Amazon disrupts music streaming with new high-resolution service

Amazon drone delivering music over city

In 2016, with Amazon Music Unlimited, Amazon joined the ranks of same-but-different music streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music, Google/YouTube Music, etc.). All the services offered 40+ million tracks at the upper levels of MP3/AAC quality (256-320 kilobits per second, or kbps).

Those services’ modest audio quality ambitions left an opening for competitors Qobuz, Tidal, and Deezer Hi-Fi, all boasting CD-quality streaming (1411 kbps) — and in the case of Qobuz and Tidal, well above CD-quality. The sound was predictably amazing; the problem was, all that fidelity would cost you. While Apple Music and the other lower-resolution services charged a reasonable $9.99/month for just-adequate audio quality, the high-resolution competitors charged  $19.99-$24.99/month for music — more than, for example, Netflix charges for four simultaneous streams of Ultra HD video.

In September 2019, Amazon re-entered the fray with its own high-resolution offering, dubbed Amazon Music HD. They didn’t stop at the CD-quality streaming of Deezer Hi-Fi; they went right after Tidal and Qobuz with high-resolution streaming up to 24 bits/192 kHz — 29 times the information of an MP3 track, and magnitudes beyond the resolution of a 16-bit/44.1 kHz CD-quality file. If you’re an Amazon Prime member, this benchmark audio quality would no longer cost you $20 or more; you would pay only $10.75 per month (prepaid for the year), a paltry $0.76 more than the low-resolution MP3 streaming services. (The service is $14.99/month for non-Prime subscribers.)

While many, including me, feel that Amazon has way too much power and reach, this type of industry disruption was both necessary and welcome. The cost of storage and bandwidth has steadily declined, and artists make no more from streaming than they did years ago, but music service pricing has remained steadfast. While I am told that music streaming services have yet to turn a profit, $20/month is still too much for most people to spend on music, and even people of modest means deserve to hear music as the artist intended.

So how does Amazon Music HD sound? It depends on the device. Most music streaming services allow playback on an assortment of devices: smartphones, tablets, Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV, Chromecast, Apple and Windows PCs, and standalone streaming audio devices such as Sonos, HEOS, and BluOS.

However, to hear Amazon Music HD in all its high-resolution glory, you currently have only two choices: HEOS, and BluOS. Curiously, not one of Amazon’s many Fire and Echo devices will play high-resolution music. I can attest that the service sounds better-than-MP3 through a high-end PC with an external USB soundcard. Good, but nowhere near as spectacular as Qobuz streaming through the same PC. Why not? Startlingly, Amazon Music HD has no support for bypassing generic Windows sound (via WASAPI or ASIO Exclusive Mode) to a superior soundcard — so no matter how much you spend on your soundcard, everything is shoved through the comparatively crude Windows audio mixer first. Any way you slice it, that’s an epic fail.

And how did Amazon’s new competitors react to the new predatory pricing? I imagine if you ask them, their new pricing has nothing to do with countering Amazon Music HD — but both Deezer Hi-Fi and Qobuz are now at $14.99/month, the latter for true high-resolution files. (Tidal remains at $19.99/month.)

For me, the competitor price drops are enough of a concession to choose the lovely-sounding Qobuz streaming service over Amazon, as Qobuz is supported in high resolution on far more devices and includes the proper soundcard implementation on PCs. Qobuz also boasts a significantly stronger support community, supports the Mac/PC Audirvana player for those who want the absolute best-sounding audio software, and offers more pleasing apps for tablet, smartphone, and desktop.

Kudos to Amazon for firing a huge shot across the bow of its high-resolution music streaming competitors. Even though Amazon’s nascent service is not quite ready for audiophiles, I’m looking forward to what happens next.