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Until recently, music fans have had to face an annoying choice: use a streaming service with compressed audio, or get CDs and high-resolution music a la carte. The former is way more convenient, and gives you unlimited access to a library containing millions of songs, but the latter will sound better.
Thankfully this has changed recently, and a handful of companies have started high-resolution music streaming services, which offer convenience and audio quality.
What is High-Resolution Music?
One way to judge the way digital music sounds is by looking at its bit rate, or the amount of data that’s transmitted between the file you’re listening to, through the player you’re using, and to your ears. The more data, the better the sound (Note: the way music is mixed and mastered also plays a huge role in how music sounds. If the actual music is compressed while it’s being made, bit-rate won’t mater much).
Typical music streaming services like Apple Music or Spotify allow you to stream high-quality MP3s, which have a bit rate of 320kb (kilobytes). Music files on CDs have a bit-rate of 1,411 kbps (this is a limitation of the CD format). High-resolution music can have a bit rate of up to 9,216kbps. That’s a substantial difference, and if the music is mastered well, and you use nice equipment, you’ll notice a difference (Note: This difference may be minimized if you’ve suffer from hearing loss).
High-resolution music also has a larger sampling rate (basically the maximum frequencies you can hear from digital music). The higher the sampling rate, the more bass (low frequencies) and treble (high frequencies) you can hear. Both CDs and MP3s have a maximum sampling rate of 44.1kHz (kilohertz); high-resolution music can have a sampling rate of between 96kHz and 352.8kHz. A vast majority of high-resolution music files have a sampling rate of 96kHz or 192kHz, both of which are appreciably higher than the 44.1kHz cap on other digital files.
High-resolution streaming services allow you to stream music at 96kHz or 192kHz if you have the right gear. You still get access to a library of millions of songs; many of them are just available in high-resolution. If a song is not available in high-resolution, these services will offer the track or album at CD quality, which is still a big step above MP3 audio.
What Equipment Do You Need To Stream High-Resolution Music?
Thankfully there’s only one component you may need in order to listen to music in high resolution: a DAC (digital analog converter). Your computer, tablet, phone, TV, and stereo receiver all have a built-in DAC; it’s the component that converts digital files into sound you can hear, but not all of them support high-resolution audio files.
If you want to make the leap to high-resolution music listening on your phone, computer, or stereo, you may need a new DAC to do it. I’m recommending two DACs I’ve had good experiences with, or still use today. A lot of newer audio gear comes with support for high-resolution audio out of the box, but be sure to check, if you’d like to get the most out of your digital music.
1. AudioQuest Dragonfly Black
If you want to stream high resolution music on your phone, tablet, or computer, I recommend the Dragonfly Black DAC from AudioQuest. It’s about the size of a flash drive, and plugs directly into your device via USB. If you’re using a computer, you won’t need any other accessories to use it.
If you want to connect it to an iPhone, you’ll need this adapter; if you want to plug it into a newer Android phone, you’ll need this adapter. Once it’s connected, go to your device’s sound settings, and make sure the Dragonfly Black has been identified. In my experience, this has happened automatically, unless a pair of Bluetooth headphones were connected to the device at the same time.
When everything looks good, just plug your headphones into the audio out jack on the bottom of the Dragonfly DAC and hit play. I’m recommending this DAC because of its small size and ease of use, but it does have one limitation: it can only play digital files with a sampling rate of up to 96kHz.
High resolution streaming services will automatically downsample their files to the highest resolution your DAC supports. If you want to sacrifice some portability and power efficiency for 192Kz support, I recommend the Fulla 3 from Schiit audio.
2. Bluesound PowerNode 2i
Streaming services have typically been geared towards people who want to listen to songs on the go, but if you want to experience high-resolution music at home, I recommend Bluesound’s Powernode 2i. The combination DAC, streamer, and amp is a pretty good all-in-one solution for someone who wants to get serious about high-resolution music streaming.
The reason I love the Powernode 2i is because it’s compact and capable. All you need to do is connect a pair of speakers to it, and you’re all set. The Powernode 2i supports music resolutions up to 192kHz, and the company’s BluOS app (available on iOS and Android) allows you log into some high-resolution streaming services from the amplifier itself.
You will need to connect the Powernode 2i to your WiFi network to stream music through it, but the app walks you through the process, which takes about five minutes. One of the things I really like about this amp is that Bluesound continues to push software updates to it to improve its performance. The company can also push updates that add support for more high resolution streaming services as they become available, which future-proofs it a little bit.
Finally, if you’ve already assembled a local library of high resolution music, you can transfer the files to a flash drive, plug it into the Powernode 2i’s USB port, and play the music back that way. That bonus feature is great if you’re a digital audiophile who’s still a little uneasy about going all-in on streaming.
(Note: If you’re already happy with your amp or stereo receiver, and are only interested in being able to stream high-resolution music through it, I recommend Bluesound’s Node 2i, which is the Powernode 2i without an amp. It’s available on Amazon for $549.
Which High-Resolution Streaming Services Should I Try?
High-resolution streaming services have only been around for a short time, but there’s already a decent amount of competition in the space.
All of the services offer many of the same great features: On-demand streaming from a library of millions of songs, lossless (CD-quality) music of albums not available in high-resolution, and the ability to download music to some devices for offline listening.
Because high-resolution music has more data, the files are substantially larger than the CD or MP3 versions of the same songs. This means they’ll take longer to download, and will consume a lot more data to stream. If you’re on a mobile device, and have a data plan with a monthly cap, you should wait until you’re on WiFi to stream high-resolution music from these services.
The biggest differentiating factor between high-resolution music streaming services is that some artists release their music exclusively on one or another. Ask any artist though, and they’ll tell you to listen to their tracks in as hi-res of a format as you can, so you can really experience a song the way it was intended to be heard.
1. Amazon Music HD
Amazon’s Music HD is the company’s newly-launched high resolution music streaming service. It boasts a library of over 50 million tracks, and a surprising amount of them are available at “Ultra HD” resolutions, which means any music over 44.1kHz (CD-quality). Some songs are available at 192kHz while others top out at 96kHz (it depends on the files Amazon was sent by labels), but the company is transparent about the sample rate.
You can stream music from this service on your computer through Amazon’s website, or the Amazon Music app on Mac, PC, iOS, or Android. I’ve used Amazon Music HD on my Mac, iPhone, and iPad, and have been impressed with the results. I could easily tell the difference between high-resolution music I was streaming through Amazon Music HD and the MP3s I was streaming through Apple Music. As always, your milage may vary base on your hardware and hearing.
An Amazon Music HD subscription costs $14.99 per month, but is available for $12.99 per month to Amazon Prime subscribers. If you’ve never given Amazon Prime a try, you can get a 30-day free trial — here are some of our favorite perks. Amazon is also offering a 30-day free trial for Amazon Music HD, so you can test out the service on your gear to make sure it’s worth it for you.
TIDAL was the first music subscription service to offer CD-quality music streaming when it launched in 2014, but its new Hi-Fi service offers the ability to stream music at 96kHz. This is less than the 192kHz maximum resolution offered by Amazon, but TIDAL says it’s partnered directly MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) to create “master quality” music.
As I mentioned earlier, high resolution music has the ability to sound a lot better than CDs or MP3s, but the way music is actually made in the studio also plays a part. The commitment to helping create and source the best sounding versions of some albums, TIDAL has a distinct advantage over its competition. TIDAL’s music library includes over 60 million tracks, and while not all of them will be available in “TIDAL Master” quality, you’ll still be able to stream high quality versions of them.
Beyond music, a TIDAL subscription also gives you access to a collection of 250,000 music videos, exclusive interviews and videos. The service will also tell you if an artist you’re interested in has something new coming out. Perhaps the biggest perk is that TIDAL offers livestreams directly from the app, so you can see shows without leaving your home.
You can stream music from TIDAL through an app available on Mac, PC, iOS, and Android. You can also stream it directly through the Bluesound Powernode 2i I recommended above. A subscription to TIDAL Hi-Fi costs $19.99 per month, but the company is offers a 30-day free trial to check the service out for yourself.
Note: At the time of publication, TIDAL is offering four months of TIDAL Hi-Fi for $4. It’s a substantial discount, and this deal may not be around for much longer.
3. Download High-Resolution Music
If you’re used to owning all of your music instead of streaming it, or want to buy particular albums in high-resolution to compliment your current streaming service of choice, you’ve got a handful of options.
Popular digital music stores like the iTunes Store and Amazon Digital Music store don’t offer high-resolution music downloads right now, but Acoustic Sounds, Qobuz, and 7digital do. Qobuz also offers a high resolution streaming service with a maximum resolution of 192kHz. In some cases, the store may have worked with a label for exclusive rights to a particular mastering of an album (Acoustic Sounds and Analog Productions do this), or a musicians entire catalogue.
For the most part, you’ll find the same high-resolution files at all of these sites, and only have to choose between whether you’d like the 96kHz or 192kHz versions. Once you’ve downloaded the files, you’ll need to find a media player that can play music at its native resolution. I recommend VLC media player, which is available on Mac and PC. High-resolution music files don’t play very nicely with smartphones, so I recommend getting the Fiio M6, which is a dedicated portable music player that supports files up to 192kHz. The M6 is available for $129.99 at Amazon.