Just over one year ago Amazon launched its Amazon Music HD streaming service. Many people uninterested in the success of small businesses and good customer service cheered the new offering from the 1.7 Trillion dollar company. At the time Amazon's $14.99 per month plan was the lower than all the other lossless or above music services. Not long after Amazon launched, Qobuz matched its pricing and now offers a $14.99 /month plan and $24.99 /month family plan. Let's take a look at Amazon Music HD, one year later.
I've been an Amazon Music HD subscriber since day one and have used the service off and on since signing up. Most of this use has been on my mobile phone or desktop. There just aren't many options for listening in another way, such as integration with Lumin, Aurender, Auralic, JRiver, Roon, etc... Given that Amazon is notoriously difficult to work with, it's no surprise that we have so few options. One year on, the landscape is still Sonos, Bluesound, and Denon HEOS (I'm sure people will let me know if I missed any).
The limited number of options for playback isn't a showstopper in and of itself because many audiophiles use computers directly attached to their HiFi systems. A USB cable between the computer and one's system is all that's required and Amazon Music HD will send along its highest quality.
What is Amazon Music HD's highest quality? I started testing where I always start testing, with bit perfect playback. If a service or app can't output bit perfect audio, then I have big problems because I don't know where the losses are happening and how big the losses are. The quick and dirty truth is that I can't play bit perfect audio from Amazon Music HD on Windows 10, macOS Catalina (10.15.7), or a Sonos Port using coaxial S/PDIF digital output.
I can match the sample rate of the audio sent from Amazon Music HD, but the stream or the file is being altered somewhere before it hits my house. In other words, when Amazon says it's playing a 24 bit / 96 kHz file, I can get my DAC to say 24/96, but the stream doesn't pass bit perfect testing.
Note: Not to toot my own horn, but I've been around the bit perfect block a few times and understand what's required to obtain bit perfect playback. If there is something special about Amazon Music HD, that isn't required for Qobuz and Tidal, I'd appreciate someone pointing it out to me. These other apps played bit perfect when I ran them through the exact same tests this morning.
Furthermore, the Amazon Music HD applications for Windows and macOS will not change the same rate automatically. For example, if I set Windows 10 to output 24/96 audio and set it to give exclusive access to Amazon Music HD, the music will always be output to my DAC at 24/96. Even though Amazon says the file is 16/44.1 or 24/192 etc..., the Amazon Music HD app can't change the sample rate of the audio output. This is problematic for people who think they are streaming what Amazon calls Ultra HD, but are really listening to a CD quality stream because that's what their computer is set to play. Apps that take control of the sample rate have been around for over a decade. There's no excuse to advertise and offer content at multiple sample rates, yet require users to manually change their control panel / audio midi settings between tracks just to hear the native quality.
It's hard for me to even think about looking further into Amazon Music HD as an option for people who care about sound quality and customer service. The company has had one year to fix issues, but based on its responses to users' request for these basic features, I won't hold my breath that the service or app will improve. There really isn't a reason to look at user interface and catalog if the company can't even stream the lossless audio it advertises.
One last note. I'm sure some people have seen the newly announced partnership between Amazon and Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group to release new high resolution remasters of albums from Eagles, Marvin Gaye, Nirvana, Tom Petty, Diana Ross, Linkin Park, J. Cole, Waylon Jennings, Ramones, 2 Chainz, Lady Gaga, The Notorious B.I.G., Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, and more. While this may seem like a good thing, I'm unfortunately not optimistic. It isn't often that remasters actually sound better when created for the masses. I hope those in this partnership don't cross the audio DMZ and cause the loudness wars to flare up once again.
Last week, and again this morning, I went looking for these new remasters. I was able to see some of the albums because Amazon placed a convenient link to them on the Amazon Music HD app's main page. This link is no longer on my main page, so I went searching. What I found is a soup sandwich. For example, I looked for Nirvana remasters and found a single album labeled Remastered. I clicked into Nevermind (Remastered) and hoped to see an indication that this was the new remaster touted in all the press releases. Unfortunately the only date I can find on this album is "copyright 2011 Geffen Records." This is the same as the Deluxe remaster released in 2011 for the albums's anniversary. Think this is a one-off issue? Think again. I went through many other releases and found the same thing. There's no way to tell if an album has been newly remastered unless you find a link from Amazon, stating it's the new remaster, to the album. Even those albums have incorrect dates on them however.
And finally, these new remasters are exclusives to Amazon Music HD. Say what you want about exclusives, but I hate them. Dan Mackta, the Qobuz USA Managing Director, believes these exclusives won't last forever and we should see the new remasters come to other services in due time.
As it stands today, one year after launching, Amazon Music HD isn't for anyone who cares about customer service, audio quality or about using streaming services through integrations with numerous hardware and software vendors. If things change I'll be happy to reevaluate Amazon Music HD. For now I highly recommend Qobuz as the number one choice for streaming lossless high resolution audio.