Music Streaming isn’t Dammed, it’s an Enormous Waterfall
Dynamics compression, file formats, and sound-system hardware each influence the perception of music in different ways.
Virginia Heffernan’s Wired Magazine article entitled “Streaming Music Doesn’t Flow, It Evaporates” makes some very good points about the general quality of smart speakers. She also shines a light on the loudness war in which audio engineers use signal processing to compress the dynamic range of pop music to within an inch of its life, in an effort to make it sound louder than the next track.
But Heffernan’s piece conflates dynamics compression with audio file compression. Granted, it’s confusing that they’re both called “compression,” but they have 2 very different purposes and outcomes.
Dynamics compression can create the problem of squeezing the soul out of music when overused by flattening the range between low and high volume sounds in the mix.
Meanwhile, file compression reduces the actual number of bits in a digital file so that it can move more efficiently through the network pipes for applications like streaming. When this type of compression is overdone the music can begin to sound grainy but the dynamic range is not effected. In fact, the quality of file compression generally used today can’t easily be perceived by the average human ear. Of course there are those who’ll argue all day that music sounds bad on Spotify, but as a music producer and mastering engineer myself, I don’t hear it. If you do happen to have a super-perceptive ear though, you can use a service like Tidal which allows users to stream CD-quality audio.
The third issue that Heffernan touches on, and perhaps the most important, is sound system hardware quality. This has always been an issue whether listening to vinyl, CD, cassette, or streaming audio. The better the amplifier, speakers, etc, the better the sound (at least up to a certain point, but this is a discussion for another time).
Heffernan claims that “listening to streamed tunes through a smart speaker squeezes the ecstasy out of the experience,” which is surely true when said smart speaker is of low quality, but neither the speaker’s smartness nor the music’s source (streaming or otherwise) are very relevant to sound quality. What’s most relevant are the hardware components. When a good amplifier pushes well-matched speaker drivers, those sound vibrations will reach our body and soul just fine.
The digital era has opened the floodgates to more amazing music than ever before in history. Recording quality is the responsibility of artists and their engineers, and file compression quality has arguably been settled. Make sure you’ve got a good speaker system (smart or not); your music will sound amazing and closest to what the artists intended.