If you like the streaming music platform Spotify and sound quality is really important to you, here are some ideas and tips for how to get the best listening experience.
Firstly, the disclaimer. This article in no way endorses, recommends, or favours Spotify over the many other audio streaming services that are available such as Amazon, Apple Music, Tidal, Primephonic, Deezer, Qobuz and more. This is merely written to highlight ways that users of this particular (popular) streaming service can improve their experience. Many points could apply to other music streaming services.
Subscription music streaming service Spotify has 155 million premium subscribers and 345 million monthly active users. Spotify has a massive music catalogue with more than 50 million songs, with around 40,000 being added every day. In recent times and in a move to improve user engagement and get away from a reliance on music licensing, Spotify has been investing very heavily in podcasts. There are now 2.2 million podcasts available through the platform and with the pandemic, podcast consumption is reported to be up by around 100 per cent compared to the same time last year.
Audio files are very large and in order to be able to reduce the size and the bandwidth required by audio files and to minimise data usage, audio files need to be compressed. Lossless and lossy are the main types of compression for audio. The difference is that lossless compression (as the name suggests) squeezes the file size without taking anything away from it (it’s a near-perfect copy), and lossy removes elements from the audio file in a way that may be almost imperceptible to the listener in order to shrink the file.
With Spotify being an audio streaming service, the bitrate also affects how a listener perceives sound quality. Bitrate is the number of bits per second that can be transmitted along a digital network and a higher bitrate generally delivers better sound quality.
The highest bitrate supported by Spotify (for its Premium customers) is 320 kbps. Even lossy audio files can sound the same as lossless to listeners if the bitrate is high enough.
For most devices, the tiered default bitrate for Spotify’s ‘Automatic’ settings are thought to be 24 kbps (for low), 96 kbps (for normal), 160 kbps (for high), and for very high, 320 kbps.
The quality of the Wi-Fi signal also affects data transfer and, therefore, could impact on the bitrate. In short, a better, stronger Wi-Fi signal can contribute to a better music streaming experience. It is worth remembering that Wi-Fi signal quality is affected by many factors including how many other networks are on the same Wi-Fi channel, how many users in the building are using the Wi-Fi signal (same network), the data rate of the backhaul network that connects the Wi-Fi network to the Internet, and more.
Speakers and Headphones
Once the Spotify audio is delivered to the subscriber via their receiving device, the type and quality of speakers or headphones is another factor that can impact on a Spotify user’s experience.
The Spotify Connect service, available to Premium customers, enables users to stream songs over wi-fi (no Bluetooth pairing) to any compatible audio product in the user’s home (e.g. wireless speaker, soundbar, AV receiver or smart speaker) with just two presses of a button, rather than listening just via mobile or desktop. Spotify refers to these as Connect-enabled speakers.
Listening to streamed music through these other speaker systems could, therefore, be away to improve the listening experience.
Spotify ‘Hi-Fi’ Lossless, CD Quality
In February, Spotify announced that beginning later this year, Premium subscribers in select markets will be able to upgrade their sound quality to Spotify HiFi. Spotify says that this service will enable users to “listen to their favourite songs the way artists intended” and that Hi-Fi offers a “new high-quality music experience”. The company says that this better listening experience will be possible thanks to what it describes as its “high-quality music streaming” as well as CD-quality, lossless audio format to the user’s device and Spotify connect-enabled speakers.
There is, however, some debate online as to whether users will be able to clearly distinguish between the sound quality of lossless through Spotify Premium and Spotify Connect. For example, Premium already streams as 320 kbps (256 kbps on the web), which is the highest Spotify bitrate. Other variables such as a user’s hearing and a user’s audio/sound system could also make a difference. ABX offers a page to test whether a user’s system is “ready for lossless sound” on Spotify here: http://abx.digitalfeed.net/spotify-hq.html
The point and difference about Spotify Connect is that it offers the convenience of being able to listen to music on different speakers around the home using Wi-Fi.
Here are some other tips for getting the most from Spotify:
- On a mobile, in Spotify’s Settings (upper right of the app), scroll to find ‘Audio Quality’. This gives the option of setting the quality to ‘Very High’. In reality this decision should be balanced against a user’s data and storage space allowances.
- On the Web app, whereas a free version of Spotify plays at a 128kbps bitrate, Spotify Premium plays at 256kbps which may sound better. The web app also uses the more efficient AAC, which may contribute to a better sound than the desktop and mobile apps.
- On the desktop and mobile apps, leaving the ‘Normalize Volume’ control on helps to keep the volume/even up the different volumes of different songs so that user hears them all at one level (songs are mastered at different output volumes). This can be very helpful with playlists where there may different songs from different albums and different artists. Premium subscribers have the option of setting the Normalisation to ‘Quiet’, ‘Normal’, or ‘Loud’. The ‘Normal’ setting covers the dynamic range for most music and ‘Quiet’ offers the largest room for variations in dynamic range (e.g. for listening in a quiet setting).
There are many variables at work in getting the most out of Spotify or, indeed, many other music streaming services. Paying for services where there are higher bitrates and lossy compression, delivered with strong Wi-Fi signal and played through high quality audio equipment appears to the way to increase the possibility of getting a better listening experience. However, the ability for each individual to clearly hear the difference between the quality offered by different types of compression on audio is something that’s open to discussion.
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