For many years, one of the criticisms of HiFi enthusiasts has been that they care more about the recording quality than the music being played. Better to listen to obscure modern jazz to show off the reediness of the saxophones or the brassiness of the trumpets than music you actually like.
Of course, the holy grail has always been listening to music you like at a quality that blows you away.
Streaming includes playing local ripped files or those from an external provider delivered over the Internet, but for this blog, I shall address only externally delivered streamed music.
Streaming has developed relatively rapidly from an unpromising start. In the beginning, streaming services delivered a very wide range of music but at a very low resolution and quality. It was like listening to medium wave radio and every self-respecting Hifi enthusiast knows that apart from possibly Test Match Special one should never admit to listening to something so mediocre in quality.
Streaming gained respectability when Tidal launched CD-quality streaming and the likes of Naim Audio started to build facilities to listen to these services into their equipment.
Following on from this, better than CD resolution streaming started to appear. Tidal went down the MQA route which has proved to be controversial but was followed by the likes of Quboz and Amazon who provided at least some of their catalogue at greater than CD resolution without further processing.
My own experience of streaming started with Tidal played on a Naim Unitiqute in what is now my “respectable” system. It offered the opportunity to explore a much wider range of music, and especially new bands or classical recordings that I would never buy as physical media or downloads.
The problem was that I found myself always preferring the sound quality of my local files either ripped from CD or purchased as high-resolution downloads. I was back in the old music vs Hifi debate.
Enter the new Auralic Polaris streaming amplifier and even before my Esoteric system was completed, I found that I no longer experienced the externally streamed music as sounding inferior- and I was able to tap the potential of the wide range of music available without a sense of compromise.
I switched allegiance from Tidal to Quboz as my streaming provider, largely on economic grounds but the situation persisted and benefited again when my esoteric system was enhanced by my current speakers.
I can now listen to a huge range of music via streaming without feeling I am compromising on the quality of reproduction. Streaming via my esoteric system has introduced me to new bands such as Los Lobos and Skerryvore, live performances by my favourite artists and allowed me to go back to different classical interpretations such as Karajan’s first Beethoven symphonic cycle (1963) without any sense of sound quality compromise.
Better than CD quality versions of classic 1970s prog-rock sound amazing. I remember reading stories in the 1980s that the original recordings of ELP albums such as Brain Salad Surgery were fundamentally compromised and could not be remastered, but this is not the case. Of course, some recordings do appear to have reached their limits and further transparency simply reveals their flaws but there are fewer of these than I had imagined- One More From the Road – Lynyrd Skynyrd – yes, I am thinking of you!
And if that’s not Hifi enough for you, then streaming has provided access to test records allowing me to check that my speakers are connected to the correct channels and are in phase amongst other nerdy treats.
Reservations remain over whether streaming services reward artists and composers sufficiently but from a consumer perspective I am just sitting back and enjoying the widest range of music I want to listen to, at the best possible quality.