By Laurence Vittes | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Although on-demand streaming is still in its infancy, it has become a major resource for students, professionals, amateurs, teachers, and other music lovers serious about classical music. The field has grown to include a number of so-called hi-res streamers that deliver audiophile-quality digital sound on multiple devices and across multiple platforms. At their best, on the right equipment, these services can reproduce the sheer beauty and spatial information of analog vinyl as it was at its peak in the 1960s, and also realize the best that digital CDs were meant to be.
Two recent European entries with strong classical-music content, Qobuz (pronounced co-buzz) from France—which streams classical along with 11 other genres—and IDAGIO (pronounced eye-dagio) from Germany—a solely classical enterprise—join what is becoming a crowded field that already includes Amazon Music HD, Tidal, Primephonic, and Deezer Elite.
Qobuz and IDAGIO offer deep classical-music catalogues, excellent search functions, impressive amounts of metadata, integrity of sources, booklets when available, good customer service, free apps that deliver around the globe, magazines, outstanding sound, and, in the case of their hi-res offerings on the right equipment, demonstration-quality sound.
Both sites are alive with curated channels that make you feel like you’re part of a vibrant and knowledgeable community. IDAGIO’s include a raft of new-release categories, critical commentary, comparison features, and several functions designed to help listeners explore new repertoire. Drawing on translations of its French content, Qobuz offers its own menu of essays on cutting-edge classical topics and interviews that recently have included artists such as Fabio Biondi. Both streamers seem determined to make classical music more accessible—and competitive in a very competitive marketplace.
IDAGIO made a bold marketing and branding move this past January when it signed violinist Maxim Vengerov as a brand ambassador in conjunction with his release of exclusive recordings on the service. The first was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the second a 2018 Carnegie Hall recital, and the third will be the first (markedly different) version of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto.
Though Qobuz is the more visually resplendent of the two (IDAGIO favors a cool, minimalist design aesthetic), IDAGIO is classical-only, which means you’re more likely to come across cellist Jean Guihen Queyras discussing the Saraband from Bach’s First Suite. However, Qobuz has a ton of original content across classical music and other genres, and offers a robust audio section. This is perhaps not surprising, as audiophile sound is something of a passion in France. In fact, Paris is home to two of the largest used classical-music vinyl stores on the planet.
Qobuz offers two plans: The Studio Premier ($14.99 a month) includes unlimited hi-res streaming from 50 million tracks, including roughly 2 million that are classical. The annual Sublime+ plan ($249.99) includes the perks of the Studio Premier and offers substantial discounts on digital downloads, which are available at full price to Studio Premier and non-subscribers. There is a month’s free trial to begin.
IDAGIO offers a free radio version (ads and no on-demand listening at 192Mbps sound quality); IDAGIO Premium ($9.99/month), which includes unlimited streaming of its 2 million tracks at 320Kbps sound and the ability to save your library, download music, and connect with various speaker systems; and IDAGIO Premium+ ($12.99/month), with still more hi-def sound (lossless FLAC).
Classical streaming services already exist in a rapidly changing, competitive market. How have these fledgling companies fared as the coronavirus pandemic swept the world, profoundly impacting the music industry? I spoke to Dan Mackta, managing director at Qobuz USA, about the role major labels and the indies are playing in the face of streaming-industry expansion due to COVID-19-related cancellations of musical events. “The major labels are very supportive of Qobuz since our very existence proves the viability of specialist streaming services that cost more than $9.99. Their A&R and marketing teams are meticulously generating new albums with great care put into both the recordings and all the liner notes. Indies, of course, are massive in classical, and Naxos, which distributes many labels, is one of our best partners.”
IDAGIO co-founder Till Janczukowicz has been watching usage change as the pandemic has spread. “We didn’t see any immediate spikes when this happened, but we have seen an overall increase in streaming on our platform. As we face this biggest crisis of our generation, we are starting to see how the normal, everyday activities in society have been impacted. This makes us believe that people are driven more toward the essentials than social activities during times like these, as those are simply not sustainable. While people shift to staying indoors, we have noticed that it has led some to use other forms of entertainment, turning more to streaming music such as classical and top jazz.”
Mackta says that life in the growing classical-streaming market is more than just challenging.“For us, the stakes are survival, since we are a pure ‘play music service’ without other businesses to subsidize our existence. Generally speaking, the stakes revolve around the timing and possibility of losses and 24-bit streaming going mass-market.”
Hardware for Hi-res Streaming
Before upgrading to audiophile sound, keep in mind that getting the best out of any streaming service demands the best equipment you can afford. So, at a time when virtual has emerged as the new paradigm, I asked John Chen, Juilliard graduate and sales manager at Brooklyn-based Grado Labs, for advice.
“Most of the serious music students I have known did not have any budget at all for technology, considering the costs of strings, reeds, music, Sibelius software, and extra coaching lessons. So I would recommend [if you’re on a tight budget] that you start with a set of Grado SR80 headphones.”
I’m pleased to hear it: I have used Grado headphones since they were introduced 30 years ago and can attest to their musical excellence and excellent value. A next step up for well-heeled listeners would be Grado’s RS2e headphones for $495, which deliver the impact of a $3,000 speaker-based system.
Asked about a small speaker on a budget, Chen recommended “something powered so they can connect directly to their phone or laptop, like the Klipsch R-51PM Powered Monitor ($399 per pair).” For a bit more oomph, Qobuz’s Mackta suggested an SVS Prime Wireless Speaker System (starting at $599).