Hi-res music streaming services compared: which should you sign up for?

The struggle to change into the best music streaming service to supply hi-res streams is well and in reality underway. Gone are the times when all a streaming platform had to do used to be be offering up low-quality OGG VORBIS or MP3 streams and make you bear a couple of advertisements for the privilege. In 2021, the important thing to victory is ad-free, limitless streaming in high-resolution quality – and, crucially, for the most efficient value. 

Tidal is most likely essentially the most established. It's our favourite provider, too, and holder of a 2020 What Hi-Fi? Award in the music streaming carrier category. Since January 2017, its £20 ($20) per month HiFi tier has granted get entry to to hi-res (most often 24-bit/96kHz) Tidal Master streams, encoded using MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) era. So is Tidal the answer? It's without a doubt one resolution, but not the only one.

Qobuz, which was once first to the hi-res streaming sport, is still kicking about with a £15 ($15) per 30 days hi-res carrier. It additionally has a £250 annual subscription called Sublime that mixes hi-res streaming with discounts on 24-bit download purchases.

There's additionally Amazon, which has recently announced that its hi-res-inclusive Music HD tier (which we remarked was once "up there with the best") will now be unfastened for all Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers. This method hi-res streaming for £8 ($8) per thirty days for Prime members, or £10 ($10) per 30 days for Amazon consumers).

And then there may be the hot news that Apple Music is offering subscribers lossless audio (and Spatial Audio) at no extra charge – and it simply went are living! That's right, Apple Music Lossless and Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos tracks are available now. That leaves the soon-to-launch Spotify HiFi having a look like it is going to have to come as a free upgrade simply to stick aggressive...

So the place does the coming of those more recent, competitively priced hi-res services go away Tidal and Qobuz, or even services now not within the hi-res game (Deezer, for instance, 'simplest' offers CD high quality)? How will they persuade customers to stay round for hi-res audio at comparatively hiked prices next to the likes of Apple and Amazon?

And, what's extra, which carrier very best merits your per 30 days subscription?

Below, we try to assist you come to a decision simply that, starting with the diversities between lossless and hi-res music, and offering a breakdown of the services and their USPs. Get able: your music is set to sound a lot better. 

Streaming services compared - at a look

Streaming services compared
Service Free tier Monthly hi-res valueSupported codecsMax streaming quality
SpotifyYes, ad-supported, 128kbp-OGG 320kbps (for now)
Apple MusicNo £10 ($10) AAC, ALAC 24-bit/192kHz
TidalNo £20 ($20)MQA, AAC, ALAC, FLAC24-bit/192kHz
DeezerYes, ad-supported, 128kbps-FLAC16-bit/44.1kHz
Amazon Music HDNo £10 ($10), or £8 ($8) for Prime MembersFLAC24-bit/192kHz
QobuzNo £15 ($15)AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, WAV, WMA Lossless24-bit/192kHz
YouTube MusicYes, ad-supported, 126kbps-AAC256kbps

What is hi-res streaming and why should you want it? 

First issues first, should you care about hi-res streaming? High-resolution (regularly shortened to 'hi-res') audio is a time period used to explain music information that have a higher sampling frequency and/or bit depth than that of CD-quality, which is specified at 16-bit/44.1kHz. So a hi-res file can be 24-bit/44.1kHz, where bit-depth is larger than CD quality however sampling fee is identical, and vice versa.

So what do the numbers imply? It would possibly lend a hand to think about an audio signal as a legitimate wave being plotted on a graph. Sampling fee – the second one quantity – refers back to the collection of occasions per 2nd that the wave is measured right through the analogue-to-digital conversion procedure. The greater the sampling rate, the more occasions the audio sign has been sampled, and thus the more detail resolution you get.

The first number is bit-depth, which indicates the collection of 'bits' of knowledge found in every pattern of the sign. Going from 16 bits to 24 bits results in an enormous increase of dynamic range, which is the gap between the quietest and loudest sounds that can be captured. In numbers, it is a soar from  96dB to 144dB, which is huge.

Streams from Spotify and Apple Music use compressed document codecs with moderately low bitrates, comparable to 320kbps Ogg Vorbis streams on Spotify Premium (if you're a Spotify Free consumer, your file high quality will actually max out at 160kbps) and 256kbps AAC recordsdata on Apple Music.

This 'lossy' compression means that positive data is scrapped within the encoding process for the sake of comfort and smaller report sizes. Obviously, this impacts the sound high quality.

To illustrate why hi-res should sound better than, say, an MP3, we'd like simply to match the relative bitrates (the amount of information being transferred measured in kilobits in step with 2d). The very best high quality MP3 has a bitrate of 320kbps. A 24-bit/192kHz file takes that to 9216kbps. Music CDs are 1411kbps – bear in mind, they're your starting marker for hi-res.

The hi-res 24-bit/96kHz or 24-bit/192kHz files should, therefore, extra intently replicate the sound high quality the musicians and engineers were operating with within the studio. Provided your gadget is transparent sufficient, taking part in hi-res music can carry you more element and texture, thus bringing you nearer to what the artist wanted to mention after they recorded their work. And isn't that what we want?

Although hi-res audio songs and albums were to be had to download for a number of years now, streaming hi-res audio is slightly new across widespread music subscription platforms – and a few still do not be offering it.

Hi-res vs lossless: what is the difference?

While the phrases 'lossless' and 'hi-res' may be used in close connection – Apple Music has launched Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless labels and, to complicate matters further, Amazon Music prefers the terms HD and UHD when regarding its more top rate audio choices – music that is 'lossless' isn't at all times hi-res. 

Here's the thing: where hi-res audio is defined as music that has a decision greater than CD high quality, lossless audio has no set specification when it comes to bitrate. The term covers most effective how a lot data has been thrown out during the encoding procedure and, as a result, how a lot quality or “loss” you will enjoy when you play it. 

If no compression algorithm (or codec) has been used to compress the audio inside your particular report, two things happen: lossless (although not necessarily hi-res) sound quality, and lovely soon a storage warning in your software. 

WAV and AIFF are probably the most outstanding uncompressed audio file formats, each in response to PCM (Pulse Code Modulation), which is  the most common digital encoding approach hired. They can both store CD-quality or high-resolution audio recordsdata. The downside? These audio recordsdata are giant. A CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) lossless file will take round 10MB of your laborious drive consistent with minute in period.

Now, let's introduce FLAC. As its identify (Free Lossless Audio Codec) suggests, it's a lossless report, but it has been cleverly packaged to nearly half the size of an uncompressed WAV or AIFF of an identical sample price. Other lossless but compressed audio document codecs come with ALAC (Apple Lossless) and WMA Lossless (Windows Media Audio). 

So far, we now have mentioned uncompressed lossless files and compressed lossless recordsdata. Now, we'll talk compressed lossy recordsdata. This is the place our old pal the MP3 comes in – a report format that compresses a file and reduces its measurement by means of discarding data that can not be retrieved again. Other examples of lossy compressed recordsdata are OGG (of Ogg Vorbis fame) and Apple's AAC.

Which streaming services be offering hi-res music? 

Short resolution: Tidal, Amazon Music HD, Qobuz and now, Apple Music.

Spotify's announced 'HiFi' tier could also be imminent, but the company stays tight-lipped on whether or not its leveled-up proposition will in truth be offering hi-res streams or whether or not it'll most sensible out at CD quality.

Here's an explainer on each and every service, the tech they use to deliver hi-res, what you'll wish to play it, and, crucially, for whom each and every carrier will likely go well with highest.

Tidal – for MQA-enabled package

Tidal has been riding the hi-res wave since 2017 when it all started offering hi-res audio streaming thanks to the adoption of MQA era. These hi-res (typically 24-bit/96kHz) 'Tidal Masters' tracks now have a vital presence in the catalogue along CD-quality streams – all available to subscribers of its £20 ($20) per 30 days HiFi package.

Tidal’s availability is on the upward push, too: there may be desktop and cell apps, web participant, Google Chromecast, Apple CarPlay, Apple Watch strengthen, and integration into a number of networked hi-fi merchandise’ offerings, from SonosBluesound and DTS Play-Fi platforms to LinnMcIntoshNaim and Cyrus streaming products. But not all of these fortify hi-res playback of Tidal's Masters.

Masters are now available by way of each Android, iOS and desktop apps, and hi-fi components and platforms that support MQA. Tidal Connect – a identical thought to Spotify Connect – additionally allows for easy streaming to compatible merchandise from within the local Tidal app, and it's ready to forged Tidal Masters too.

Now for the hi-res small print: playing Tidal Masters throughout the Tidal desktop app on a pc, via its 3.5mm headphone output or a connected (non-MQA-enabled) DAC provides the Tidal desktop app the reins over MQA’s core deciphering, which has a limited output of 24-bit/96kHz. In different phrases, although you’re streaming a 192kHz file, it's going to handiest be unpackaged to 96kHz.

Similarly, the iOS and Android apps can complete simplest the primary 'unfold' of MQA report deciphering, outputting streams at a maximum of 24-bit/96kHz. The handiest technique to totally unpackage an MQA record for playback (and due to this fact give you the most productive illustration of the file knowledge) is by pairing your laptop or Apple or Android tool with an MQA-compatible DAC, taking the interpreting process away from the instrument (Tidal app).

The advantage of owning equipment with built-in MQA decoders – such as the Audirvana Plus Three laptop device, the NAD C 658 music streamer, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M and AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC – is that every one deciphering is done via the hardware, which can unpackage all of the MQA file for playback in its original decision.

Tidal also gives a rising catalogue of immersive audio tracks by the use of its enhance of Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Reality Audio. The former method you can play Atmos tracks via Atmos-compatible equipment, from soundbars and TVs to AVRs and good speakers. Tidal HiFi subscribers want to attach their Atmos-enabled instrument to a like minded streamer operating essentially the most just lately up to date Tidal app. Supported streaming gadgets include the Apple TV 4KAmazon Fire TV Stick 4K, Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Stick (second gen), Fire TV (3rd gen), Nvidia Shield TV and Nvidia Shield TV Pro (2019 or newer).

Amazon Music HD – hi-res on a budget (particularly for Prime members)

Whichever approach you manner it, Amazon has long gone super aggressive on pricing. In response to Apple Music's hi-res streaming announcement, Amazon has now made its Music HD tier free for Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers. The Individual Plan still costs £8 ($8) per month for Prime members and £10 ($10) per month for Amazon shoppers – however now, your subscription charge comprises Amazon's highest-quality audio at no additional rate. The Amazon Music HD tier used to be previously an extra £5 ($5) monthly.

You can get admission to Amazon Music HD through 3 different avenues: a web browser, the desktop app, or during the Android and iOS cell apps. However, it’s value noting that you can’t in truth movement CD-quality music or hi-res tracks thru your browser, handiest the apps.

We need any other hi-res terminology discussion, regardless that. Confusingly, Amazon Music HD does not use the time period 'HD' when it’s discussing high-resolution audio. Where you see tracks labelled 'HD', this in truth means that they’re CD-quality. Amazon has determined to check with and label hi-res music as 'Ultra HD'. Why? Presumably it feels that this labelling will end up clearer for a mass target audience. And perhaps it is proper. Anyway, the recordsdata you'll get are actually FLACs. 

Amazon refers to HD tracks as having a ”bit depth of 16-bits, a minimum sample fee of 44.1 kHz (additionally referred to as CD-quality), and a median bitrate of 850 kbps”. UHD tracks, on the other hand, “have slightly depth of 24-bits, pattern rates ranging from 44.1 kHz up to 192 kHz, and an average bitrate of 3730 kbps.”

To Amazon’s credit, it pushes Ultra HD content extraordinarily exhausting on the carrier with devoted playlists and clear labelling, e.g Best of Ultra HD, Ultra HD: New Arrivals, Ultra HD Hip-Hop and Ultra HD Jazz. It doesn’t take lengthy to discover a steady move of UHD music to hear.

Should you own an Amazon Echo Studio speaker, you’ll additionally have the ability to get right of entry to Amazon’s catalogue of 3-d audio tracks, of which Amazon claims there are well over 750 encoded in both Dolby Atmos or Sony 360 Reality Audio.

Qobuz – for Sonos users and/or avid downloaders

Qobuz is the first streaming massive to have dropped MP3 streaming completely, going all-in on CD-quality and hi-res streaming. In fact, taking a stand is not anything new to Qobuz, a company that tends to do issues differently from maximum of its rivals in the music streaming global.

The French provider has been around since 2007 (the same amount of time as Spotify) but it left its house borders simplest in 2013, when it was the first CD-quality streaming provider to hit the UK. Tidal joined the ranks a few years later. It used to be additionally the primary to offer hi-res streams.

There are two applications from which customers can make a choice: the Studio Premier plan (£15/$15 per thirty days or £150/$One hundred fifty in step with year) for streaming of Qobuz’s 50 million-track library; and Sublime+, which also throws in discounted purchases of 24-bit downloads, priced £250/$250 for the yr (down from £350/$350 closing yr).

The primary sticking point for us at first, despite it also sounding rather less candy than its Tidal equivalent, was the carrier’s excessive worth. But Qobuz’s most up-to-date cut price – not to mention its newest Family deals – has noticed it upward thrust quite considerably in value. 

Qobuz is now available on a number of devices. There's a web participant as well as desktop (Mac and PC) and cellular (iOS and Android) apps, plus integration into a wide range of hi-fi products. Google Chromecast is a huge deal here, as it method including Qobuz to an present 'dumb' hi-fi is as simple and reasonably priced as adding a Chromecast dongle, and plenty of hi-fi corporations at the moment are including Chromecast make stronger into their streaming components, thereby expanding Qobuz's availability.

Broadly talking, most devices that toughen Tidal also fortify Qobuz and vice versa, and each services are to be had handiest in CD-quality by way of some streamers.

A significant feather in Qobuz's cap, however, is that it's the first service to make 24-bit hi-res streaming available on Sonos merchandise. Given how lengthy now we have waited for our favourite multi-room circle of relatives to adopt hi-res, it is slightly a big deal. 

Qobuz's (comparatively) high worth has all the time been in part justified via its exhaustive library of hi-res music. Recent figures put the entire selection of hi-res tracks at more than 2m, whilst Tidal claims 'only' greater than 1m. Numbers hardly tell the whole story, but we incessantly to find hi-res albums on Qobuz which are available in most effective CD-quality on Tidal. On the turn aspect, alternatively, we continuously in finding albums on TidalSpotifyApple Music and Deezer that don't seem to be to be had on Qobuz in any respect – which we would argue is a far bigger factor... 

With Qobuz, bitrate and frequency are displayed in the playback bar, and hi-res albums are obviously flagged with the familiar ‘Hi-Res Audio’ logo, each within the library interface and playback bar – little things that we wholeheartedly wish different streaming services would come with.

Apple Music – for Apple device homeowners

Apple Music often makes use of AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) streaming at 256kbps, however Apple is now offering CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz), Apple Music Lossless (24-bit/48kHz) and Hi-Res Lossless (up to 24-bit/192kHz) streams by the use of its ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) codec. And the most efficient bit? If you subscribe to Apple Music at £10 ($10) per 30 days, there is no extra price for those higher-quality streams. That places it on a par with Amazon, and much less expensive than Tidal and Qobuz.

All of Apple Music's 75-million-strong music catalogue is now to be had in CD high quality or Apple Music Lossless. At launch, 20 million tracks will probably be obtainable in the best quality Hi-Res Lossless structure, with the entire catalogue following "by the end of 2021".

We have not heard an excessive amount of of Apple's Hi-Res Lossless catalogue yet, however there is masses to get fascinated by – unless you just purchased a brand new pair of AirPods. 

Here's the rub: even though Apple Music with Dolby Atmos will work with all headphones and Apple's own HomePod and HomePod Mini will support Lossless at some point (following a tool replace), Apple's own headphones do not strengthen lossless audio. None of them. That approach although you've spent £549 ($549, AU$899) on a couple of AirPods Max, you cannot concentrate to Apple Music in the best quality. Peeved? We don't blame you.

Apple's iPhones (for the reason that iPhone 7) natively support lossless – but handiest Apple Music Lossless, and now not the highest quality Hi-Res Lossless. If you wish to concentrate to Apple Music tracks above 24-bit/48kHz to your iPhone, you'll want to attach an exterior DAC and use a stressed pair of headphones. Check out our guide for how to listen to hi-res audio on an iPhone.

The same is true of the Apple TV and iPad households, which are listed as supporting Apple Lossless, without a mention of Hi-Res Lossless.

Like Amazon and Tidal, Apple Music additionally now has immersive audio tracks – this time through Apple's proprietary Dolby Atmos-powered Spatial Audio structure, designed to supply "multidimensional sound and clarity"; to ship surround sound and 3-d audio via your headphones. These tracks will play routinely on AirPods or Beats headphones with a W1 or H1 chip. The HomePod and HomePod Mini also beef up Spatial Audio, so you can fill your room with digital 3D sound from a single instrument. As do the iPhone 11 onwards and iPad Pro (however not iPad, iPad Mini or iPad Air). Playing from an Apple TV 4K into a Dolby Atmos soundbar or gadget will paintings too.

Services that do not beef up hi-res... yet

Another brief resolution: Deezer, Spotify and YouTube Music are yet to supply (or even promise to provide) hi-res audio. We know that Spotify is about to launch its 'HiFi' tier later this 12 months, however it continues to be observed whether or not hi-res can be on the menu at release or whether it's going to stick with CD high quality – and if it is going to try to undercut the competition.

So will Deezer (which provides CD-quality) or YouTube Music (which maxes out at 256kbps inside of its paid-for tier) ever cross hi-res? Alexander Holland, leader content and strategy officer at Deezer, lately presented some selection words on this: "Our goal is to make sure that Deezer brings value to both artists and music fans. We’re not ready to announce anything just yet but are considering the implications on our users, technology and business. It’s clear that our industry shifted overnight and HiFi is the new de facto standard for audio quality. We would never want to stand in the way of that. You’ll hear more from us soon." 

Intriguing.

Verdict: which hi-res streaming service is perfect?

Ultimately, the subtle balance of finances and tool compatibility inside your own home will resolve which carrier you choose for.

Tidal is our present Award winner: it sounds that little bit better than the competition, the consumer experience is spot on, the catalogue extensive, and the accessibility of hi-res Masters streams on MQA-supporting gadgets is handiest growing. That mentioned, it has yet to react to the newest price battle on hi-res streams. It's now double the price of Apple Music and Amazon Music HD.

Qobuz is now a just right shout for Sonos users having a look to bring hi-res audio to their properties and it does have the most important hi-res catalogue. Admirably, it gives users the risk to buy and obtain music (at a bargain for Sublime+ individuals), even supposing we would note the sizable holes in its same old CD-quality album providing.

Amazon Music HD has not too long ago situated itself as some of the least expensive hi-res choices, and may neatly be the service of selection for non-Apple users who want the most productive sound for the least pound.

With its top quality catalogue present and rising, Apple Music is a no-brainer for iPhone owners and a prerequisite for homeowners of the very good HomePod/HomePod mini. The problem is that despite the fact that you're heavily ensconced in Apple's ecosystem, you'll nonetheless want to invest in third-party products to experience lossless and hi-res at their fullest. 

MORE:

Got the provider? Now learn how to choose the right speakers and get the best sound

Is the Spotify HiFi launch drawing close? 'HiFi' icon spotted in service's iOS app

See why Spotify HiFi is missing something – but will it matter?

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