Sound quality compared between local and streaming

I conducted an experiment today to compare the sonic quality of tracks played using A+ from different sources. My setup is a late-model iMac running Mojave with a 3.6GHz quad core Intel Core I7 CPU, 32 GB RAM, a 500 GB SSD and my media is on an 8 TB LaCie Thunderbolt HDD. The DAC is a Beyerdynamic Impacto driving TP1 headphones. I also have an older Mac mini as a media server for my home theater, and I’ll try to test that setup another time. Because my wife has sensitive hearing, however, most of my critical listening is done with headphones.

I selected several tracks for my test spanning a wide variety of music types - including tracks by Bach and Tchaikovsky, Miles Davis, Weather Report and Wayne Shorter, Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson, The Beatles, The Carpenters, David Bowie, Hozier, Weezer and Daft Punk. The only requirement was that all tracks be available on Tidal and Qobuz as well as in my library. The Qobuz and local tracks were identical in resolution - 24 bit / 44.1kHz, 96kHz and 192kHz. I also have Weather Report in DSD64 for comparison. All of the Tidal tracks were 16 bit / 44.1kHz, with a few of them also in MQA. I didn’t do random blinded testing, as the results were not subtle. The differences in sound quality were striking and in a way, surprising.

MQA vs Lossless: The first big surprise was that the lossless tracks sounded considerably better than the same tracks in MQA. The MQA versions sounded flat, lacking in depth, bandwidth and soundstage. However, that was not my previous experience with Tidal when I listened a couple of years ago. One major difference then versus now, however, was that when I listened before at work, my DAC was an Audioquest Dragonfly Black 1.5 driven by an iPhone 6s+, connected to a pair of Audioengine A2+ speakers. The Tidal iOS app is no match for Audirvana Plus and my iMac, and as good as the Audioengine speakers are, they’re no match for the Beyerdynamic TP1s. On the other hand, The Dragonfly has hardware MQA decoding, which probably makes all the difference. I suspect the software MQA decoding algorithm in Audirvana is no match for the hardware decoding of the Dragonfly, but Audirvana’s handling of CD-quality lossless music is unmatched.

Qobuz vs Tidal: This really isn’t a fair contest, given that the Qobuz tracks were all Hi-Res and the Tidal tracks were CD lossless. Granted, CD quality can be quite good IFF the mastering is done well, which is seldom the case, particularly with popular music. Even then, although the dynamic range of the CD is greater than 90db, it’s static. The human ear is dynamic and so our effective dynamic range is much greater. Further, it’s impossible to reproduce the cannon blasts at the end of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture without losing the softest passages in the quantization noise of the smallest bits. Something has to give, and it’s usually at both ends of the dynamic range. Using 24 bits allows the full dyadic rage of the music to be reproduced if your sound system is capable of reproducing it. A 44.1 kHz sample rate is adequate to reproduce the full bandwidth of what the human ear is capable of hearing, but only with ideal filters. Oversampling and high-quality digital filters are more than adequate to the task, but a lot of popular CDs have been pre-filtered to oblivion, and the mixing utterly destroys any sense of a real soundstage. Of course there’s no advantage to Hi-Res if the mixing and mastering isn’t up to the task. But I digress. The bottom line is that the Qobuz tracks were significantly more open than the Tidal Tracks. I could definitely hear subtle vocal overtones and percussion sounds with Qobuz streaming that were lost on Tidal.

Library vs Qobuz: The most surprising finding was that the tracks from my local library sounded significantly better than those streamed from Qobuz, and the difference wasn’t subtle. As good as the Qobuz tracks were, they still sounded digital. The local tracks sounded as good as what I’ve experienced from the best analog recordings on reel-to-reel tape and vinyl, and they came close to rivaling a live performance. The dynamic range was full with vocal overtones and subtle percussion clearly audible and free of artifact. Individual voices and musical instruments could be clearly separated from each other and localized on the sound stage with pinpoint precision. The soundstage was broad and realistic. This was the reason I bought Audirvana Plus in the first place.

DSD vs PCM: With all of my previous software, which included Pure Music, Amarra Symphony and BitPerfect, I was convinced that DCD tracks sounded much more natural than PCM tracks, but Audirvana has closed the gap. I would be hard pressed to choose between DSD tracks and PCM versions of the same tracks in blind A/B tests.

Summary: Local tracks sound better than those streamed from Qobuz, which sound better than those streamed from Tidal. On my setup, MQA-encoded tracks actually sound worse than lossless 16-44.1kHz tracks. There is no difference between the acoustic quality of DSD tracks versus PCM. High-Res tracks played from my local library, regardless of sample rate, sounded as good as the best analog recordings, with excellent reproduction of vocal overtones and subtle percussion, clear separation of individual voices and instruments, and a broad, localized soundstage. Neither streaming service could match those qualities, even when the sample rate and bit depth were identical to those of my local tracks.

The Bottom Line: For the time being, I’ll still be buying rather than renting my music.

1 Like

Hi,
I really like to read such reports and I think many of us
do such testing at home to find out whether or not the own
stereo setup is fine or could be improved. The latter is always
the case for me….
Thanks a lot StevInNYC for your efforts and for sharing the results with us.
And I say this because it matches my experiences totally. :slight_smile:)
So from my (very subjective !) view I can confirm your testing results.
But as I said before, looking for improvement and many discussions with my dealer and searching the internet, I replaced my MacBook as my library host and bought a pure network streamer (Aries Mini) for streaming and the included SSD for my music library.
Soundwise this was a big step forward for me, the improvement of the streaming quality was significant! And now, in my opinion, a computer (neither Mac nor PC) is the second best solution compared to a pure streamer.
I have a Qobuz hires subscription and what I hear is that library music is not better than streamed music, but what I hear often is also, that music from my SSD/library seems to be simply louder, not better.
And finally, I do not know whether it is good or bad news, my A+ is obsolete now, because the LightningDS of Aries fits my requirements very well.

Let’s continue testing, comparing, improving….

Regards
Franz

Disagreed. They are at least the same when the tracks are from the same release (the same mastering), and so many 44.1K tracks on Qobuz are newer mastered versions that almost always sound better than what I have here in my drive.

Agreed. I must say something is wrong with Audirvana’s MQA decoding or MQA itself is a horrible sounding format.

Regarding Audirvana’s streaming versus playing of local tracks, at first I thought I must be imagining a difference. After all, why should a streamed version of a lossless, high-resolution music file sound any different from a version stored locally. The files should be identical. Yet I repeated the experiment several times and obtained the same result. That I could tell the difference between the two in and of itself was strange. That I could correctly identify which was which 100% of the time pretty much ruled out chance.

The most striking difference was a loss of depth. The sound stage was significantly flatter with streaming than with the local version. With the local versions, I can pick out the precise locations of every instrument in the band. Listening to local files with Audirvana is similar to listening to vinyl in that regard, and I mean vintage vinyl played on a really good turntable - not one with a USB port. Listening to streamed music from Qobuz just isn’t the same. The music is still more precise than with 16-bit, 44.1kHz CDs, but the differentiation of sounds is more muddy and localization is poor. I couldn’t understand how there could be such a blatant difference between sources when the files, the software and the equipment were identical.

However, recently I read something that explained why there is a difference, and why it’s not subtle. Quite simply, Audirvana avoids buffering. Nearly all other software for processing streamed music uses buffering, in which several seconds of music are downloaded in advance to provide a buffer against steaming irregularities. It’s hard to imagine not doing so, but it invariably involves diverting some cycles of processing power away from processing the music and sending it to the DAC. Audirvana is designed around minimizing interruptions to the signal path and so buffering is avoided. Instead, the bandwidth is slightly reduced until the music can be delivered without interruption. I believe that what Qobuz does and the way Audirvana handles it is that they stream sum and difference channels rather than left and right, much as is done with FM radio. Audirvana will then reduce the bandwidth of the difference channel first.The effect is to reduce spatial information content in preference to amplitude content.

However, with a fast, multicore processor, I think I’d rather buffer the music stream rather than deliberately degrade the music. It’s not the overall bandwidth that matters, as I have more than enough, but rather variability in bandwidth and the need to accommodate the longest delays in the signal path, even if they are infrequent. At the listener should have the option of choosing how much or how little to buffer. Then again, one does have the option to download the music before listening, which amounts to 100% buffering.

I also have the same perception. I would like to change that to play the same quality tidal as the local library

Hi SteveInNYC,
There are lots of reasons why streams are sounding (very) different as downloaded files.
These files are handled very different !!!
A stream comes in at your place via a modem/router (most of the time these are powered with a very “noisy” switched powersupply) Remedy: better (switched or linear) powersupply and or extra Vdc line filter. I have very good results by using for instace, iFi switched powersupply and/or iFi DC iPurifier2.
Apart off that, the RJ45 connection cable(s)from there to your computer and other users make an earth loop (is antenna which can pickup noise very easy, again) Remedy: for instance Pink Faun, LAN noise ISOLATOR. (Contra RJ45/RJ45 in/out.)
You can also improve all your music, by using (for instance) a iFi iPurifier 3 USB (usb in/out) as your DAC is extern connected to your computer. (improve a lot of things all together)
Every explained step will upgrade your sound to a higher level !!(depending on your standard fidelity level)
The soundstage get more depth, width and sound less edgy/sharp with much more (first missing) fine details as without these mods.If you want to learn or heare more about your possibilities i can recommand a Dutch guy who test and checkt these kind of stuff on his own, (“without manufactory connections”) and have his own video channel on you tube.
See: The Hans Beekhuyzen Channel You Tube.
You can find there lots of video’s with comparable tests about explations of differences with High-End and lower fi stuff.
I have no personel connection to Hans Beekhuyzen, but know him for many years by reading articles made by him in several monthly “hifi” paperworks. Don’t take my explanation as the thruth without checking it yourself. I am sure that good hifi shops will give you possibilities to have some trials yourselve!
There are also a lot more tweak possibilities as explained, but these will be more and more expensive for a possible small improvement in a real high-end installation.
Have a great day, best regards, mollie

Mollie, you raise some very important points, although I’m not sure any degree of upgrades can compensate for degradation along the signal path. The most important point of your reply is that there is a difference between the theoretical world of digital signal processing and the real world of switched analog circuits. In fact, none of us would bother with spending money on high-res music if we believed a 16-bit, 44.1kHz digital signal from a CD was a faithful representation of analog sound. I think everyone who uses Audirvana recognizes that high-res music sounds much better than CDs, even if they don’t understand why. Suffice it to say, contrary to the rather loud musings of a few audiophiles who undoubtedly fried much of their cochleae by listening to loud rock music when they were young, there are legitimate reasons why high-res music sounds better. Quantization error, aliasing, nonlinear circuit response, hysteresis and most importantly, the dynamic nature of the human ear all matter. One can throw a lot of money at improving the sound of the CD, but it’s impossible to fully recover the true dynamism of the original sounds from a CD.
Likewise, there’s only so much that can be done to recover the original high-res digital file after it has been streamed. Yes, there are irregularities introduced as a result of breaking the file into signal packets, sending the packets through multiple pathways across a number of internet nodes and then reassembling them into a whole file. A better router can help, but it can’t make up for what happened to the original signal packets along the way. What’s lost is lost and anything that’s done to recover the original signal amounts to an approximation.
On top of all that, I believe that high-res streaming services of necessity resort to deliberately limiting the bandwidth prevent drop-outs. Again, even if you have gigabit broadband, which I don’t, one is still limited by irregularities in the signal path, with the music files being chopped up into pieces, sent across different nodes of the internet and then reassembled in your router. A glitch that causes a barely noticeable artifact when streaming video will be glaringly apparent when listening to a high-res music file. The ear is just that much more sensitive than the eye when it comes to signal processing. Recognizing that, I think streaming services deliberately stream a lower-bandwidth, but more robust digital signal.
So the bottom line remains, I think, that regardless of how much one is willing to spend on high-end equipment to reproduce music from high-res digital files, streamed music will lever sound as good as that which has been downloaded. Unfortunately, Qobuz and Tidal provide software that sounds pretty awful, so downloading their music for off-line listening is not a viable option. Therefore, we are still left with having to purchase our high-res music files rather than rent them from a streaming service.

I have few quite good DACs but I’m having hard time distinguishing between 24/96 or even 192 and CD quality 16/44.1. Sometimes I even think I hear something, but I can’t consistently identify the higher res files.

You need a good MQA capable DAC to be able to evaluate MQA. Aq Black is just a renderer so when you play MQA files through Audirvana, Audirvana does the first unfolding a passes it to the Aq for rendering. Some conclusions you draw here are wrong.

I’m having hard time believing that there is a difference between streamed content and local files. Maybe the content is not really the same. Audirvana plays from RAM anyway, unless there is some disturbance generated by the networking hardware on your system there should be no difference. I couldn’t notice any difference myself.

I tried to play MQA files downloaded from 2L and compare those to non MQA files on my non MQA capable system. Again, I couldn’t tell the difference.

Bitracer, you should compare " non MQA" files like FLAC or WAV. Download from any wellknown album the very same track(s) you very well know with high quality music and compare this with the very same (streaming) track(s) from the same album and company who delivered the download files.Ofcourse these tracks should have the same formats as well. f.i. both 24 bit 96 KHz. These should have the same quality!
Apart of that, hopefully jou can find high quality music which is realy produced as 24-96, otherwise you can 't even say, it’s high-res!!!
I’am shure that there are diferences to hear.
Please do yourselve a favore and try!!!
Succes, mollie

I have Qobuz Studio trial at the moment. I’m still not fully convinced it‘s worth the extra money.

I have few hi-res files of controlled provenance, but I don’t have the same files in CD quality. Don’t get me wrong, they sound great. Just saying that to me CD quality sounds great too and I notice improvement with every better DAC I get. I have to conclude that the format is not the bottleneck, it’s the hardware.

Better hardware will give you a greater improvement over higher res file of the same content. So instead of rebuilding your collection in higher res, just spend the same money in hardware. Of course, once you reach audio nirvana, then it makes sense to go for higher res (possibly DSD128 and up).

The biggest limitation on how a CD sounds isn’t the format, but rather quality of the recording. The vast majority of music recorded today has been engineered at the mixing level to sound acceptable in the compressed formats used by Apple Music and Spotify, hence the dynamic range is severely limited to begin with. If that same master is then used to make the CD version, it will sound equally bad. On top of that, the quality of digitization used in mastering CDs of popular music is often shockingly bad. The CD format makes use of 16-bit integer representations of music amplitude, yet a lot of CDs use as few as 14 bits of dynamic range.
No doubt, a well-mastered CD sounds amazing. It’s not until you directly compare such a CD to vinyl or a high-res track that you’re likely to notice the difference. To notice that difference, however, you need really good equipment. A turntable that includes a USB connection just won’t cut it. Unless you’re willing to spend in the range of the high four figures or more on a sound system, there’s little point in paying for high-res music.
But what do you get for your investment? It’s largely the difference between listening to the radio and listening to a live performance. A high-res source coupled with top-quality equipment should allow you to hear individual voices and individual instruments and to localize them in space. Take for example the Beetles’ Abby Road. The original recording had all the Beatles singing on the right side and all their instruments playing on the left side, which must have been quite a trick to orchestrate if it was live. In the new remastered version, each Beatle has been reunited with his instrument, and you can point to where each one is singing precisely. The same is true of a high-res recording of a full orchestra - it sounds remarkably close to live.
Of course none of this matters if you spent your youth listening to loud music, as you likely did irreversible damage to your inner ears in that case.

Hi Steve, thx for your review, and I agree local files are better imo.

I was wondering how you managed to make DSD works with impacto x audirvana ?

For me, DSD are not recognized, and I guess audirvana makes the conversion to PCM when I read DSF files.

Thx you,

I also have a newer version (3.5), same same :slight_smile:

Fantastic analysis & report of your experience.

I’m not sure I can explain the inability for Audirvana 3.x to recognize the DSD capabilities of the Impacto. For me it has been plug-and-play since I first plugged it in. I know this is probably stating the obvious, but have you tried plugging your Impacto into a different USB port on your computer? Do you have another DSD-capable device and if so, does Audirvana recognize DSD when using it? Do you have another DSD-capable audio playback application and does it recognize the Impacto as DSD-capable? A number of apps (e.g. Amarra) have a free trial. Have you tried switching to a different USB cable? Is the USB port you’ve plugged into at least USB 2.0? Some PCs still have a mix of ports, with USB 1.1 for connecting a mouse and keyboard. Could there be another application making use of the Impacto that’s interfering with DSD playback? Lastly, are you on Windows or a Mac? I’m not sure the Windows version of Audirvana fully supports DSD.

Good Luck!

Thank you Steve for you quick reply, when I looked to your screenshot I saw that one thing missed in my conf : i didn’t select DSD over PCM (which is mandatory in fact, since USB can’t send “raw” DSD files, I feel stupid)

Anyway, now i can play DSD files thx to you, which by the way, I tend to have the same experience, I can’t hardly ear the difference, maybe my ears are not enough prepared :slight_smile: or maybe the recordings are not well enough to ear differences…

dsd audir

not difficult to have voices on left, instruments on right… that’s what the pan control is for! as for live… unless the instruments on stage are inaudible, you can’t isolate left or right only; if you’re talking about ‘live’ as in live in the studio, again pan left pan right.