-hi-res-audio-6863305

 

A lot of that discussion is the fact UHD won’t play when stereo pair is bonded with a Sub/gen2. It’s hard to tell the difference when the sound stage is completely different.

Also just because some people can’t tell the difference doesn’t that all people can’t tell the difference.

https://www.ecoustics.com/podcasts/mark-waldrep-interview-episode-8/

Many won’t have the patience to listen to the full podcast. However the strength of feeling against the marketing of ‘hi-res’ to innocent consumers is palpable. And this is from an industry expert who originally set up a recording label which provided hi-res content. 

TL;DR: 16/44 is perfectly sufficient for final delivery. No-one can tell the difference. (The interesting developments are in immersive audio.)

Userlevel 7

Agree Dolby Atmos and 360 Reality Audio appear more game changers to the industry than the difference between HD/UHD music playback.

Simple to hear the sound difference between immersive audio and the regular recording, especially when wearing a good pair of headphones.

 

Dark Side of the Moon MFSL trivia.

 

Also just because some people can’t tell the difference doesn’t that all people can’t tell the difference.

Here’s the thing - everyone can hear the difference between CD and HD audio, usually, but the important question to ask is whether this difference will survive a controlled listening blind test with just one variable left in the frame. And none that claim to hear the difference explain how they have first eliminated all the variables that will cause an audible difference to arise, that most listeners will hear. Admittedly these tests are not easy to set up at home, but people conversant with and in possession of the tech have set these up to substantiate what they say, and what they say should not be dismissed just because the test is hard to do at home.

In the case of Apple, even Apple say that their engineers can't pick between Apple lossless and lossy in a blind test - and yet, there are users that claim that differences can be heard here as well. In this instance it is almost certainly because Apple lossless streams play at a slightly louder level that Apple lossy. Eliminate that variable as Apple must have done in their labs, and the difference, as Apple itself says, ought to disappear.

Apple spatial audio is an altogether different beast. When I heard it on the Apple earphones that could play it, the difference was vast and did not need careful attention to be hit by it. Which isn't to say that I would prefer that style for my music listening, but that is just personal preference; there is no argument that via the surround or immersive effects, it sounds quite different.

I’ve done a few dozen anecdotal comparisons with people claiming no audiophile credentials, only curiosity and a desire to help me decide which technology was “best”. I used 120K MP3, 320K MP3, and 16bit FLAC files ripped from the same CD. I only asked that they rank the files. I did not suggest anything about the relative quality in advance other than they might use different technology. I identified the tracks only as ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’. I did not allow direct A/B comparison, there was a silent period between the trials because small, difficult to measure level differences, sway the jury’s conclusions.

One of these listening sessions involved a room full of middle age+ computer nerds using bookshelf speakers thrown on a conference table. They were somewhat annoyed that I did not preface the demo with any hints about what they should expect and asked that they not discuss any results until the demo was complete. 100% ranked 120 as least desirable and FLAC as their favorite.

I estimate that about 80% of what I classify as “street people” ranked the files in this order.

The few self declared audiophiles settled on this ranking only about 50% of the time and rejected my demo because my equipment was not high enough on their audiophile ranking system. I had to bite my tongue. In their opinion, if I had used proper equipment, this would have been a slam dunk task. The 80% would listen to the three files and form an immediate conclusion, while the audiophiles would struggle with multiple trials. My thought is that the audiophile’s credibility and self esteem were on the line, rather than simple curiosity.

It is interesting that in the area of TVs, there aren’t the antics that go on in home audio, and little snake oil. Perhaps because there, calling out the King for not wearing any clothes is easily done by any one involved in that experience. And no such thing as golden eyes!

Where video streaming services are concerned also, one chooses on content, not on who gives a better picture or even better sound for the picture.

There are video “golden” nerds too, but it is much more difficult to structure a video demo because of the variety of technology choices. There are 2-4-8k resolutions, multiple display technologies, multiple CODEC’s, Color Gamut choices, and as of this writing, the new HDMI 2.1a standard. When standing close to the display it’s easy to notice that one can read finer newsprint on an 8K display, but much harder to decide which picture is “best” when a 4K wider Color Gamut is compared to a narrower 8K Gamut. Another aspect to control is monitor “Calibration”. This is similar to, but more complicated than, setting audio systems to “flat” for the demo. One cannot assume that a monitor leaves the factory set to “flat” or that such a setting exists. Calibration requires time, skill, and instruments.

Thanks so much everyone for these helpful responses. I’ve been on a digital break for a few days, but was delighted to log back in and read them all. I think I’ll try some free trials and see what sounds best to my ear, mindful that if I think I can tell the difference above CD quality, it’s probably all in my head!

 if I think I can tell the difference above CD quality, it’s probably all in my head!

If the Hi Res streams are running a slightly higher sound level, the difference isn't just all in your head; every head that hears such in a comparative test would think the same. Easy solution to getting the other stream to sound just the same - nudge the volume control slider a tad to the right! Outside of a test comparison, things are simple. Just set the volume control to give the sound levels at which you like to hear the music.

Userlevel 2
Badge +4

I’ve been doing A/B tests between Amazon Ultra HD tracks and their Apple Music lossy AAC equivalents streaming through the Sonos app. Im listening both on a pair of Sonos Ones paired with a Sonos Sub 3 and on a large system of Aperion Audio speakers and a powered sub connected to a Denon receiver with the stream supplied by a Sonos Port.

Frankly I can’t hear a difference. Like at all on either setup.  Even on the best quality recordings I could find (jazz, acoustic, electronic, folk, etc) the 24/192 and AAC versions sound identical.  If hardware is limiting me then I hate to see what level of hardware someone would need to hear the hi res difference because that Aperion Denon setup cost about 3500 dollars. 

I normaly use Apple Music and I was upset at first that Apple’s Lossless and Hi Res streams are not yet supported in the Sonos app.  But after listening to Amazon Ultra HD tracks side by side with the Apple tracks I’m not so worried anymore.  I say choose the music servicer you like best and if it has 24 bit 192 khz streaming to Sonos then great. If nbot you are likely not going to notice it anyway because as long as you are listening on decent speakers it all sounds really good anyway.


I normaly use Apple Music and I was upset at first that Apple’s Lossless and Hi Res streams are not yet supported in the Sonos app.  But after listening to Amazon Ultra HD tracks side by side with the Apple tracks I’m not so worried anymore.

Sensible conclusion. And yet, there is so much user angst and gnashing of teeth over bits and bytes, fuelled by marketers of digital snake oil…

And in the case of Apple Music, this continues even after Apple Music have themselves said that there is no audible difference between their lossy and lossless. Apple Music does not do Hi Res, else they may have extended this statement to that as well. 

 I hate to see what level of hardware someone would need to hear the hi res difference because that Aperion Denon setup cost about 3500 dollars. 
 

I don't think any more spend on “better” hardware would serve because it still would have to be play in the presence of the ambient noise floor in even quiet domestic spaces; if there is anything to be heard, it would take high quality headphones, to eliminate the room from the frame, and give a chance for audible differences, if any, to be picked.

Userlevel 7
Badge +22

I scrapped a Denon / Infinity setup that cost about double that $3500 for my Sonos. No regrets.

Money doesn’t buy better sound once you get to high quality equipment. Inaudible differences for piles more money are for game-playing not music playing.

Speakers are a bit different there, you really want to buy what sounds good to you, not what has the most impressive numbers or that the sales guy is pushing. I’ve had $200 speakers I liked better than $750 speakers. The expensive ones were big, shiny and had great numbers, didn’t sound good by comparison. Glad I managed to unload them for a small loss.

 

My ears aren’t great now and I couldn’t hear the difference in hi-rate audio back when they did so I’m not paying money chasing rainbows and unicorns there either.

Userlevel 2
Badge +4

@Kumar Apple’s lossless codec comes in two flavors “Lossless” (16 bit/44.1 Khz) similar to Amazon’s “HD” streams and CD’s and “Hi-Res Lossless” (24 bit/192 Khz) similar to Amazon’s “Ultra HD” streams. The former is much more common than the latter.  I rarely see Hi Res Lossless albums but they do exist. https://www.soundandvision.com/content/hands-apple-music-lossless-and-high-res-lossless

That said, even if Sonos did stream Apple Lossless files through the S2 app, the end result would be no different than my listening tests between lossy AAC and Amazon’s Ultra HD streams.  

It reminds me of the megapixel wars with cameras.  Once you got to a certain point its just numbers and has no real effect on the quality of the image.

Userlevel 2
Badge +4

@Stanley_4 I’m happy with my Sonos setup (2 Ones and a Sub 3 paired in my office, a Move in the kitchen and for taking outside, and a Port in the living room connected to my Aperion/Denon surround setup.  I might get two more pairs of ones for the bedrooms but for now this does exactly what I want it to do.  I came to Sonos after struggling with a piecemeal Apple Airplay setup that never really worked well at all.  Sonos impresses me with its reliability, solid sound and ease of use.

I’m under no illusions that Sonos is the end all of sound quality as my Aperion/Denon setup clearly outperforms it (at around 2 times the cost too).  But rarely am I sitting in one place anymore to listen to music.  So for what it is (whole home streaming audio that is easy to use for the whole family) Sonos really can’t be beat.

  
It reminds me of the megapixel wars with cameras.  Once you got to a certain point its just numbers and has no real effect on the quality of the image.

Good analogy; the high megapixels are only useful for life size blow ups in a time when few even print any of the thousands of photos taken. And for no useful gain, clog up memory space and hog unnecessary bandwidth when being processed and being mailed - which is what ultra hi res audio streams also do to the home WiFi network.

Good engineering does not mean doing things just because they can be done, with no regard to their utility to users.

Userlevel 2
Badge +4

@Kumar Exactly.  And people forget that it’s not just about the sampling numbers, it’s about more efficient codecs and fast internet connections.  Todays sound codecs are much much better than the old mp3 codecs we used during the Napster era.  Modern 256 AACs streaming over a 100 Mbps connection do a fantastic job of capturing the intricacies of music. In the same way, modern HEVC codecs allow us to stream 4K HDR video that is virtually indistinguishable what 4K blu rays can produce.  12 years ago this was not the case. But now it is.

 I came to Sonos after struggling with a piecemeal Apple Airplay setup that never really worked well at all.  Sonos impresses me with its reliability, solid sound and ease of use.

I’m under no illusions that Sonos is the end all of sound quality as my Aperion/Denon setup clearly outperforms it (at around 2 times the cost too).  But rarely am I sitting in one place anymore to listen to music.  So for what it is (whole home streaming audio that is easy to use for the whole family) Sonos really can’t be beat.

As to the first part, I came to Sonos in a similar way from legacy HiFi to not so stable Apple to Sonos. But: back in 2011 when I did that, there was nothing close to Sonos for the attributes you mention. Today, a decade later, I find that Echo devices do all that Sonos does, just as well. At a lower price. Of course, they need to be wired to better quality downstream units, but even then, price to performance is better than Sonos. And using the cast feature on services like Spotify or Amazon Music, voice control can remain just an option.

As to the second part, what you say may apply to even the best Sonos speakers, but if you set up a system with a Sonos Port, or even a Sonos Amp, it can get to a end all of sound quality thing, depending entirely on the third party speakers selected downstream of Sonos. Unless they need power in excess of 125/250 wpc into 8/4 ohms, which is a rare thing.

End of digression:-).

Userlevel 2
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@Kumar Is a whole house Echo system really as easy as a Sonos to operate and maintain?  I’m not talking about for a geek or an audiophile.  I’m talking about for a middle aged iPhone and Alexa user who just wants it to work and hates fiddling with tech.  Budget is not really a concern for this person.

I have a friend who has several echo speakers around her house and get s frustrated because they don’t always stay in sync or play together, etc.  This is actually the same problem I had with Airplay 2 speakers which drove me to go all Sonos. I was going to recommend my friend go Sonos with Alexa for voice (especially with a Move she could take out to her pool to extend the music playing all over the house). But if there are analogous solutions with Echo I migth look into it.



I have a friend who has several echo speakers around her house and get s frustrated because they don’t always stay in sync or play together, etc. 

I only looked into Echo because Sonos will not do voice control in India on its own. And I found that with Echo devices wired to line in jacks on Sonos kit, that did not matter to me, and now I use Sonos units as dumb ones, with Echo front ends, most of which are Echo Show 5/8 units, wired to them via line in jacks. With the added advantage of album art for music that is playing, and voice control of course, when it is more convenient. For me, Echo grouped play is as flawless as Sonos was/is.

For your friend, I suggest seeing if there is something that needs to be addressed to get the Echo speakers to stay and properly play in grouped mode first, and not give up straight away; maybe the group naming conventions need to be reviewed? Many users have the same experience with Sonos at first, as witnessed by many posts/threads here about glitches being experienced. It is also therefore possible that if Echos have a problem in that environment, so will Sonos, so jumping to Sonos may not be the solution. Or, it may. There are so many variables in the mix, that it is hard to generalise, except to say that if one can ethernet wire all units to be grouped to the core WiFi network, group play will be stable. And this is something that can only be done with Sonos.