I was upset. Joe Rogan was promoting dangerous lies and Spotify was supporting him. So I broke it off. To send a message. Inspired by Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and many other artists I highly respect. It didn’t last – and the reason is interesting.
It shouldn’t be that hard. My family has been using Spotify for less than 3 years and there are great alternatives out there. With better quality and pretty much the same selection. I had looked into Qobuz and Deezer before, because my audiophile friends claim they deliver better sound than Spotify: Lossless quality. But the convenience of what we already had outweighed the apparent advantages. This time though, I had motivation.
Objectively, we don’t really need a streaming service. That’s why we came late to the party. Our own collection counts more than 300.000 tracks spanning from Vivaldi to Daft Punk, all in lossless quality, with Roon and Plex as ‘front ends’. If you don’t know Roon (from Roon Labs), check it out.
I headed to Deezer first, and found a tool to help transfer my playlists from Spotify to get us started. Then reality set in. 20% of the songs from our Spotify playlists were nowhere to be found on Deezer. OK, I figured we could live with that – ignoring the fact that some of them were our absolute favorites, such as The Fast Train Jazz Band. We’ll find new ones, I told my wife. ‘Just like we had on Spotify.’ Actually most of our fresh acquaintances in music came from Spotify Playlists recommended by friends – or by Spotify.
Deezer comes highly recommended by B&O so I expected some level of integration with our system. I was disappointed. Spotify Connect, which is also supported by most B&O equipment, works a lot better. Then there is the user interface – the apps and the web/browser-based tools. Deezer’s app is decent but confusing about which device(s) we’re streaming to. Also, the recommendations were notoriously lousy. Maybe not entirely fair since I had just started, but the playlists were there – how hard can it be? And finally, maybe the ultimate dealbreaker: There is no Deezer app for the Apple TV.
I didn’t see this one coming: Apple TV is the center of our entertainment universe, and the natural modus operandi is to use the remote. Streaming from other devices works well, but being forced to use them instead of just clicking the remote, feels clumsy. Of course this depends on where we’re coming from. In our case, a single remote for everything has been ‘the thing’ for several decennia. 10+ years ago, our B&O remote could easily operate playlists, artists, songs, albums etc. from iTunes. So the missing ATV app felt like a big step backwards. Lossless quality or not, Deezer lost and we headed to Qobuz.
It’s hard to pinpoint, but there is something about Qobuz that just feels better than Deezer. Maybe it’s their tone of communication. Their mailings and notifications always focus on the music, on quality, high res, getting more out of the subscription. Then again, my comparison with Deezer is not entirely fair, since I didn’t use Qobuz’ front end/app much at all. The seamless integration with Roon, which I was already using, made it an obvious choice. And the combination is indeed great. Not the least the ease at which my own collection blends in. Not to mention Roon’s impressive abilities in digital processing.
The recommendation algorithm worked better too, but I’ll admit I don’t know whether to credit Roon or Qobuz for that one. On the other hand, neither have apps for the Apple TV, and Qobuz’ track selection is pretty much like Deezer’s, not up to par with Spotify.
Having experienced what the real dealbreaker the Apple TV app was, the search continued and we headed to Apple Music. Two months for free, lossless, and being in the Apple ecosystem already, it seemed like an obvious choice. Less expensive than Spotify too. It started out really well. The tool to transfer playlists was cool, the number of missing tracks was lower – maybe 10%, the Apple TV app seemed fine, things were looking good.
But we were in for more surprises. Not from the service, selection or technology but from our own attitudes and preferences. The ‘real’ platform dependencies showed up. If your first platform is good, it gets the significant advantage of creating the metrics for all those things you never had before, and – unconsciously – came to appreciate (maybe more like addicted to). Example: Before streaming there were physical albums – CDs and LP-covers – to read from, look at, enjoy, then put aside. As streaming took off, it was expected that the covers would slowly disappear or at least become much less important. The opposite happened: Regardless of listening platform, streaming music is always accompanied by art, still known as cover art. The way this art is presented – and consumed by you and me – has become important to us. Spotify uses art, pictures and colors and additional information in a very tasteful way. Apple Music does much of the same, but presents less information and does not (surprisingly) have the same elegance. Also, Apple likes to show off lyrics when available, which to us is noise. I tried to turn it off and I’m convinced there is a way, I just could not find it.
Apple Music has the same ability to integrate your own library as Roon, but I never got that far. We met the wall so to speak before that. Another surprise actually: The algorithm. 6 weeks into Apple Music, I still could not find a playlist suggestion that matched our taste and our own playlists. Not even close. So – on a Friday night, nice dinner and great bottle of wine, my wife pleadingly suggested we put on Spotify, just for an hour or two. Knowing that the quality would be lower without the subscription and with possible interruptions from commercials.
Surprise. Seriously. It was like coming home. An old favorite playlist, then a new one, just great. Even with the lower quality. We looked at each other smiling, realizing what the next question had to be: Has the message to Spotify been sent? Can we live with a cave-in? The answer was a resounding yes.
As dinner faded into coffee, briefly interrupted by some tapping on the iPhone to get the subscription back on track, the sound quality was back too. And honestly, my ears are too old to hear the difference between Spotify High Res and the other services’ lossless. Even on B&O.
Two weeks later, another revelation is settling in: We use music during the day again. Daytime Jazz, Jazz for Work, Music for Reading etc. The playlists just work. Not all the time, but most of the time. They did not on the other services.
So what’s the bottom line? Maybe surprisingly, but here we go: There is no such thing as a ‘best streaming service’. It’s mostly subjective. Your preferences, your taste, your usage patterns, preferred technology platform, your gear – and surprisingly: Where you started, which service got to define YOUR metrics.
I’m not saying Spotify forever, but for now Spotify beats them all and brings music into our lives in a very positive way. The algorithm works.
The political issue – Joe Rogan and Spotify? The point has been made. Rogan – and Ek, the head of Spotify, got their slap on the wrists and apologized, but little else. Spotify has added a barely visible content advisory tab. Ronan made a statement about not understanding the effects of his doings – which made him look utterly stupid. And Neil Young and Joni Mitchell are (mostly) back on Spotify. The storm blew over, we made a statement, learned a lesson and moved on.