Welcome to the first of a four part series on streaming audio. Today, one of our longtime employees takes a look at streaming music services from the context of his longtime love for records…
A vinyl junkie embraces streaming music
by Phil Murray, ListenUp Vice President of Marketing/eCommerce
I’m a luddite. I grew up buying records. In those days, you chose your albums by what you heard on the radio, reviews in Rolling Stone, or even by looking at the album cover. I’ve always enjoyed the whole physical experience of playing records – taking the album out of the cover, placing it on the turntable and dropping the stylus in the groove.
While listening, I would scour the liner notes to see who the engineer was, the producer, and even who did the artwork. I was always interested to find out the musicians who played on the record. Just listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew opened up a whole world of music from John McGlaughlin, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter and more. I started seeing a guitar player named Duane Allman on albums by Boz Scaggs, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. When he formed the Allman Brothers Band, I knew I had to see them and buy their first album when it came out.
Growing up with records, it was all about building your collection, and you were defined to a certain degree by what albums you owned. And I was obsessive about collecting. I would search high and low to find an obscure release or import. Every town I visited offered the opportunity to hit local record stores, and every good store usually offered something unique that you couldn’t find in your hometown store.
Now, with streaming, almost everything is at your fingertips – or voice command. In the past 10 years, I’ve been streaming music throughout my house and have really enjoyed the ease of use and the access to millions of songs. But I’ve always streamed music for background listening – rarely have I used it when I want to sit down and really listen to an album. The sound quality, the emotional connection to the music and the information about the music just weren’t there.
But over the last few years there have been some developments that have caused me to reevaluate streaming. The first was when Tidal began streaming MQA files about two years ago. MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) files are compressed before streaming and then expanded at the digital-to-analog-converter upon playback. MQA was developed by Meridian founder Bob Stuart, who describes it as audio origami. MQA has been adopted by a number of record labels and now Tidal has millions of tracks that deliver a true high-resolution experience. Thanks to a Bluesound Vault 2 I have in my system, which is compatible with MQA, I find myself streaming more when I want to really listen to an album.
Roon brings back the information and the connection
The one new product introduced in the last few years that has really changed my mind about streaming is the Roon Music Player. Roon was originally introduced as a software program that you downloaded on your computer. And it definitely worked best on powerful computers that were dedicated to audio. Since not everyone wants to build a computer that just runs audio, last year Roon introduced the Nucleus, which runs the wide-ranging suite of enhancements to improve the sound and experience of streaming music.
Remember when I talked earlier about obsessively reading the liner notes and album credits on my records? Well, Roon provides deep information on everything you play through it. You can read detailed album credits and reviews for almost every song. And here is where Roon turns into a fascinating rabbit hole. All the credits are hyperlinked, so if you hear a musician you like, Roon will take you to every other album that musician appears on.
For example, I’m a big fan of the guitarist Bill Frisell. I own almost every CD and record he’s done. But he has appeared on hundreds of other musician’s albums. His style is so unique that whatever he plays, I want to hear. Thanks to Roon’s hyperlink feature, a whole new world of Frisell’s music has opened up to me. This is the closest that streaming has come to replicating the experience of reading album covers. And it’s even better, because more information about the artist is just a click away.
Roon also provides different browsers to view music by artist, album, song, and genre. Finding the music you want to hear, when you want to hear it has never been easier. But Roon is not just about extensive album data. It also offers better control of your music library, improved sound quality and the ability to work in every streaming eco-system. Say you already own a Sonos or Bluesound system or an AirPlay streamer? Roon works with all of those to give you its improved GUI and metadata information. You can even combine streaming systems from different manufacturers to provide a seamless multiroom experience for every user in your home.
Roon software plus Nucleus hardware
Steve Silberman, Vice President of Sales of Roon, recently set up a Nucleus in my system. Having used the system before, I was excited to play with the extensive metadata information. What I wasn’t prepared for was the vast improvement in sound from all of my streaming music. Roon works with Tidal and then collates all of your stored music with the Tidal library. Regardless of whether I was playing music ripped to my hard drive or from Tidal, inserting the Roon immediately improved the sound. Questioning Steve about the improvement in sound quality, he explained that he set up my Nucleus to feed an upsampled signal to my DAC. It was a big improvement over what I was hearing in my system without Roon… Suddenly, I found myself sitting down and listening to streamed music the way I would listen to records. I was hooked.
To further enhance sound quality, Roon also offers a powerful suite of DSP tools for room correction. ListenUp recently built a new listening room in our Denver location and installed a sophisticated room treatment system consisting of a variety of diffusors and absorption panels. The new room sounds stunning, but adding a Nucleus and running the room correction DSP, it sounds even better.
Come into any of our locations to find out how you can enjoy the benefits of a Roon Music Player in your system. I’m still a record guy at heart, but products like Roon and music services like Tidal are changing my perceptions about streaming music.