How to Stream CD-Quality Music

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Music streaming services are evolving. The likes of Spotify, Napster and Last.fm are firmly established, with huge catalogues and clever social features, but there’s one thing they don’t provide: CD-quality music streaming. Spearheaded by Tidal, a new wave of high-fidelity streaming sites can, however, fulfil the music fan's needs.
FLAC retains the rich quality of original tracks
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FLAC retains the rich quality of original tracks

What is Lossless Streaming?

Free Lossless Audio Codec, or FLAC, is the game-changing format that means music files sound as rich, punchy and clear as your CDs. MP3 and other formats compress music files by reducing the amount of detail you hear.

In the battle between quality and convenience, the latter wins and you’re able to download or stream in the blink of an eye. The downside is that, through a pair of decent headphones, music can sound flat and insipid.
FLAC files do not sacrifice music quality
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FLAC files do not sacrifice music quality

Files Won't Get FLAC

FLAC files favoured by Tidal and Qobuz also compress files – but in a way that means no reduction in sound quality.

As you play an FLAC file, it decompresses itself and lets you listen to it as its creator intended. No detail is sacrificed, no matter how incidental it seems. And it can all be piped through the internet and onto your mobile device in moments.
 
In terms of size, a typical FLAC file of about 30MB sits somewhere between a 60MB CD track and a far smaller 5MB MP3. Yet unlike an MP3, which casts off excess detail like so much ballast flung from a hot air balloon, an FLAC can regain the information it compresses so that sound quality is never compromised.
Make sure your home Wi-Fi is robust
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Make sure your home Wi-Fi is robust

Getting the Best out of it

A high bandwidth internet connection, wherever you are, is crucial. If you have a 500MB monthly data package on your smartphone, that’s going to be eaten up by one, 400MB lossless album stream.

Your home Wi-Fi connection will therefore take the brunt of any streaming – and even if you do want to download, it’s best to do it overnight rather than five minutes before dashing for your morning train.
 
Premium music streaming services go hand in hand with specialised audio gear. Your smartphone will happily handle music served via Tidal – but basic earbuds will mean all that lovely sound quality is simply not picked up. So, if you’re serious about music, your ears deserve a little investment. 
The Bose earphones are perfect for gym sessions
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The Bose earphones are perfect for gym sessions

Which Headphones?

So many options to choose from, and at hugely varied price points. Do you go for in-ear? Over-ear? Noise-cancelling? Wireless? Before you choose, remember that more money doesn’t automatically mean a better listening experience. Often, the bigger the driver, the fuller the sound, but other factors such as build quality, earphone shape or padding can have as a big an influence on whether you enjoy a particular pair.
 
eBay recommends: Bose Freestyle earphones offer all the sound quality you’d expect from Bose, with a moisture-resistant design that makes them perfect for delivering a high-fidelity gym soundtrack. A fantastic wireless option comes from Sennheiser. Its Momentum headphones are pricey but incredibly comfortable, and flawless in the sound department.

The FiiO gives great volume and clarity
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The FiiO gives great volume and clarity

Which Amplifier?

 
So you’ve just bought a brand spanking new pair of cans. Problem is, they still sound a little underpowered. That’s probably because all that extra capacity to generate fuller audio requires more power than the headphones’ own cord can deliver. A portable headphone amp will provide that boost, helping bass sound deeper and sharpening up treble.
 
eBay recommends: The FiiO E12 is a compact headphone amp that will give you more volume and clarity, whether you plug it into your mobile device or laptop. 
These Q Acoustics speakers are perfect for home listening
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These Q Acoustics speakers are perfect for home listening

Which Speakers?

Much like headphones, there’s a raft of wireless speaker options to choose from. Manufacturers such as SONOS offer full, multi-room systems, while everything from floor-standing to bookshelf speakers can be found in wire-free form. Build quality and driver size are keys to full-bodied sound.
 
eBay recommends: Q Acoustics build great sounding speakers at very affordable prices, and the company’s Q-BT3 Bluetooth speakers follow that tradition. Easy to set up and outputting true, mellow audio, these are the perfect partners to an extended home listening session.
Playlists are easy to create with Tidal
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Playlists are easy to create with Tidal

Best Streaming top 3: Tidal

Twenty-five million tracks, 16 audio manufacturer partners including Denon and SONOS… but the most important number here is 1,411.

That’s the bitrate, in kbps, at which Tidal streams its music, and it’s that bitrate that elevates your listening several notches above the likes of Spotify. You can opt to reduce, but the drop in quality is steep.
 
Offline listening is available thanks to a download function, while playlist creation is a cinch with drag-and-drop functionality. At £19.99 per month it’s double the price of most streaming services, but that’s more than justified for serious audiophiles.
Qobuz boasts a 16-bit FLAC streaming service
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Qobuz boasts a 16-bit FLAC streaming service

Qobuz

For sheer sound quality, Qobuz is Tidal’s only real rival. A 16-bit FLAC streaming service is offered, as well as a buy-to-download service – although purchasing individual albums will cost you almost as much as the monthly subscription of £19.99.

Downgrading the bitrate to 320kbps will halve the subscription fee to match Spotify’s, but for that you get a far more limited choice than the Swedish giant. 
Bowers and Wilkins' service complements its headphones
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Bowers and Wilkins' service complements its headphones

Bowers and Wilkins

More readily associated with high-end speakers and headphones, Bowers and Wilkins have launched a high-fidelity, curated library of albums.

Bowers and Wilkins Society of Sound members get to download two albums each month; the following month, two albums are added and two are removed.

The cost is £33.95 per year, and as well as the download club, there is also a separate store, and although the choice here is fairly limited, the prices are very competitive for CD-quality material. 
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