The Inconvenience Of High Fidelity

Streaming is the future, at least for this audiophile. By Kenny Yeo

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Streaming is the future, at least for this audiophile. By Kenny Yeo

20 years ago, my favorite weekend activity was to walk up and down the aisles and floors of HMV and Tower Records, listening and discovering new music. Over time, I amassed a collection of CDs that I now have difficulty playing because, really, who has a CD player these days?

Today, most of my music is streamed. And for music lovers, I think streaming services are a godsend. Millions of songs are literally at your fingertips, and all you need is a computer, a monthly subscription, and a decent enough internet connection. You could listen to Jay-Z one moment and Bach the next. For me, streaming is a dream come true - like being given permission to tear open any CD I want to listen to at Tower Records.

Except that it isn’t quite the same. You see, CD-quality is widely regarded as the de facto standard for high fidelity music: 16-bit PCM sampled at 44.1 kHz, which gives you an audio bitrate of 1,411kbps. It is lossless, which means that the music data isn’t compressed or thrown away to create a smaller file. In comparison, most MP3 tracks are encoded at an audio bitrate of 320kbps - that’s a whole lot of information missing.

Music streaming services are mostly about lossy music. There are some who offer lossless streaming like Tidal. But the two largest services, Apple Music and Spotify, stream lossy music. It makes sense, smaller files are not only easier for services to store and distribute, they are also more convenient for users to stream and download. Win-win, right?

Yet if you happen to have a good music listening setup, you might be able to perceive a lack of audio fidelity when listening to lossy music. And therein lies the problem for audiophiles. Do you compromise for the convenience? Or do you stick to your guns and continue to invest in buying CDs or CD-quality downloads?

Lossy encoding has come a long way since the early day of MP3. In the early days, MP3s, even those encoded at high bitrates, were noticeably poorer quality than your typical CD. That’s not really the case now, as improvements in encoding algorithms have resulted in significant improvements to audio quality.

The most discerning of listeners will still scoff at lossy music but for most people, including me, it is good enough. Especially when you take into consideration the convenience that it brings.

I’m an Apple Music subscriber; I rely on an iPhone for communication and a MacBook Pro for work. Apple Music gives me access to all my tunes regardless of my location and device. If I’m packing for a trip and listening to disc one of Smashing Pumpkin’s ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,’ I can easily tune into disc two when I’m on the plane later.

That’s not to say that CD or high-resolution music don’t have a place. When I’m evaluating new audio gear, or if I want to have the best listening experience, I still seek out high-quality music from places like HDtracks. But that is becoming increasingly rare. The chore of buying, downloading, and adding tracks to individual devices outweighs the sonic benefits of having high-resolution music. With music streaming services, I search for the track or album, double-click it and it’s there. Bing bam boom.

At the end of the day, listening to music is about enjoyment. If it isn’t fun and becomes a burden, then what’s the point?