Music streaming versus high-end CD

The cost and risks of music streaming technology deterred me, compared to CD. I was convinced there must be a way. Digital is the way forward.

Lifestyle | Fears | Catalyst | Why stream? | Which streamer? | The result

CDs take more space a small hard drive
Bookshelves should be for books and ornaments, not CD storage
Linn Majik streamer

The lifestyle lure

I’m house proud. My collection of over 1500 CDs was taking a huge amount of wall space. I want the space for books. (Some books are too special to be only digital.)

Laptop sound. I hated playing MP3’s on my laptop with its little speakers, the sound of streamed radio was a million miles from the HiFi sound, and video with thin sound was unappetising.

Stacked CDs. In multi-CD sets, I wanted to be able to listen the CDs end-to-end without unscheduled interruptions half way through an opera or rock concert. For other music I wanted a random and repeat buttons that would work over several CDs.

Sound fidelity. And most of all, I dreamed of taking my music to a new level of fidelity. But I feared quality music streaming was impossible without unbelievable sums of money.

Risks of music streaming

Total cost. The promotions of companies like Naim scared me. You need £2000 for a streamer and £850 for a player, but they recommend the £3k streamer plus £3k power supply. Ahrr! This is crazy money.

Lost quality. The principles of streaming is that it’s better to rip the CD with 100% accuracy, and use computer memory to deliver the music with greater timing reliability than a rotating disc can achieve. Snag is, I’ve been bitten before by wild exaggerations in the HiFi industry: interconnect cables that make no difference, CDs which initially failed to outperform LPs. I feared a loss of quality.

Complexity. The technobabble in the promos worried me. And the emphasis on iPad and iPhone made me worry about whether I would have problems using my trusted PC.

The catalyst for change

For me, the decision was forced by the impending death of my CD player. Damage to the main drive meant that it could only play half of my CD collection, and the problem was getting worse. Often when I played CDs it jumped from one place to another – very distracting, especially when the music is loud.

The faulty CD was an old Naim CD5. It’s powered by a magically effective Avondale TPX2 power supply and supported by a stack of Mana tables.

Why stream music?

I had a choice. There are excellent CD players available, and some of the high-end equipment is available in good second-hand condition. I also toyed with the idea of a cheaper CD player feeding digitally into a high-end DAC. But it still meant that much of one wall of the study would be covered in CDs, which is a valuable waste of space. And a few of the CDs are deteriorating and will one day have to be replaced – CDs are not forever but, with attention, digital could be.

Streaming from a NAS is the right way forward. The question was whether I could get sufficient quality for my money.

Which NAS drive?

I started with a cheap NAS drive, thinking it was just a computer disc drive. Then I met Melco, which is a crazy price yet delivers a massive boost in sound quality.

Which music streamer?

I auditioned 3½ streamers. All were heard with Naim pre and power amps and speakers costing collectively £60k – massively over-the-top compared to the price of the streamers, but I wanted to make sure they introduced nothing impure into the music chain.

  • Linn Sneaky DS. Amazingly good for the price. I could have lived with the sound of this, except that the others delivered more and the Sneaky has a utilitarian cost-saving style reminiscent of kit made 20 years ago.
  • Linn Majik DS. Very musical, with deep sound stage, amazing dynamics and crystal sharp voices.
  • Naim ND5 XS. A similar level of quality to the Linn. Some things sounded slightly better on one and some on the other.
  • Naim ND5 XS with the external XPS power supply. There was a clear improvement, but at triple the price the improvement did not seem to justify the money.

The choice between Linn and Naim could not be made on music quality, so I chose on price and the ease of use of the software.

Linn Majik DS

The result

Overwhelming sound. Music streaming has worked better than I dreamed, opening new depths of detail so that recordings I thought dull have now come to life. The dynamics of pop are overwhelming, pressing against my chest and surrounding me; and similarly for the rhythmic power of strings and percussion. For the best CD recordings, there is so much to listen to, that it’s entirely about enjoying the music rather than worrying about the supposed limits of the technologies.

Recording limits. The change has also exposed the full glory and horrors of microphone technique, mixing and compression. For the very best, go for recent digital downloads of 24-bit recordings at 96 kbps (or 192 kbps) – more precision, and more detail.

Flexibility. Once I was through the cataloguing problem and had mastered Kinsky, it was easy, and more flexible and convenient than CDs had ever been.