Click pics to enlarge. Note under album cover availability of Premium Sound Quality (not to library users); under that is Album Booklet, so you get all the notes if you click (I read every one that I stream)!
NY Diary (20-3): Streaming, Finally, and For Free!
Naxos Music Library via New York Public Library
Talk CAS: WMA vs CD, Part I
Amended 1/19/20: Genre availability (near end of article) updated. Connection/Drop Out bullet added.
This actually can be regarded as a continuation of the last article. I am sure some readers now will disown me because I now stoop so low as to listen to low-res files! :-)
Why Stream? Although I have a huge collection of CDs and LPs, I still like to kind of keep up on some artists and new recordings. As by this age I have rather narrowed my tastes when it comes to music and musicians that I like, there is no need to cast too wide a net. Streaming is a good way to keep up, but since I don't have that much time, I was reluctant to shell out for a decent service (like Qobuz), especially since Classical Music is not the focus of most streaming services (and of computer music in general). Streaming surely can be fun (my HK audiophile friends and I even enjoy Bluetooth together; here). Enter...
The New York Public Library (NYPL) As I have mentioned before, on my occasional trips to Manhattan, I continue to borrow CDs from the NYPL. The day before my visit, usually I'd do a little searching for my favorite performers on their website. More and more I see the term Web Resources. So finally I decided to try it out. What it is is that the NYPL has linked up with Naxos Music Library (this old article indicates the Toronto and Edmonton Public Libraries also have this service; probably a lot more libraries by now). Unless I have missed something, access however is kinda indirect - there is no direct link. On the NYPL website, search for a classical piece or artist, say "Isabelle Faust", and among the results displayed will be physical media, followed by "Web Resources". Under the latter is a link: click "Access Naxos Music Library" and log in with your Library Card Number and you will be logged onto NML, not to the item in particular, but to NML's Home Page, where you can search for anything you want.
Naxos Music Library (NML)
- Biggest Classical Streaming Provider NML is the oldest streaming service, originally started with institutional subscriptions (like universities) in mind. Naxos started with the immense holdings of their own classical labels and, because they have always been a big distributor for numerous smaller classical labels, soon snowballed into the biggest classical streaming service provider (directly or via giants like Tidal). It is so big that Giants like Universal and Warner also make their whole catalogue available on NML. That is not so exciting for me, as I have many of those discs. What is undeniably exciting is that many valuable small labels and the live recordings issued by various orchestras on their own labels (think CSO, LPO, LSO, Seattle etc), which I love, are also available. That means, almost all classical's are there (as of this writing, almost 150,000 discs).
- Interface Unlike other Streaming Services, the Interface is Perfect, designed for Classical Listeners in mind. One can search in various ways, including by Label, which is good for serious collectors (I file my music by labels). Just try to search with mainstream providers, it will drive the classical listener crazy! And Liner Notes (Booklet) are available to read with a click. Fabulous, and important for learning! Like the Bach album cited below, it contains several rearranged pieces, and the booklet explains why this was done (for good reasons).
- Cost For the regular and Premium subscribers, NML is not cheap, but I do think you get your worth, not for someone like me with a large library, but excellent for a starter. For Library users like me, it is a Godsend. It is free, and it has everything - isn't that what a library is ideally supposed to be? Yes, resolution is lower, but we will deal with that later.
- Options and Playlist Via the Library interface, there is no personal account and no options - you get what you (don't) pay for, and a playlist cannot be created. Music is heard through a "Play Queue", where you can queue up as many tracks as you want, an dit will play them in succession; however, upon logout all history is erased, and the next time you have to start afresh.
Ah, this is going to be a minefield for me! First, let me give you Naxos' FAQ page, which is interesting, but bound to raise the eyebrows of audiophiles. Just snippets here:
Q: In what format is the music streamed?
A: The music is streamed in Microsoft WMA 9.0 format, at 128Kbps, 64Kbps or 20Kbps, depending on the type of Internet connection used.
Q: How is the sound quality compared to a CD?
A: The standard streaming rate of 64Kbps produces near-CD quality. If you have a broadband Internet connection, you can choose 128Kbps for a quality equivalent to CD. If you have a dial-up Internet connection, the music is streamed at 20Kbps, which is equivalent to FM sound quality. Of course, the sound quality is also dependent upon the type of speakers or headphones used.
Q: Can I set the default search page and streaming rate?
A: Yes, through the My Account page. You can select which search page (Standard or Advanced) you prefer to have as your default when you log on; and at which speed you would like the music to stream (20Kbps, 64Kbps or 128Kbps).
- What am I getting for free? As mentioned before, without a private account, I cannot control anything. I am not sure at all, but I'd judge that the library's subscription is the minimal standard - 64Kbps if I am lucky, 20 if I am not. It should be noted that, for non-Premium service, Naxos uses a "variable bit-rate" type of encoding.
- System I did all this on my small System III, my Apple Macbook USB connected to Micromega MyDac; Schiit Saga; Akitika amp; Audiomaster LS3/5A (15 ohm, augmented by Pioneer SW-8 subwoofer), quite humble and fit for the task, right? But it actually is a very good sounding system, and can be regarded as near-field monitor system (details here).
- Connection/Drop-Out Occasionally I'd get a drop-out (a crackling pop), usually at the end of a track. This could be NML's fault, but more likely could be my own bandwidth problem, as my computer is connected to the internet via WiFi, not LAN (the modem is in another room, separated by a wall). A quick breaking and restoring of the USB connection restores sound in a couple of seconds. A nuissance, but...
- Listening I started by searching for one of my favorite violinists, Isabelle Faust. I was delighted that there were a large number of entries, including her more obscure pre-Harmonia Mundi efforts. The first piece I played was the Berg Violin Concerto (Harmonia Mundi = HM). I was writing, and the sound level was lower than usual, but I was thoroughly captivated. It was atmospheric, and foreboding, and I could easily tell the soloist, conductor and excellent orchestra were breathing as a whole. The library has a physical CD, but I could not locate it, likely misfiled, so it was a joy to be able to hear something I have wanted to for a while. Then I went on to her double album of Bach concertos (HM), and it was just as great. The harmonious blend and rapport on offer made me listen to 2 full-length CD's worth of music! So, for listening to music, the NML passes the test - the music comes forth intact. I was very happy exploring music I'd never otherwise get to hear, and that was deeply satisfying for a music lover. But what about absolute quality?
- Litmus Test Satisfied as I was with such low-res, I'd not like you to doubt my audiophile credentials! So, I did what I had to do, to compare what was available through NML with a physical disc. I happened to have borrowed the Kohlodenko CD of Grieg and Saint-Saens Piano Concertos (HM), and so I played the equivalent file in NML. I cranked up the volume and erected my rabbit ears. Well, it was quite good! The shape of the music was absolutely there, and musically satisfying, but my audiophile self told me that, for sure, there was more to be had. And so I played the CD through the Meridian 200 transport, into the same Micromega MyDAC. Absolutely, greater separation, macro- and micro-dynamic shadings, more instrumental harmonics (be it strings or winds or brass), more rhythmic exactitude and a more crystalline and varied piano tone. And, the bass was more resolved and less tubby than before. Even the pauses had more meaning. However, what is more important that that is: there is nothing that is unpleasant in the lower-res offering.
- So? The difference was apparent, and does that make the lower-res format unworthy? No, not at all. What I didn't emphasize was that when I streamed, that was the first time I heard the disc, and after the Grieg, I was eager to hear the Saint Saens, and even if I knew I could get more by playing the CD I didn't switch. See, when one is exploring, a little less sonic quality does not really matter. The joy of discovery outweighs everything else. As I said, the shape of music, the rise and fall, the gestalt of it all, is mostly retained in the lower-res version, enough for one to appreciate the music.
- Casual vs Critical Listening I don't know about you. Half the time I listen to music in a "casual" way. I would be typing away or reading. But, I still know what is good or bad! And sometimes if it's good, it would stop me in my tracks. Great music making just comes through - there is no barrier, no matter the bit-rate. Many of my audiophile friends (such as BenYC in HK) listen to a lot of Youtube historical material for enjoyment. I do occasionally too. But yes, when I get a craving for sonic thrill, or testing out something, I'd put on a great sounding album and wallow in its glory. There is no substituting that either. Our gigs are supposed to play the best recorded music, but a rounded audiophile has to be able to play sonically lesser material for musical enjoyment.
- Music Recommendation This Blog has always recommended music. What has troubled me in the last year or so was lack of access to newer recordings. With the streaming service offered by the library, that is history. Now, I can confidently recommend music based on what I hear with the streaming service and be rest assured that what one gets with a hi-res file, or CD, is even better. Meanwhile, I get all the thrills! When you read this, some of my newfound Music Recommendations are already in the side-bar.
- Genre NML is basically a classical service. There are a limited number of items that are from other genres, but none of them are from the major labels. You are not going to find Bird, Monk, Coltrane, Miles etc (except in negligible crossover works). I'd guess the NYPL platform is basically for Classical Music. Fine for me, but perhaps not for you.