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Spotify HiFi and Snake Oil Charlatans

Spotify HiFi
What is Spotify HiFi and What do the Naysayers have to Say?

Unless you have been living underground for the last week, any an ardent Audiophile would have heard the news about Spotify HiFi: their new CD quality streaming service.

Billed as being available later in the year in “select markets” (take from that what you will), with price to be announced, it might conceivably take its place as the streaming ‘pro champion’ to the ‘local league’ CD quality and above services from Tidal, Qobuz and Amazon. This is simply because of hard cold numbers….. Spotify has a subscription base of around 130m Premium subscribers and 286m monthly active users of a total 400m music subscriber market. This compares to Tidal’s 5m subscribers (unreported/estimated), with Qobuz and Tidal forming a 16% share of the market with other players**. Spotify’s announcement means the take up of CD streaming on mass, has the scope to really pin up the Audiophile agenda to the board.

Following their ‘Stream On’ event, Spotify have penned; ’High quality music streaming is consistently one of the most requested new features by our users’. Such sentiment is contextualised with an ever increasing demand for higher quality HiFi and streaming products at entry level. This would seem obvious to anyone poking around a HiFi store nowadays. The UK’s Richer Sounds has many more convenience based CD quality speaker offerings, like Sonos and TV sound-bars, than was the case 10 years ago. Even if it would be easy to scoff at this news against use of higher quality services from Tidal (including MQA) and Qobuz (including Hi-Res), being the new Spotify offering comes at the budget end of the market, with subscriber numbers mentioned, the economic benefits to us all are obvious. Cue everyone taking notice.

Spotify Stream On

Consequently this is great news from Spotify and to be welcomed by all. Who knows, eventually the ‘new normal’ might not even have anything to do with Covid-19, but streaming, by all users, of all available music at or above CD quality. 

Digital Audiophile music needs might predominantly and traditionally be met at the moment by Qobuz, Tidal and CD purchases/ripping. However price influencing competition not only means you’d take up streaming quick smart if you’ve never tried, but it offers way more choice for music artists and consumers. To boot – a service with at least as many tracks as competing services potentially means avoiding the need for multiple subscriptions. As a reminder, Tidal and Spotify are at ‘more than 60 million tracks’ and Qobuz is at 50 million. The advantages, if Spotify consumers start demanding more CD streams as a proportion of the overall catalogue, with a much bigger subscriber base, don’t need spelling out. There are clear and obvious benefits to the development of HiFi products too and the need for always having an eye on the sound quality agenda, which of course feeds back in Audiophile benefits. 

Spotify is accessible on devices as Spotify Connect via its own app, and with the exception of Sonos, meaning integration of Spotify on BluOS (Bluesound, NAD etc) and Roon for example, have at least as far as Spotify is concerned, to ‘do one’. Connect is somewhat an extra issue for HiFi firms in terms of implementation and development. However Spotify holds the voting cards on using their own app because of the sheer numbers mentioned and the way the market takes its music via app capable smartphones (with by the way, ever improving DACs etc). Otherwise you’d have the weird situation of your local McDonalds opening up table space for the ‘cafe around the corner.’

Liked Songs in Spotify App

Typically Tidal, at least, streams at around 800kbps (kilo bits per second) from its FLAC files. In other words some compression is going on against CD’s 16bit x 44.1kHZ sample rate x 2 channels for stereo, being 1411kbps. We might expect the same with Spotify HiFi, although the difference is next to damn it CD though!

This Spotify news, will and has, attracted the smoke and mirrors brigade who exclaim ‘snake oil’. Some of these articles need ‘shooting down’, because nobody should be pi**ing on Spotify’s bonfire, with this tremendous announcement.

This article from The Next Web titled ; “Before you pay for Spotify HiFi, try to pass this lossless audio test” refers to a website here called Digital feed.Net. This website professes to offer you the sublime and unequivocal reference, through an ABX test, for how Spotify HiFi will sound, against the most compressed file from Spotify’s current best quality offering. Before, I hasten to add, Spotify HiFi has even been released. Sorry for the sarcasm, but the point is – this testing website is beyond ridiculous! Even if you were to get all ‘correct’, for the 20 track test of discerning which music clip is X – either A or B and the nature of ABX tests, you’d have achieved a 20 heads coin toss probability of 1 out of over 2 million. Clearly they don’t want you to reach that level and the website even expresses you won’t. It appears too, this is the purpose for which the ‘testing site’ is geared.

But more worrying, we have no clue what the websites playback plugin is doing to the files, if anything. So too the Internet Service Provider – and there is no opportunity to download the files to inspect them. There is no information about how the files were created and relative compression, bit rates, software used, and so on. I contacted the website for information and will feedback and update this article if it is provided, but I’m not holding my breath. 

One wonders though if this website is converting a compressed lossy file in Ogg Vorbis, which Spotify uses currently for its best 320kbps streams, into an ‘uncompressed lossless’ FLAC copy of the same file, referenced as being ‘downloaded’ in the Spotify test of this site. Then having spent so much on your HiFi, making you sigh with exasperation when you can’t hear the difference. An inquisitive test with an Apple MacBook Pro and relatively inexpensive AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC ($300/£270 ) into a JDS Labs Atom headphone amp ($99/£99) could have had me guessing all day long on which track is which from this site. But flip to testing compressed Ogg 320kbps files versus CD quality rips of a known quantity, with the same gear, the story is very much different. Clearly to be expected amongst sensible and knowledgeable Audiophiles. So too with Tidal HiFi (CD quality) via Roon versus using the Spotify Connect app for 320kbps streams. Not a Spotify user? – download the free desktop app which streams at 160kbps and it’s even easier to discern.

Testing Environment – MacBook Pro, AQ DF Cobalt & JDS Labs Atom

I shouldn’t have to say that if you are an Audiophile with at least half decent DACs or HiFi gear, comparative lossy and lossless tests are basically like candy from a baby. That’s even before I’ve unplugged the DragonFly to pastures a-better! But in this internet world of subterfuge and confusion, it is worth exclaiming for the sake of clarity.

As came up in my film guide to DACs (below), the biggest changes in digital audio often come from implementation of the DACs, the DAC you use and their quality. To a lesser degree the digital source. But by no means does this mean quibbles about discerning differences like those above, which these snake oil ‘test’ websites seek to deconstruct and confuse.

An Easy / Beginners Guide to DACs

The acid test is always your gear, your ears, and a trial of the service and this is definitely the way Audiophiles should approach websites professing to tell you that you are wrong before you’ve even started. Vive Spotify. 

Key

** See here (Midia Research)

More Information

Five things to know about Spotify HiFi – see here

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Written by Simon Price

I'm an audio lover who likes sharing experiences of faithfully reproduced audio in a CREDIBLE, BALANCED and ENGAGING way. I’m interested in products; their looks, functionality and features, and most importantly how they sound! My reviews keep technicalities easy, as I believe great audio is non exclusive and to be enjoyed by all! It's all about the music!

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