Audiophiles – we know about the importance of source quality. “Garbage In, Garbage Out” goes the mantra. It’s why we buy vinyl and CDs. It’s why we subscribe to streaming services like Tidal or Qobuz. It’s why we purchase FLAC files from Bandcamp whose direct-sell model does away with the considerably deeper cuts of 1) pitiful streaming service pay rates and 2) rights holder commissions to remunerate musicians directly (minus 10% – 15%).
Many of us, including this commentator, spend money on all of the above.
This audiophile niche is a long way from mainstream reality; where physical formats are relics and lossy streaming on a smartphone sounds good enough. When we talk to our non-audiophile friends (and family) about their chosen music sources, we hear repeated mentions of Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and YouTube Music (and very little else). Vinyl? “That’s for Dads and hipsters!”. CDs? “Dude, the 90s called…”. FLAC? “What’s that?”.
Our audiophile-centric despair deepens when we see the audio hardware in play: at worst a smartphone or laptop speakers, at best a Bluetooth loudspeaker. We see our friends and relatives listening to lossy streams through 10 cent transducers which often suffer a second lossy blow via Bluetooth. It’s incredibly tempting to rubbish the lot: Spotify is shit and so is Bluetooth.
But wait. If we are to convince others that better sound quality is worth time and money, we must silence our inner grump. Grumpiness only alienates. Empathy is the real driver of change.
When we mentally picture a friend – a music fan just like us – listening to Spotify using a Bluetooth speaker, we might ask ourselves: which will have the biggest impact on their listening experience: 1) upgrading the Spotify account to Tidal Hifi or Qobuz or 2) upgrading their current Bluetooth speaker to a pair of standmount loudspeakers and an amplifier? The idealist within us screams “Both!”.
It’s not that simple. Spotify’s strengths are its comprehensive contemporary music library and its UI. Why force our non-audiophile friend into immediate discomfort with a change of interface and a greater chance of pulling a blank on album/song searches?
Besides, our inner pragmatist knows that to appreciate the qualitative shift from Spotify’s 320kbps Ogg Vorbis to Tidal or Qobuz’s CD/hi-res FLAC our friend needs time and, in the first instance, better hardware. We also know that the gear shift from a Bluetooth speaker to an entry-level hifi system will have a far greater impact on the listening experience than any streaming service switch-up.
An entry-level pair of loudspeakers (think €400) and matching amplifier (think €400 again) will put proper stereo separation, scaled up performances and more arresting dynamics into our friend’s listening space without selling short Spotify’s lossy encoding. It might even draw closer attention to mastering quality differences that often outgun streaming service deltas.
Only when our newly-minted audiophile is settled in with sufficiently resolving hardware will our source talk – of Tidal and Qobuz, of CDs and vinyl, of Bandcamp downloads and artist remuneration – have the proper impact.