How Does It Sound? The Quality Of Your Music On Different Streaming Platforms

Edited By: Joy Jiang

 

It's hard to deny how convenient it is to stream music nowadays; the ability to find music, download it onto your computer or phone, and listen to it instantly has revolutionized the music industry so much so that just last year we've topped over 32 hours of average weekly music listening. This convenience is a testament to just how many streaming services the online world has provided us, but much like other information sharing platforms like Instagram or Facebook, they are not created equal. From technology giants like Google and Apple creating their own platform for music listening for their associated devices to other companies like Bandcamp and Soundcloud aimed at putting the artist first, these music streaming services can interpret your music a bit differently from each other, and these differences can determine whether the music you're listening to is the best that it can be.

Here, we'll be comparing a handful of well-known streaming services and see how they compare in the quality of your music.

Spotify

With about 70 million users paying a subscription to listen to music, we'll be starting off with Spotify. When paying a monthly subscription, a Spotify Premium user will give you a few options in terms of how you want your music to be downloaded and streamed, found in the app's settings. If you do not change your settings, Spotify will automatically stream your music at "Normal Quality", which is 96kbps(kilobits per second). This means that Spotify's "Normal Quality" stores 96 kilobits of information per second of a song. This doesn't sound too bad until compared with Spotify's "Extreme Quality", which streams your music at 320kbps. At this bitrate, you'll be able to hear music "richer, clearer, and brighter", and is evident in more complex or bass-heavy music. Spotify will also download your music based on your device's network speed, but there is no way to know for sure what bitrate you are listening and downloading your music to unless you manually change the quality in settings.

 

Apple Music

Apple Music does not offer as many quality adjustments as Spotify does, but it has been confirmed that they stream and download tracks at 256kbps. While this is a slightly lower bitrate than Spotify's highest stream quality, Apple Music encodes their music in Advanced Audio Coding(AAC), while Spotify encodes their music in Ogg Vorbis. AAC and Ogg Vorbis are different file types that music can be compressed and stored in, similar to an MP3 file, and it has been tested that AAC has a "better quality" compression format compared to Ogg Vorbis, and a 128kbps file encoded in AAC was found to be "functionally indiscernible from the original [music] source" aka CD or original recorded quality.

Google Play Music

Little information was found on the exact bitrates that Google Play streams their music at, but a few sources say that the platform can stream compressed audio formats "up to 320kbps", comparable with Spotify and Apple Music. Google Play Music also allows you to choose the quality of your stream, with options ranging from Low, Normal, and High. By default, the app will stream your music at High if over wifi to ensure the best quality on the platform but can encounter some buffering if the network is slow or busy.

 

SoundCloud

When an artist uploads their music to Soundcloud, the platform will automatically convert the file to 128kbps in order to accommodate the track to their streaming system, fairly low compared to the other streaming services we've discussed here. But, if an artist gives the option of allowing downloads for their track, the quality of the track can be based on the quality of the artist's upload. So, if an artist uploaded a file that was CD quality, and an artist opts for a user to be able to download the track, chances are the user will be able to get that same quality onto their own device. This discrepancy may be partly due to the fact that the platform is focused more on the selling and downloading of content rather than using the actual platform to listen to music at a high quality

 

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Bandcamp

When downloading a purchased track, Bandcamp will automatically download it for you as an MP3 file at 128kbps, but the user has the option of downloading as a different audio file such as FLAC or Ogg Vorbis. The company's website also says that it uses "variable bit-rate encoding(VBR)" to shrink the file size in order to lessen the amount of space the track will be on your device. What this means is that the way the track is encoded allows the bitrate to vary across the entirety of the track, such as lowering the bitrate in softer parts of a track or increasing it at more complex parts of the track, allowing for a higher quality to file size ratio. While a VBR file will give you the highest quality, no data was found on whether a user has the option to download an artist's original file like SoundCloud does.

 

While this article gives a very broad overview of a couple of music streaming platforms, and a lot of other components such as headphones and electronic device are factored in to how a specific music track will ultimately sound, knowing how a streaming platform will interpret and play your music is especially important for those seeking to get the right quality from the music that they produce. All in all, if you're wondering why your music might sound completely different than what you might hear straight from an artist's album, considering doing some research on how your music was interpreted and streamed.

 

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Architecture History and Design Double Major and Environmental Geography Minor at the University of Toronto

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