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« Boosting Views on Your Videos and Engagement with Your Fans | Main | MusicThinkTank.com Weekly Recap: The Rise of Vinyl & more »
Monday
Jul162012

Can the Cloud Satisfy the Streaming Audio Demands of Bit Snobs?

I am a music owner and I demand accurate sound reproduction, having converted my entire physical collection to weightless digital form, CD quality or better. But, in the words of self-described futurist Gerd Leonhold, “Access [to music] is replacing ownership, like it or not. Participate or become insignificant.” Bob Lefsetz was more blunt: “Ownership is for pussies.”

Cloud-based streaming services provide access to low-bit-rate compressed music, typically no higher than 128 Kbps, targeting low-fi mobile devices. Over 7% of all mobile internet traffic in North America is streaming audio. What does the music industry think of this listener experience? Lefsetz, again: “Instead of soul, we have two-dimensional garbage.”

Ownership is for pussies but lossy compressed music is garbage. What is a music-owning bit snob to do, other than become insignificant?

More than 90 million CDs were purchased in the first half of 2012. Let’s say an average buyer purchases one title per month. Sales figures therefore represent an army of roughly 15 million listeners who can potentially be moved from ownership to access. If we all switched over tomorrow, could some new streaming service in the Cloud duplicate the listener experience of playing the CD quality or high-res digital audio we already own? Let’s run the numbers.

Storage. Most cloud-based music storage services offer 5 GB of space for free. But high-res audio is big data. My collection runs 800 GB. Assuming some room for growth, I’ll need 1,000 GB (1 TB) of space. The going retail rate for disc space is roughly five cents per GB, so I can buy 1 TB for fifty bucks. Or, I can rent 1 TB from Amazon for $1,000/yr. (Say it out loud: a thousand dollars a year.) Advantage: ownership.

Content. There really is no need to have 15 million individual copies of Abbey Road (the best-selling LP of both 1969 and 2011) in the Cloud. All owners could share one cloud-based copy. Instead of storing our personal libraries, the Cloud would merely have to provide a CD-quality (or higher) digital copy of the collective holdings of 15 million listeners. Let’s start with a copy of ECM 1206 from my collection. Unfortunately not available from the label, never released on CD. I’ll stick with my high-res digital transfer from the out-of-print LP I bought way back. Advantage: ownership.

Network Traffic. According to Sandvine, median monthly usage on North American fixed access networks in the first half of 2012 was 10.3 GB and mean monthly usage was 32.1 GB. Streaming CD-quality audio just two hours a day would increase mean monthly usage by 50%. Streaming high-res audio for the same period would increase that figure by almost 300%. Multiply that load by 15 million new streamers and carriers hasten their cessation of unlimited data plans. Add hordes of young people already addicted to streaming — now shown to prefer CD quality audio over lossy alternatives — and the internet comes to a halt. Advantage: ownership.

 Intangibles. I don’t want to have to register with Facebook to listen to my music (I’m talking to you, Spotify). I will not have the experience interrupted by advertising (commercial services). I don’t want promoted content inserted into every playlist I create (Pandora). Advantage: ownership.

The spirit may be willing, but the Cloud is weak. Until the issues of bandwidth and freedom of choice are addressed, I’ll content myself streaming high-fidelity owned digital audio through the Fog (the wireless cloud inside my house).

 

[About the author. Consumer Electronics and Software industry veteran Tom Dennehy publishes the online journal Surface to Air, triangulating among ideas and events at the intersection of the analog music past and the digital future. Follow him on Twitter @InAurem_a2d.]

Reader Comments (12)

To eliminate one of your intangibles. You can get a Spotify account without Facebook. Here is how http://www.spotidj.com/blog/?p=853

July 16 | Unregistered CommenterSpotiDJ

Well, to answer your question, no, it can't. But I guess the truth is that the vast majority of listeners do not hear the difference, and most consumer-grade listening systems don't really have the response to show it either. As you say, streaming in general tends to be marketed towards mobile and related devices.

Personally, I just wish people cared a bit more about the integrity of the audio they're listening to. Even an untrained ear can hear the difference between their laptop and some decent full-range speakers. A laptop, smart phone or cheap computer speakers really only recreate, at most, about half of the audible sound.

So I'd say that when consumer speakers get better, listeners might finally start noticing that streaming sounds like crap and we can move on with it all.

I also do think that streaming services are indeed shortchanging their customers. Most that I've heard really only play back around ~100kbps, when just bumping that up to a mere ~150-200 starts to at least eliminate the major phase errors that you run in to with lossy transform-type compression. We do video streaming at sites like Hulu and it's almost completely seamless, so I really don't think that sheer transfer speed is the issue.

Maybe streaming services should start offering tiered options that vary in quality. If I used streaming, I'd pay more to hear something that actually resembled the master.

July 16 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Staver

Convenience will trump quality every time. The illustrated manuscript of the 14th century was much better to look at than the printed page of the 16th century - but you could actually buy a printed book. TV was, at first, not as good as the movie screen, but everyone bought a TV. Cell phone sound quality was worse (and maybe still is) than land-lines, but everyone has a cell phone. The CD vs MP3 issue was settled when the iPod came out - how many folks do you see with portable CD players?

Digital music files are a classic disruptive technology - what they lack in quality they more than make up for in convenience. Vinyl is what, 2% of all physical sales? That is about where superior quality will take you in terms of the entire market. 40 years ago I listened to rock and roll on a 3-transistor radio with a 2 inch speaker - because I could take it anywhere.

It's an old story - and the outcome is obvious.

July 16 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Muller

With cloud-music economics, access to streaming should trump ownership - storing and moving 1000 physical CDs is a pain! Besides, digital music streaming at CD quality is a reality today.

Try the OraStream app from Apple app store or beta.orastream on web browsers; where music streams at 1,000 kbps.

July 17 | Unregistered CommenterOraStream

[Author reply.] With regard to comment #1. It used to be that all a hacker had to do to steal (portions of) your identity was to offer you access to porn. Now the lure is access to Spotify without registering with Facebook.

The link outlines a 15-step back-door process for registering with Spotify without Facebook by spoofing Spotify to believe you are registering from Germany, where requiring a link to Facebook is illegal. Any one of the steps could be shut down at any time, rendering the process useless. Of more risk to anyone attempting this registration process is the step where you have to give your credit card information to an untrusted proxy server suggested by the process author.

Anyone who takes that step deserves the outcome. I stand by my statement that there is no legitimate way to access Spotify without registering with Facebook first.

July 25 | Registered CommenterTom Dennehy

Tom Dennehy,
I think you mis-read some of the steps.
Specifically, the author (um... me) says to only use the proxy to set up the basic anonymous info. Once that's done, you SHOULD NOT use the proxy at all.
After that, you are supposed to log in to the Spotify.com website using a secure browser with a secure connection (ie: no proxy!) and change your country/payment details. Doing it that way ENSURES that you're not giving your personal info to anyone except Spotify. I trust their 256-bit encryption...
If you're REALLY super paranoid, you can delete your cookies after the first 5 steps. The author *ahem* didn't mention that, since it seemed unnecessary.

You're right that it may not work forever (Spotify can easily block the German proxy's IP), but it works now. And you're not giving any real personal information when you're in that space, other than an email address. Hell, even that can be faked (Spotify doesn't sent a verification e-mail), so you can put dan-is-an-ass@shutup.co.uk and it'll still work. You can even change the email address after you've registered.

Cheers.
Dan

July 26 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Spotify and MOG download and stream at 320 kbps. You can't hear the difference between that and lossless. Really. Access ftw.

July 27 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Hazard

@Brian - To careful music listeners or those with good audio speakers or headphones, more audio data or higher bitrates in lossless music files can make a big difference in sound quality.

Several factors today are making the case for higher sound quality of music. Download speeds including wireless connectivity are increasingly fast; people can now wire music via smart-phones and tablets into stereos at home and in cars. Digital music retailers are improving the audio quality of music files they sell as most smart-phones and computers can support higher resolution audio music files.

Does one hear the difference? Like vision; you can tell the difference between HDTV and standard TV, you should hear a substantial difference. The music will sound cleaner, the bass will be tighter and you should notice a higher definition in instruments and the vocal.

If you are going to pay for digital music, you might as well listen in the highest quality sound available....after all, it wasn't that long ago when music meant lossless.

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterOraStream

I respectfully disagree. We've seen time and time again that even music professionals can't tell the difference in blind testing. Here's a recent not-so-scientific study, where the only bitrate that noticeably sounded worst to the vast majority of listeners was 128 kbps.

http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/06/concluding-the-great-mp3-bitrate-experiment.html

Fwiw, I'm a mastering engineer, and strong advocate for audio quality - where it matters.

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Hazard

@Brian - thanks for the link; his readers' comments disagree though!

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterOraStream

Don't take my word for it. Try it yourself!

http://mp3ornot.com/

July 28 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Hazard

Hi please help.I need to create space so need to get rid of CDs gulp.Can I stream from iCloud into a decent Dac say chord qbd and play back to cd quality or better advice needed guys.

September 20 | Unregistered CommenterJay

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