July 2020
Streaming Early Music
If I could tell you how to listen to hours of early music in your home, would you be interested to learn how? Welcome to the world of music streaming! With a music streaming service, you can listen to the music you love in your home, tailored to your personal tastes. Yes, classical and early music are available.
How streaming works
You choose a streaming service, pay a subscription fee, and gain access to their catalog of music. On your computer, you log into the service and then select the type of music that interests you. If you know specific pieces you want to hear, you can search for them. Subscription prices vary from $7.99 to $19.99 per month on services that allow you to search for specific tracks, (defining track as a specific recording of a piece of music, e.g. “So What” by Miles Davis on the album Kind of Blue ). 
What services are available?
There are many streaming services, including some that specialize in classical music. This article will focus on 7 major services that offer deep catalogs across all genres. I’ll cover Spotify, Apple music, Amazon music, Tidal, Qobuz, YouTube music and Pandora. Catalog depth is most folks’ primary consideration. Tidal boasts 60 million tracks of music, Spotify and Apple Music 50 million, Amazon and Qobuz 40 million, Pandora Premium offers 30 plus million. YouTube music doesn’t divulge a number of tracks.
How you select music
Streaming services use a landing page that promotes new releases, mostly pop, rap and rock music, but also jazz and classical. You select your genre, for example “English Consort Music.” The streaming service will then play music from the category for hours. Curious about a piece? Information about the artist and piece are available on your TV or phone. If you are streaming from a smart speaker, you can also ask Alexa or Siri while the track is playing. You can also search for a specific piece of music or composer. Most services will then continue to stream similar music. Spotify for example allows me to select "Machaut Radio" and then plays first a Machaut track followed by tracks from Marin Marais, Purcell, Perotin, Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Gesualdo, and on and on, both vocal and instrumental. This is great for when you don’t want to select specific tracks but simply want music of your favorite style or to suit your mood to play on.
You can create your own permanent playlists, give them names, e.g. "My Favorite 14th century Secular Music" and then add favorite tracks to them. These remain in your profile for future use. Creating playlists can be tedious, but they’re convenient once done.  
Free Introductory Trial Periods
All these services offer free introductory trial periods of from 30 to 90 days which allows you to check out the service without cost. During your trial period it’s a good idea to search for some specific favorites to test the catalog depth. For example, assuming you like early music, search for some specific early music to see if there is catalog depth in that genre. I like to use Guillaume de Machaut’s Phyton, le Mervilius Serpent as my test track for catalog depth: do they have Machaut, how much of Machaut and do they have my favorite track? This also tests indexing quality, ie. how hard is it to find that track on the service. Do you have to search for the composer or a specific performer or can you search on the track name?
Searching the Services: Finding Machaut
Your search results will differ depending on which streaming service you use. On Spotify and Tidal a search on Machaut brings up a number of relevant albums including several with versions of Phyton. On Spotify you can search on the track name Phyton Le Mervillius Serpent and four versions come up, including my favorite by Ensemble Musica Nova. On Qobuz the same search on Machaut or on the Phyton track name brings up about 15 albums including several with Phyton but not my favorite version. However, a Qobuz search on the performers Ensemble Musica Nova brings up the album with my favorite version. On the service that is free with Prime Amazon Music, a few dozen Machaut tracks are available but not an album with Phyton. On the free Pandora service, there is no Machaut at all. Such are the vagaries of searching for and finding classical music on streaming services.  
What about the sound quality? The other streaming consideration is sound quality and now we have to get mildly technical. There are two measures to consider: how much the music has been compressed and the rate at which the music streams, called “bit rate.”
The major services' lowest priced plans compress tracks using mp3 or AAC (Apple) algorithms. These are “lossy compressed” formats of lower fidelity than CD’s. In the conversion to streaming formats, and primarily to make the files size smaller and thus use less bandwidth, the music is compressed which removes dynamic range and some musical information is lost, hence the term "lossy." Higher bit rate is better for improved sound quality. Tidal’s HiFi plan, plus Qobuz and Amazon Music Unlimited HD use non-compressed formats, not mp3, and so aim to retain CD quality. These services also use a bit rate that is 4 times higher than the other services.  

Qobuz and Amazon Music Unlimited HD also stream up to 4 times CD quality, when available. If you are an audiophile, these are the services to consider.
Happy listening, and I hope you find that early music track you’ve wanted to hear!
David Podeschi is the President of the American Recorder Society and a confirmed audiophile. He hails from Prosper, Texas. 

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