Neil Young: “No more music streaming for me”
Young made his announcement in a post on his Facebook page, stating "Streaming has ended for me." Explaining that it wasn’t about the money, he continues, "It’s about sound quality. I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution."
Not content to stop there, in a follow-up post he goes on to elaborate that "AM radio kicked streaming’s ass." Not only that, he says, "Analog Cassettes and 8 tracks also kicked streaming’s ass and absolutely rocked compared to streaming."
If, as Young claims, streaming quality is "the worst audio in history," it would be a concern to those who appreciate audio, given the increasing popularity of such services. Music streaming subscription services like Pandora and Spotify have become so popular among consumers in recent years that streaming income is now beginning to overtake music downloads in some markets.
And Apple’s recent entry into the field – with its acquisition of streaming service Beats Music – only suggests a further acceleration of the trend. Does streaming really present lower audio quality than distribution methods of half a century ago? If so, such a regression would fly in the face of the continuous stream of improvements that usher forth from virtually every other aspect of technological progress.
A review of the actual technical audio quality of the various streaming services shows that the audio quality among them varies, and can vary on the same service depending on setting, subscription (Premium or regular) and device (mobile or desktop, cellular or Wi-Fi). The lowest bitrates are associated with mobile use, with examples being Pandora’s 64 kbits/sec (kbps) and Spotify’s 96 kbps being default quality for streaming over cellular.
These bitrates are not meant to be "high-quality" audio but certainly could be compared with that of FM radio, and represent quality that is at least comparable or better than that of the mobile audio distribution formats available during Young’s heyday. AM radio, car analog cassette and eight-track playback may have "rocked" as far as Young is concerned, but technically they "sucked."
At the high end – i.e., streaming over desktop computer or home Wi-Fi – most of the major services offer bit rates of up to 256 kbps or better, a level that – while technically not CD quality – is indistinguishable from CD for most listeners. And at least one service (Tidal) even offers lossless streaming (i.e., CD-quality 1,411 kbps) for those with the available cash and bandwidth. The perceived audio quality at these bitrates far exceeds that of the mobile analog cassettes and eight tracks of decades ago, and is also perceptibly better than that of vinyl – usually considered the "state of the art" of audio playback prior to the advent of digital audio.
So where’s the beef? No one can objectively make the case that today’s streaming audio quality is "the worst in history." Young may sincerely believe it to be the case, but it’s clear he is not a disinterested party in the music distribution industry – as both an artist and, more recently, as the founder and CEO of a high-end mobile digital music player company – which makes the PonoPlayer – and associated hi-res (24-bit/192-kHz) digital music download service.
Young has long been a critic of digital audio, echoing a popular misconception among many non-technical audiophiles that the current 16-bit/44.1-kHz CD standard isn’t capable of capturing as much musical content as traditional analog recording and playback techniques. And, MP3 technology, which intentionally loses file data in a psychoacoustically covert way to compress file size, is not surprisingly frowned upon even more by those in Young’s camp, despite numerous blind studies that consistently show it to be more than capable of providing perceived high-quality audio.
So, given his history on this subject, Young’s latest move shouldn’t come as a surprise. But neither should it be seen as having anything to do with an objective debate about "sound quality."