Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Streaming servicesA few years ago, while I was visiting my parents for the holidays, we listened to a recent cover of a song first recorded in the 1950s. My mother wanted to hear the original, but, using the apps on their Panasonic Blu-ray player, all we could find were amateurishly captured clips, incomplete and poorly recorded, on YouTube. Legal and cost-free Internet sources found through their computer were no better. When I returned home, I continued looking for a solution with a deep catalog that I could use to find obscure songs that I didn’t necessarily want to buy. (Unlike some, I don’t think it necessary to own all of my music.) I was happy to find a few choices with my set-top box, a first-generation Roku XDS, which I’d originally bought to stream movies from Netflix. I ended up going with MOG, which cost just $4.99/month for service to the Web, Windows, Macintosh, Roku, or Logitech Sonos. Later, I began paying another $5/month to add mobile service (iOS or Android) to the account. I figured that, for less than the cost of one album each month, I had access to 16 million tracks and was likely avoiding some music purchases. It also proved to be a good way to preview entire recordings -- rather than 30-second clips -- of, say, a particular concerto, before deciding which performance to buy from a high-resolution source such as e|classical or HDtracks.

Earlier this year, MOG subscribers were notified that the service would be shut down with no clear migration path. MOG had been acquired by Beats Electronics, and though Beats offered a way to keep my user name during and after the transition, my playlists and favorites would not be migrating with me. This is a drawback of adopting a streaming music service: If the service is discontinued, you no longer have access to your playlists and favorite tracks. I had created 53 MOG playlists of various sizes, and had some 300 favorite tracks. For reasons of inertia alone, migrating to a service that could import my playlists and favorites from MOG might have been a compelling attraction, had it been offered. Instead, I used MOG’s demise as an opportunity to look at what other services are available -- though I’ll consider Beats, there’s no need to stick with them.

A caveat: Due to contractual agreements with record labels, the availability of services and catalogs varies considerably with the market. This article is based on the choices available in the US.

What I look for in a streaming service

I call the two major categories of music-streaming services “radio” and “jukebox.” Radio services are typified by Pandora, for which one establishes a playlist by searching for a particular artist or track; Pandora then finds similar tracks, to build out a radio station. This is great for discovering music new to me, and I’ve generally been pleased with Pandora’s recommendations, rarely feeling the need to skip tracks. These days, however, it’s jukebox services that I’m interested in: I want to choose exactly what I’ll be hearing.

The type of service I was looking for can be summarized in three words: anything anywhere anytime. It should have an exhaustive catalog that’s easy to navigate. If my personal music collection can be combined with the service’s catalog, so much the better. The service should support the Web and all platforms of computer, mobile, and home audio. Finally, playback should be possible even in the absence of a network connection -- for example, on an airplane.

It’s difficult to ascertain whether a given service will grant access to all of the music one wants or will want in the future. Most of the services profiled below list catalog sizes of 18 or 20 million tracks, which is far more than any one person will ever need -- one one-thousandth of that would probably be enough. But that one one-thousandth must comprise the right tracks, and that selection will vary for every person. In an attempt to compare catalogs, I picked about a dozen artists -- pop, rock, jazz, and classical -- and searched for their albums on each service. MOG had listed a total of 521 albums by these artists -- but the “Albums found” figures cited below ended up being a test not only of the size of each service’s catalog, but of the usability of its search engine.

It wasn’t possible to try every service, but listed below are some of the most prominent. This list of contenders is somewhat biased toward the longer-established companies -- I wanted to choose a service that I can stick with for a while, and I’m picky about who gets my credit-card details. Beyond that, I’ve excluded Pandora and iTunes Radio, which are “radio” rather than “jukebox” services. Finally, these services are moving targets; some details may have changed since the time of writing. And here they are, in alphabetical order:

Beats MusicBeats Music
Desktop: Web only
Mobile: Android, iOS, Windows Phone
Home: Chromecast (planned), Smart TV (LG), Sonos
Catalog size: 20 million tracks
Albums found: 531
Offline access on mobile: Yes

Beats Music, a subsidiary of popular headphones maker Beats Electronics, bought MOG in mid-2012, and would have been the natural choice for MOGers like me had a data-migration path been announced early on. Beats Music has emphasized personalization and curation. As part of the sign-up process (which requires a mobile device), I was asked to select and deselect musical genres, and then do the same for a set of artists. After setup, on login I was presented with a splash screen of artists and albums to play -- I could see that my splash screen was related to the selections I’d made. The Web app didn’t work in Google Chrome, but did in Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer. I imagine this may have had something to do with the Flash implementation, which is built into Chrome; the other browsers use Adobe’s plugin. The sound was crisp and clean with pop, with some stereo separation (as far as MP3s go in that department). However, the Web app exhibited very high CPU use (47% when I checked), and stuttered on mouse movement or multitasking. My computer’s cooling fans fired up, obscuring some of the sound, which was unfortunate -- Beats Music was among the better-sounding services.

I was able to search out a variety of music from Beats’s extensive catalog, and the service excels at music discovery with genre categories, along with professionally curated playlists from the likes of DownBeat magazine and playlists for activities such as “BBQing.” In all, I found these to be good recommendations. Mobile devices (iOS, Android, Windows Phone) expand the Beats service through use of The Sentence, an innovative music finder that reminds me a bit of Mad Libs. You create a sentence on which to build a playlist by selecting options for the four highlighted phrases shown in this screenshot. I chose, as my sentence, “I’m [at my computer] and feel like [going back in time] with [strangers] to [jazz vocals].” The resulting playlist began with a Chet Baker performance of “Happy Little Sunbeam.”

Google Play Music All AccessGoogle Play Music All Access
Desktop: Web only (+ Chrome app)
Mobile: Android, iOS
Home: Chromecast, Google TV, Sonos
Catalog size: 18 million tracks
Albums found: 532
Offline access on mobile: Yes

Google Play Music began in 2011 as an online store and cloud music locker that competed with the likes of Apple’s iTunes Music Store and Amazon MP3. Users could upload as many as 20,000 songs free of charge, using a desktop application that could monitor a set of directories for new music. Designed primarily for MP3s, the application could upload and render most audio files not subject to Digital Rights Management (DRM). These tracks could then be streamed to the cloud player and mobile apps via iOS and Android. I took advantage of this service and uploaded my music files; uploaded FLACs were made available as 320kbps MP3s, which is probably how I would have transcoded them for mobile use.

In 2013, Google added to Play Music their All Access streaming service. From the platforms supported, uploaded music, purchased music, and music made available by the paid subscription are integrated. (Via Android, Play Music can also play locally stored music.) For example, when I search for “Eric Clapton,” I’m presented with a list of albums, beginning with the tracks I uploaded, and then followed by the catalog provided by the subscription service. This is a great way to combine a comprehensive catalog, and to plug those few holes left by artists (the Beatles, etc.) who are not participating. And, of course, Google’s search facility works well. Play Music All Access also supports pinning tracks for offline listening via mobile.

Google Play was one of the better-sounding services -- ensembles sounded tighter, with more bass in pop and classic rock. While I wouldn’t call the soundstages wide, they had some semblance of stereo separation, unlike with a few other services. Percussion strikes were mostly well defined, with the occasional splatter. Large-scale acoustic music reminded me of why I left MP3s behind -- symphonic works sounded quite constrained -- but was fine for background listening. With the optional HTML5 interface, CPU use and, concomitantly, fan noise were kept to a minimum.

Microsoft Xbox MusicMicrosoft Xbox Music
Free with ads and limited plays on Web and Windows Store apps; $9.99/month, all platforms
Desktop: Web, Windows Store on ARM, Windows Store on x86/x64
Mobile: Android, iOS, Windows Phone
Home: Xbox 360, Xbox One
Catalog size: 30 million tracks
Albums found: 688
Offline access on mobile: Yes

Microsoft first ventured into the music space with Zune Music Marketplace and the Zune Music Pass. Neither the service nor the eponymous device, was successful. Microsoft’s gaming brand, Xbox, became its entertainment brand with the 2012 launch of Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8, which included Xbox Music and Xbox Video apps. In mid-2013, Microsoft added support for the Web and competing platforms iOS and Android. Their price structure is a bit more complex than other services in this roundup. Free, ad-supported streaming with duration restrictions is provided on the Web and on the Windows 8/RT platform, but listening time is not capped for the first six months. For $9.99/month or $99.90/year (i.e., two months free), Xbox Music Pass adds the mobile platforms plus the Xbox gaming console (Xbox Live required). With Windows 8, a local collection can be integrated with streamed music, but that collection didn’t show from the Web interface.

The Web version of Xbox Music didn’t work well in my preferred Web browser, Google Chrome, but worked fine with Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer. The application uses Flash, but with none of the performance problems I had with Beats Music. Although I was able to find most of the albums I searched for, sometimes an album was incomplete. Two of the tracks of Sol Gabetta and Hélène Grimaud’s Duo were unavailable, while all 13 were available from Google Play Music. The soundstage was a bit shrunken with large-scale classical works, with mediocre imaging. For pop, the sound was passable; the lack of detail would be acceptable for background music. Again, these are all lossily compressed datastreams -- one can’t be too picky.

Cost: Free with ads and limited plays, $4.99/month for Web plus PC/Mac, $9.99/month for all platforms
Desktop: Mac OSX, Web, Windows desktop
Mobile: Android, iOS
Home: Chromecast, Roku, Sonos
Catalog size: 20 million tracks
Albums found: 682, but a bit low on classical artists
Offline access on mobile: Yes

Rdio, launched in 2010 by the founders of Skype, provides two types of streaming service: free and ad-supported, and paid and ad-free. The apps have a clean, simple user interface that’s consistent across platforms while respecting platform-specific conventions -- they look native to each platform. You can create playlists, or drop a track or album onto “Collection” to make it a favorite. The service is socially integrated -- you can discover what friends are listening to, and post your own favorites to Facebook and Twitter. While some albums are listed without access to all tracks, I didn’t encounter this too often. A unique feature: You can take remote-control playback from another device -- e.g., control PC playback with a smartphone -- which may work well with HTPC setups. Unfortunately, Rdio’s sound quality (192kbps MP3) was the worst of the services I tried, lacking subtlety and precision even with pop. While passable for mobile use, in the home Rdio would be relegated to background listening. Of the services that could replace MOG in my home audio system, Rdio is the only one supported by the generation of Roku set-top box I have. Looks like time to buy new hardware.

Cost: $9.99/month
Desktop: Web, Windows desktop, Windows Store on ARM, Windows Store on x86/x64
Mobile: Android, BlackBerry, iOS, Philips Android Connect, SanDisk Sansa, Windows Phone
Home: A/V receiver (Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Pioneer, Yamaha), Blu-ray player (Oppo, Samsung), Chromecast, Smart TV (LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Vizio), Sonos, TiVo, Xbox 360
Catalog size: 25 million tracks
Albums found: 350
Offline access on mobile: Yes

Rhapsody, spun off from RealNetworks, is among the oldest companies involved in this space -- I subscribed to Rhapsody about a decade ago. Originally a store that sold music via downloaded MP3s, Rhapsody offered paid subscriptions to its catalog beginning in 2002. Among the services discussed here, Rhapsody has the broadest platform support, extending even to non-networked MP3 players such as the SanDisk Sansa. An interesting feature with mobile platforms is that Rhapsody can listen to music through the phone’s microphone and match it to a song in its catalog. When I tested this feature, it worked perfectly. However, I found more gaps in Rhapsody’s catalog than in any of the others I tested. My search results were low on classical and jazz -- the Dave Brubeck Quartet was missing almost entirely. Furthermore, Rhapsody had noticeably poorer sound quality than most of the other services, with muffled clarity and smeared details.

Sony Music UnlimitedSony Music Unlimited
Cost: $4.99/month for PlayStation plus Web, $9.99/month for all platforms
Desktop: Web only
Mobile: Android, iOS
Home: A/V receiver (Sony), Blu-ray player (Sony), PlayStation 3 and 4, Smart TV (Sony)
Catalog size: 22 million tracks
Albums found: 679
Offline access on mobile: Yes

If any company is optimally positioned to provide an end-to-end music service, it’s this one. Sony makes computers, smartphones, and home audio/video equipment,and owns one of the big three music labels. Yet Sony was one of the sleepers. I doubt I’d have remembered that Sony even had a subscription music-streaming service if I didn’t own a Sony Blu-ray player. Platform support is very much oriented toward Sony products, but also available for the now-standard Web/iOS/Android in addition to Sony’s own Xperia Android phones. The Web interface is delivered in Flash, but with relatively low CPU use. Search is smart enough to correct typos, and you can search the catalog before signing up. The user interface is clean and discoverable, with artist suggestions. On the negative side, offline listening is capped at an unusable 48kbps: the sound is flat, undefined, fuzzy. Streamed via the Web, Lang Lang’s keystrokes on his Dragon Songs had crisp punch, but Alison Krauss + Union Station were presented on a narrow soundstage, with voices forward but not too bright. All in all, the sound quality was good enough that I could tell the difference between well-recorded and poorly recorded albums. Sony has among the better-sounding services on the Web, but for some reason my Sony Blu-ray player rendered it poorly.

Free with ads and low sound quality, or $9.99/month with higher-quality sound
Desktop: Linux, Mac OSX, Web, Windows desktop
Mobile: Android, iOS, Windows Phone
Home: A/V receiver (Denon, Marantz, Onkyo), Roku, Sonos
Catalog size: 20 million tracks
Albums found: 462
Offline access on mobile: Yes

Spotify was launched in Europe in 2008, and came to the US in 2011 as a freemium service -- that is, it offered better service to paying subscribers, and ad-supported free service to everyone else. What Spotify calls “high quality streaming” audio (320kbps Vorbis) is available only to paying subscribers; the free service (160kbps Vorbis) is seriously inferior in sound quality. In addition, Spotify Free is capped at 20 hours/month. Spotify Premium is required for offline mode, as well as Spotify exclusives such as Led Zeppelin and Oasis. Due to its global reach, Spotify was among the most popular music-streaming services in 2013, with 24 million active users and 4.5 billion hours streamed.

Spotify’s desktop applications can also play locally stored MP3 and AAC files, and can be used to build streaming playlists from iTunes and Windows Media Player playlists. Unlike with Google Play, “local” music was not available via the Web. While playlists synced across interfaces, “saved” (favorite) music tracks did not. Spotify is the only service to offer a Linux (Debian) desktop application. My biggest complaints about Spotify’s desktop user interface (Windows or Linux) are that it’s busy (but borderline acceptable, given how much it does) and that it looks like a part of a Macintosh application, which looks out of place on Windows. The Web interface was much cleaner, and worked well across browsers with minimal fan noise. Searches were quick, but often the artist is listed as “appears on” rather than by album, especially for classical, which makes finding a particular album harder than it should be. Sound quality was among the best I tried, once I’d switched to high-quality mode (why isn’t this the default in the desktop version?). Still, Google Play and Sony edged out Spotify, which suffered from slightly lower resolution and greater harshness. Nonetheless, its good quality, large user base, broad support, and global reach make Spotify a very credible service.

My choice

In evaluating each service’s sound quality, I listened using the Web browser on a Windows computer (supported by every service evaluated) through both speakers and headphones. I was surprised to find differences in sound quality among these services. Although none rose even to the level of CD sound, let alone high-resolution FLAC, several services were downright disappointing. The best were Google and Sony; Rdio and Rhapsody were substantially inferior in terms of clarity, nuance, and imaging. However, my choice among these services is primarily based not on sound quality but on ecosystem support. Everything is supported on the Web, iOS, and Android. Google Play Music All AccessWindows Phone users and those who want to integrate a streaming service with a home stereo need to be more selective. For a home system, Sonos, in particular Sonos Connect, offers the most options.

I’ve decided to go with Google Play Music All Access -- its HTML5 Web application is excellent, its sound quality is at the top of the pack, I use Android, and integrating it into a home audio system is as simple as the $35 Chromecast dongle. In addition -- and this put it over the top -- I like the notion of being able to upload and integrate my own collection of MP3, AAC, and FLAC files, and then have the entire collection, regardless of source, available everywhere via streaming.

My second choice would probably be Spotify, for which I would upgrade to the latest Roku box, which supports it. For mobile only use, with an emphasis on discovery and curation, Beats Music would be a good choice. If I had an Xbox, I’d probably choose Microsoft Xbox Music; and if I had a PlayStation 3 or 4, it would be Sony Music Unlimited.

. . . Sathyan Sundaram