Spotify, Tidal, Deezer, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Qobuz are just a few of the music streaming platforms that you can access through a music streamer or a streaming amplifier to delivery the ultimate in hi-res quality
Most of us already own a 'basic' music streamer in the form of a computer, tablet, or smartphone. All these devices offer the ability to stream music when connected to a network with an internet connection. However, a dedicated music streamer provides greater performance over these multi-use devices. Expect significantly better quality digital-to-analogue converters (DACs), improved connectivity options, and greater codec support. Your dedicated music streamer connects to the net via wi-fi or ethernet cable, and several models integrate access to music streaming services, including hi-res offerings.
As well as music streaming services, several streamers can access 'locally stored' music, such as tracks held on USBs, external hard drives, and network-attached storage (NAS) drives. Some streamers come with internal storage or at least the option of paying for internal storage – tread carefully here as simply buying for your own external storage is often the most cost-effective and most flexible solution.
The best-known audio codec – an abbreviation of coder-decoder or compression-decompression – is MP3. The nattily named 'moving picture experts group layer-3 audio technology' was the driving force of the boom in portable audio players with its ability to reduce the file size dramatically. Unfortunately, MP3 also dramatically reduces sound quality. These days streaming services offer much-improved audio quality employing far more capable codecs, such as ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec), FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), and MQA (Master Quality Authenticated).
Music streaming services enable access to millions of recordings at the touch of a button. Most users stream their music over the internet or your mobile phone network – see offline listening for times when this is not possible. At the time of writing, Spotify is the service with the most subscribers ahead of China's Tencent Music, Apple, and Amazon. However, Spotify is stalling on releasing its promised 'CD-quality Spotify HiFi high-quality music experience.
Music streaming services also often offer the option to download tracks to a compatible device, such as your smartphone, for offline listening. Downloading music ensures that you can continue listening to your favourite choons even when you're without a signal – great if you're, for example, on a plane or the underground, and when you're enduring enjoying all that the remote countryside has to offer.
You can buy a music download in much the same way you would buy a CD or vinyl album back in the day. But everything takes place online. Some online stores offer hi-res downloads, and once you have purchased and downloaded the album, it is yours forever. Remember, when you subscribe to a music streaming service, you are only borrowing the music – stop paying the subscription, and you lose access to your tunes. Purchase and download your song, and it doesn't matter if your internet connection's down – you still have access to your music.
There is no universally agreed definition of what qualifies as hi-res audio. A smart black and gold hi-res audio logo – initially created by Sony but now under the control of the Japanese Audio Society – exists, but its take-up is limited. Just because your gear doesn't sport the Hi-Res Audio logo doesn't mean it's not capable of hi-res. The best we can advise is that hi-res means' better than CD quality'. So, a greater bit-depth and sampling rate than CD's 16-bit / 44.1kHz. If you're looking to stream hi-res audio, Amazon, Apple, Deezer, Qobuz, and TIDAL offer audiophile-quality tiers.
A streaming amp is an (ordinarily integrated) amplifier – it could be stereo or multichannel – that also houses music streaming smarts. Hi-fi purists often vote for as many separate boxes as possible, but the streaming amp brings a large helping of convenience. They can sound excellent, too. For those content to stream their music, they just need to add a pair of speakers, a fixed or wireless internet connection, and a music streaming service subscription.