Can Streaming Sound Better than CD?

Discussion in 'Computer and digital audio' started by David C. Snyder, Nov 24, 2016.

  1. It's a good question, and as the music industry struggles to rediscover a reliable revenue stream in the shadow of declining year over year CD sales, playback technology continues to advance at a break-neck pace. There's even evidence from the first half of 2016 that the resurgence of vinyl slowing down, as are digital downloads. All of this points to one thing...the general population, including many audiophiles, is losing interest in owning music (physical media and downloads) in favor of renting. This change in attitude towards music ownership dovetails nicely with the music industry's shift towards monetizing music consumption through licensed streaming services that are ad and/or subscription supported.

    Music subscription services are nothing new, but over the last few years, typical stream quality has increased from 64 or 96kbps to 256 or 320kbps, with a few services like TIDAL HiFi, Deezer Elite, and Qobuz even offering streams with lossless compression. DSD live streaming is available in Japan, and Meridian is telling us that MQA streaming is just around the corner.

    We may have video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, and others to thank for the increase in both demand and supply of faster Internet speeds. Uncompressed/lossless 16-bit, 44.1kHz or even higher resolution audio requires a small fraction of the bandwidth demanded by HD and 4k video streams. While these speeds have not made it to every rural area in the US, Internet bandwidth at home that's sufficient for reliable 16-bit, 44.1kHz audio streaming with lossless compression is common if not universal.

    The question that a modern audiophile might ask is, "When will streaming come of age and merit serious consideration as a viable first-class source in a high-performance playback system?" I submit that this time is just around the corner for most of us and is already here for early adopters. Within the next 5-10 years, I predict that virtually all of us will be doing both critical and enjoyment listening via audiophile streaming services nearly as often as via physical media and purchased downloads.

    Most of us will hang on to our physical media since nothing can take away the joy of ownership or the fun of collecting rare out-of-print pressings and limited edition masters. But the bulk of music discovery and playback hours will, for most of us, gradually shift towards streaming as the sound quality matches or possibly exceeds what we have become accustomed to from CD playback.

    You might be wondering, "How in the world can the sound quality of streaming audio ever exceed that of spinning a physical CD?" Another good question, and ignoring the possible future of high-rez PCM, DSD, and MQA streaming for a moment, the answer may have to do with memory-based digital transports vs. real-time playback and the associated vibrations and errors due to spinning a plastic disc at 200-500 RPM. Playing digital music from RAM is a completely silent and vibration free process that's virtually if not entirely error-free. The technology required to shuttle that bitstream from the media player's memory to an external (typically USB) DAC has also matured dramatically in the last few years, minimizing or eliminating the deleterious effects of jitter and transport borne electrical noise. Assuming exactly the same master content on the streaming service, a high-quality memory-based media player can now finally outperform the most elaborate CD transports and players from years ago.

    If you're still with me, I've just asserted that the sound quality of playback from Internet streaming services like TIDAL can match or exceed that of spinning CDs in your big rig! What??! That's right. But just like anything else in high-performance playback, it takes some work to get there. Running that awesome Morrow MA2-POD REFERENCE cable from the headphone jack of your iPhone or laptop to the back of your Audio Research LS28 is not likely to result in audio bliss. Since this post is already getting rather long, I'll stop here and share more details for anyone who is still interested later. In the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts or post questions in this thread.
    Last edited: Nov 24, 2016
  2. Morrow Audio

    Morrow Audio Mike Morrow Staff Member

    Very interesting and insightful! Thanks for sharing.
    David C. Snyder likes this.
  3. Playing music from memory--it's what many great musicians do. Have you ever seen Miles Davis or Yuga Wang reading sheet music? My wife and I saw her play all 30,000+ notes from Rachmaninoff's third piano concerto from memory; it was breathtaking! Playing from memory almost always results in a better performance. The performer is not distracted by the printed page, so they are free to focus all of their attention on rendering a work of art that they know so well.

    Although the mechanics are different, the same sort of thing applies to music playback via our stereo systems--the performance can be better when we eliminate the need to spin physical media or otherwise transfer digital music data from one place to another during playback. Just like in the analog components of our playback systems, everything matters in digital audio and can have an impact on sound quality. Transferring data from a spinning disc, hard disk, USB drive, or even from the network while music is playing will typically sound a bit worse than slurping the entire track or album into RAM first and then playing from memory. It makes sense when you think about it. Electrically, there are multiple things going on that all place separate demands on the power supply and generate mechanical vibrations and/or electrical noise when a playback component is tasked with reading physical media during playback.

    A few forward-thinking makers of traditional CD/SACD players have realized this and are starting to develop memory based players. A recent example is from my friend, Paul McGowan over at PS Audio. His new PerfectWave CD/DVD Memory player does exactly what I'm describing. Essentially, it "memorizes" the music by "ripping" digital audio from the disc into solid state memory before playback. Pretty cool technology, and by all accounts, it works amazingly well!

    Of course, one reason that CD players have not always taken this approach is because RAM prices when the CD first hit the market where many orders of magnitude higher than they are today. In the 80's, 1GB of RAM was inconceivable while now you can buy 8GB for less than $20. Change takes time, but as more audiophiles and manufacturers become aware of the benefits of memory based playback, I'm sure that more products will be developed that adopt this approach--especially now that hardware costs are so low and high throughput networks, communications busses, and optical drives are commonplace.

    Although I have not specifically mentioned streaming in this post (until now), I promise that this discussion has something to do with it. I hope to explain more tomorrow. :)
  4. Playing music from memory is a game changer in digital audio because it decouples delivery medium and format from real-time rendering. You've probably heard some folks claim that uncompressed file formats like WAV or AIFF sound better than losslessly compressed formats like FLAC or ALAC/M4A even though the raw PCM data contained within are verifiably identical. So much for "bits are bits!" There are actually downsides to both approaches: employing lossless compression and playing uncompressed files. More CPU cycles are required to uncompress a lossless file (FLAC/M4A) during playback, but roughly 72% more CPU interrupts are required to read the same track from storage or the network if it has been saved in an uncompressed (WAV/AIFF) format. Each of these conditions has the potential to impact sound quality in a highly resolving system. Neither of them is ideal!

    The obvious solution is to read the entire track and uncompress it into memory before playback begins. This is exactly what JRiver Media Center (version 22 and above) does when the "Play files from memory instead of disk" and "Load files into memory at the start of playback" settings are enabled:

    [​IMG]

    This feature eliminates the negative effects of real-time decompression and I/O related CPU interrupts during playback. It also levels the playing field across all of the supported file formats, delivery paths, and protocols. Playback does not begin until the file is read in its entirety and uncompressed (if applicable) into RAM. I expect that JRiver will continue to improve the functionality of this feature and other media players will follow suit. The benefits are obvious for local playback but especially for streaming lossless content from online services like TIDAL.

    I have not confirmed, but I expect that the Aurender N10 and similar high-end music servers take a similar approach--caching the digital content entirely to RAM before beginning playback. If you have $8k to spend on a single-box solution that plays your local files and streams from Internet services like TIDAL, the N10 is by all accounts a great way to go. On the other hand, it is possible to build a system that benefits from this same approach for quite a lot less. In my next post, I'll describe how and include some gotchas to watch out for.
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2016
  5. Lewis Smith

    Lewis Smith Well-Known Member

    This sounds way to complicated for me so I just use Pandora. I know it's not quality sound as compared to a LP or CD. But I like the convenience.
    Last edited: Nov 26, 2016
    David C. Snyder likes this.
  6. It's not as complicated as perhaps I'm making it sound...but I wanted to take some time to explain the "whys" before getting into the "whats", which I promise are not significantly more complicated to operate than Pandora, Spotify, etc. Thanks for reading this far! :)
  7. Francis

    Francis Active Member

    In interesting insights.

    In addtion, for the digital music world, IMO,
    Always look for a low power CPU which generate less heat.

    I have experience that Linux base OS is superior to Windows. I guess the Linux audio path has much simplier architect than Windows. I have tried J River, foobar and although J River is better than foobar on the same PC, it is inferior to my UDOO board + Volumio combo. (Though setting up a Linux system is not for computer novice). Linux board set up such as raspberry pi is what i am working on.
    For those who are interest: https://volumio.org

    Getting all the data 1's and 0's, whether from CD or RAM, is the first step. Next will be the DAC. And in between lies the USB architecture. There's always debate between USB and coaxial. And don't forget the shortest native path, I2S, which bypass the USB.
    I think the core of the DAC lies in the digital clock.

    Still a lot to explorer in the digital music world.
    David C. Snyder likes this.
  8. The Computer Audiophile does a better job than I could do to explain the theory and components necessary to build a DLNA capable memory player here:


    Please have a look since he has a number of helpful diagrams there. His final image is almost identical to the setup that I'm using:

    [​IMG]

    This looks complicated; however, assuming that you already have a home network with wi-fi and Internet access, the enabling audio-specific components are:
    1. Hand-held TIDAL player with DLNA support (eg. BubbleUPnP for DLNA/Chromecast)
    2. Memory based media player with DLNA support (eg. JRiver Media Center) with USB output
    3. USB DAC (eg. iFi micro iDAC2)
    If you have more money than time, there are several full-proof ways to set up a memory-based digital playback system, including The Memory Player (~$35,000), Aurender N10 ($8,000), and PS Audio DirectStream Memory Player ($6,000)--I have no direct experience with any of these, but by all accounts, they are fabulous. However, if you don't mind tinkering a little, you can build something that benefits from this technology for much less. Here's a parts list that I do have a lot of experience with:
    1. TIDAL Hi-Fi music subscription ($19.99/month)
    2. LG Android tablet ($0.01 from a new phone promotion) running BubbleUPnP ($4.69)
    3. Quantum Byte Fanless PC ($169.99)
    4. JRiver Media Center ($49.98)
    5. Fidelizer Pro audio optimizer ($69.95)
    6. iFi iPower 12V supply ($49.00)
    7. iFi iPurifier2 ($109.00) or iFi nano iUSB3.0 ($199.00) USB re-clocker
    8. iFi micro iDAC2 USB DAC ($349.00)
    Total investment (excluding two Morrow USB cables and one pair of Morrow interconnects) is between $800 - $900, depending on options but could be less if you already have suitable substitutes for some of these components. To make this all work, I am assuming that you already have:
    • A wired/wireless home network with Internet access
    • A stereo playback system with one pair of free analog inputs
    • An Android tablet or smartphone that is compatible with BubbleUPnP
    • A spare USB keyboard and mouse that you can use for setup
    • A computer display or TV with HDMI input that you can use for setup
    If you have taken my advice and purchased the fanless PC, likely the most time-consuming part of setup will be installing Windows updates! Keep checking for updates until the system finally says that there are none left to install. I think this took me at least three reboots and about half a day (partially unattended) to complete! It's important to get all of the updates installed now because while Fidelizer Pro is active, Windows Update will be disabled (actually a good thing from an audio perspective).

    The next things to install are:
    1. USB Driver for your DAC (if applicable). For the iFi, you can get the driver here: http://ifi-audio.com/downloads/
    2. JRiver Media Center
    3. Fidelizer Pro
    Purchasing Fidelizer Pro is a somewhat odd process. You'll generate a key and then send a payment to the developer. Within 24 hours, he will send you back a link that you can use to download a specially coded version of the program that will only work on the PC from which you generated the key data. Since the Fidelizer license is not transferable to a new PC, I recommend purchasing a PC that you can specifically and completely dedicate to audio playback.

    Settings that I use for Fidelizer are "Purist" and "Network Player". For the best sound, have Fidelizer start JRiver automatically with playback optimization when Windows starts. These are all options that you will see during the installation process.

    JRiver has many settings that you can tweak, but here are the main ones to be concerned about to make sure that DLNA playback from memory is enabled properly:

    [​IMG]
    DAC Settings

    [​IMG]
    Audio Settings

    [​IMG]
    Media Server Settings

    The final step is to install BubbleUPnP on your Android tablet or smartphone. Add your TIDAL login information so that the app can access your library on TIDAL. You'll want to go through the settings to make sure that "Wifi/Eth audio quality" is set to "FLAC", otherwise things will sound pretty terrible. Under "Renderer", if JRiver has been setup correctly, you should see your PC and the zone you created for your DAC ("Player" is the default name). I cover BubbleUPnP setup in a bit more detail here: HOWTO: Streaming TIDAL via JRiver Media Center.

    To make this system more "appliance-like", you'll want to setup Windows 10 to login automatically after restarts. I used steps like this to do that: http://www.intowindows.com/how-to-automatically-login-in-windows-10/

    If you have followed all of these steps, the next thing to do is open "TIDAL" under "Cloud" on the BubbleUPnP app and click on the big magnifying glass icon near the top of the screen. I like to use the microphone next so that I can just say what I'm looking for (faster than using my two fat thumbs to enter names on the small keyboard). Navigate through the folders as I described in the HOWTO above to find an album to play. Grab your favorite beverage, kick back and enjoy!

    Full disclosure: There are a couple of issues with this setup that I have not overcome yet. Depending on the speed of your wi-fi connection and your tablet or smartphone, you'll hear a period of silence before music starts and between tracks ranging from five seconds to more than twenty. This is just how long it takes for JRiver to read the entire track from your tablet over a wi-fi connection before starting playback. The other issue that I've encountered is that some of the content on TIDAL is flawed. For example, Steely Dan's album, Aja, sounds pretty terrible compared to the CD that I purchased from Amazon. I've created a ticket with TIDAL, so hopefully this issue will be fixed by the time you read that, but you'll probably encounter some stinkers in their library as well.

    I hope this series of articles has been helpful. If you decide to give this a try and run into problems, don't hesitate to ping me via private message or email (dsnyder0cnn at Gmail). I'm glad to help. Cheers!
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2016
  9. Francis

    Francis Active Member

    Nice to know the Quantum Byte Fanless PC and seems right price with Windows 10 preinstalled.
    Since you have the setup above, you might also wanna try the FREE Volumio 2.0. Just download the x86 platform image , follow their instruction and put it on to an micro SD card. Boot the PC from SD card created. The you'll have a Linux base platform music server. (Assuming this PC box allows you to boot from USB/SD card on BIOS setup). Select your DAC as audio output under setup.
    Personally, I like the UI of JRiver, but Volumio seems to sound better.

    I would turn off the WiFi in the PC box and use ethernet where ever possible to connect to the router or the network, as it creates lots of interference, which is bad for audio. This might also help the delay of JRiver reading the tracks. I can still use wifi for tablet or smartphone.
    Just try to kept the audio signal processing environment with lowest interference as possible.
    David C. Snyder likes this.
  10. Lewis Smith

    Lewis Smith Well-Known Member

    Tonight it is just simple for this old fart! Local Radio on the old Panasonic LOL with a cigar in the shop.
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2016
    David C. Snyder likes this.
  11. Definitely good advice regarding wifi...I've found that most wifi drivers negatively impact DPC latency. I'm actually using an Audioquest Forest Ethernet cable with the Quantum Byte PC. The only use of wifi in my setup is communications between the tablet and the PC. Latency is difficult to avoid in my case since the TIDAL client is running on the tablet...not on the PC.

    Thanks for the Volumio suggestion. I need to do some research to see if it supports DLNA.
  12. Francis

    Francis Active Member

    In terms of remote control, it's pretty simple. Volumio use web browser as UI. Once you have Volumio setup and hook up to your home network. Any tablet, cell phones, PC within your network will be able to access Volumio through a web browser. You just type volumio.local from the URL or sometime if it doesn't work for some browser, just type the numeric ip address of the Volumio server e.g 192.168.x.x, depends on what ip address your router had assigned to
    David C. Snyder likes this.
  13. BTW, apparently, the latest version of Volumio does support DLNA. Really appreciate the reference...it's officially on my short-list of things to evaluate.

Share This Page