Lossless Music Streaming: Advantages and Disadvantages

Lossless music streaming is becoming a thing. A small company, Tidal, that started out in Norway, which offers lossless streaming, was recently purchased by one Jay-Z, even though it has a few users. It has just announced that it will be expanding its service to a total of 30 countries.

The French company Deezer, which offers Deezer Elite, a lossless streaming service, is expanding this to 150 countries. And the French Qobuz has been offering lossless streaming for a while, but hasn’t yet spread very far.

So what does all this mean? Is lossless streaming a good thing? What are the pros and cons of streaming lossless music?

First, what is lossless? This is music that is compressed in a way that, when it is played back, the musical data is exactly the same as on a CD. I explain how lossless compression works and discuss the different lossless formats in this article.

Is lossless music a good thing? Well, if you’re at home, listening to music on a very good stereo, you might hear the difference between lossless music and, say, 320 kbps MP3 or AAC files. But, then again, you probably won’t. If you’re outdoors, walking down a street, or riding a bus or train, then you won’t hear a difference, no matter how good your headphones.

The drawback with lossless music is that it uses a lot more data than standard AAC or MP3 files. If you take music from the iTunes Store as a benchmark, a 4-minute track takes up about 7.5 MB, compared to 15-30 MB for the same track in a lossless format. Because of the way lossless compression works, file size – and effective bit rates – vary greatly. In a test I did a few years ago, I found that, for a number of classical works, the effective bit rate of lossless tracks varied from 446 kbps to 902 kbps, or a difference of a factor of two (though these are not absolute limits).

Lossless

Because of this, streaming lossless music will eat up your mobile data more than twice as fast as AAC or MP3 streams. A couple of hours of lossless music is easily a gigabyte of data. If you’re one of the few people with a truly unlimited data plan, and you’ve streaming to a very good stereo, you might want to try this. Otherwise, you’re better off streaming compressed music.

18 thoughts on “Lossless Music Streaming: Advantages and Disadvantages

  1. I have had lossless bit rates around 300 Kbps for monophonic acoustic blues tracks, while modern brickwalled recordings can easily be 1100 Kbps.

  2. I have had lossless bit rates around 300 Kbps for monophonic acoustic blues tracks, while modern brickwalled recordings can easily be 1100 Kbps.

  3. Hey Kirk.

    I follow you regularly and value your insights, but all this ranting about lossless is wearying.

    You say:

    “Well, if you’re at home, listening to music on a very good stereo, you might hear the difference between lossless music and, say, 320 kbps MP3 or AAC files. But, then again, you probably won’t. If you’re outdoors, walking down a street, or riding a bus or train, then you won’t hear a difference, no matter how good your headphones.”

    I’m not sure what qualifies you to tell anyone else what they can or cannot hear.

    This whole argument comes down to: Some can & some can’t
    Not: No one ever can …

    You do yourself and your audience a disservice when you cross the line about people’s subjective experiences. I’m sure you’re aware that the only hearing you can speak to is your own.

    Superimposing your personal opinions will only serve to marginalize your loyal readers.

    Either way, I’m still committed to be one of them …

    Bill

    • Bill, assuming you can hear the difference between CD quality and high-quality compressed files, the differences will be very, very slight, and will be overwhelmed by the background noise if you’re out in the world. That’s not an opinion; that’s fact. If you have noise-canceling headphones, the subtle distortion they introduce will mask any differences in the audio quality. This is truly objective and measurable; you can even get apps for the iPhone that will show you how many dBs of background noise their is when you’re outside.

    • Surely the point was not whether it is possible to hear the difference between a 320kbps AAC file and a Lossless file, but that the benefit of said difference would likely be outweighed by the data needed to transfer said larger file? e.g. If there is an audible improvement of 10% to 25%, is it worth paying to stream 100% to 300% more data?

  4. Hey Kirk.

    I follow you regularly and value your insights, but all this ranting about lossless is wearying.

    You say:

    “Well, if you’re at home, listening to music on a very good stereo, you might hear the difference between lossless music and, say, 320 kbps MP3 or AAC files. But, then again, you probably won’t. If you’re outdoors, walking down a street, or riding a bus or train, then you won’t hear a difference, no matter how good your headphones.”

    I’m not sure what qualifies you to tell anyone else what they can or cannot hear.

    This whole argument comes down to: Some can & some can’t
    Not: No one ever can …

    You do yourself and your audience a disservice when you cross the line about people’s subjective experiences. I’m sure you’re aware that the only hearing you can speak to is your own.

    Superimposing your personal opinions will only serve to marginalize your loyal readers.

    Either way, I’m still committed to be one of them …

    Bill

    • Bill, assuming you can hear the difference between CD quality and high-quality compressed files, the differences will be very, very slight, and will be overwhelmed by the background noise if you’re out in the world. That’s not an opinion; that’s fact. If you have noise-canceling headphones, the subtle distortion they introduce will mask any differences in the audio quality. This is truly objective and measurable; you can even get apps for the iPhone that will show you how many dBs of background noise their is when you’re outside.

    • Surely the point was not whether it is possible to hear the difference between a 320kbps AAC file and a Lossless file, but that the benefit of said difference would likely be outweighed by the data needed to transfer said larger file? e.g. If there is an audible improvement of 10% to 25%, is it worth paying to stream 100% to 300% more data?

  5. If you follow Kirk’s logic, Tidal’s lossless streaming is only of value in a high-end stereo system at home. But at home, you will presumably be using wifi, so data limits are not an issue.

    I have recently signed up for Tidal, and find it very good indeed. I can clearly hear the improvement over iRadio, the only other streaming service I’ve tried. To be fair, I’m using an expensive external DAC, etc., but the price is easily worth it for me. As we say on audio forums, Your Mileage May Vary.

  6. If you follow Kirk’s logic, Tidal’s lossless streaming is only of value in a high-end stereo system at home. But at home, you will presumably be using wifi, so data limits are not an issue.

    I have recently signed up for Tidal, and find it very good indeed. I can clearly hear the improvement over iRadio, the only other streaming service I’ve tried. To be fair, I’m using an expensive external DAC, etc., but the price is easily worth it for me. As we say on audio forums, Your Mileage May Vary.

  7. I agree with Artie. As an iTunes Match subscriber already, the value of Apple Music is only for checking out music not already in my library. iCloud in Apple Music is an avoidable disaster for your extensive and “sacred” library, as Kirk has described in other posts, and he is right that bit rate doesn’t matter if you’re out and about riding the Underground, but I hope to listen to new music at home with my fancy-schmancy tube amp driven headphones, and hi-fi stereo system where the higher bit rates will clearly make a difference, so I don’t have to buy the CD’s anymore. It’s assumed that our ears can tell the difference between 256 and 1411 on a decent sound system, correct? Recommendations for lossless streaming welcome. Thanks!

  8. I agree with Artie. As an iTunes Match subscriber already, the value of Apple Music is only for checking out music not already in my library. iCloud in Apple Music is an avoidable disaster for your extensive and “sacred” library, as Kirk has described in other posts, and he is right that bit rate doesn’t matter if you’re out and about riding the Underground, but I hope to listen to new music at home with my fancy-schmancy tube amp driven headphones, and hi-fi stereo system where the higher bit rates will clearly make a difference, so I don’t have to buy the CD’s anymore. It’s assumed that our ears can tell the difference between 256 and 1411 on a decent sound system, correct? Recommendations for lossless streaming welcome. Thanks!

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