In part one (link) of my personal streaming services articles I wrote about the Vox app and cloud storage service. Today in part two, I'll cover another option called Brio, from OraStream.
A Tiny Recap
I admit, not everyone has a desire to stream his/her own music when away from home. Many people just use a streaming service such as Qobuz, Amazon HD, Apple Music, or Spotify and call it a day. However, some of us want to listen to our carefully curated collections of Mobile Fidelity, Analogue Productions, and Blue Note DSD remasters whether we're in the car, on a bike ride, or 40,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. Many of the best sounding versions of our favorite music aren't available on streaming services and I don't see that changing any time soon. In addition, despite the talk that "everyone" streams now days, there is a great number of people who just aren't into music streaming services. Fortunately those of us in either of these boats, are in luck.
Researching solutions required that I first identify the problems and / or goals. Here is what I considered, among other things.
- Stream my own music collection anywhere in the world.
- Very simple setup.
- Little to no ongoing maintenance.
- Full resolution or highest possible quality.
- Offline capability.
- Mobile and desktop playback.
- Reasonable price.
- Bonus: Offsite music backup.
OraStream and Brio
OraStream is an innovative company with behind the scenes streaming technology that offers resolutions to real problems. The company's CEO and CTO recently sat down for an interview on the Audiophile Style Podcast and told me all about the origins of the company, it's products, and how its technology works. Readers can listen to that episode below.
Brio is an app and service built for taking one's music with him/her and has OraStream's innovative adaptive streaming technology baked-in. It's architected much differently from Vox and its app / cloud service about which I wrote in part one of this series. Let's take a look at how I used Brio, how it differs from Vox, and what this means to consumers.
Desktop and Mobile without Cloud
OraStream offers Brio desktop apps for both Windows and Mac, and mobile apps for both iOS and Android. Links to all the installers can be found here (link).
I installed the desktop app on my CAPS Twenty Windows 10 server, Mac Mini (M1) with native Apple Silicon app, MacBook Pro (Intel) and the iOS app on my iPhone 12 Pro. The Brio desktop app is somewhat similar to desktop apps audiophiles are used to because it offers items such as exclusive mode, DSD over PCM, and memory mode for loading tracks into memory before commencing playback. It also supports sending network based audio to DLNA/UPnP, Chromecast Audio, SONOS and AirPlay devices.
Based on my experience with the Brio desktop app, I can't say that it's capable of replacing a full fledged app such as Audirvana, JRiver, or Roon, but it's much closer to that ideal than the Vox application.
Brio features two main tabs, Local, and Cloud. The terminology can get confusing when using mobile devices on the go, as readers will see in a bit. To populate the local tab in the desktop app and get music into Brio, one just selects a folder of music and the app ingests everything in that path.
Forget the cloud tab and the cloud aspect of Brio for the moment. With music from an internal drive, USB drive, or NAS drive added to Brio, the desktop application will serve this up to one's mobile device anywhere in the world. Essentially, this could be one's personal streaming service, without the need for the cloud / service part of it because it's all running from a PC or Mac in one's house.
OraStream's website recommends using a router with UPnP enabled, so the right ports can be opened automatically for the Brio app. I'm not a fan of enabling UPnP on routers as it's a security risk. If UPnP is enabled on a router, it's too easy for malware or a rogue IoT device to open ports and let the world into one's network. Thus, I personally avoid it. On the other hand, in all my testing, over several months and several PCs, I never needed UPnP on my router and never needed to manually open any router ports for Brio to serve music to my mobile devices anywhere in the world.
Without UPnP enabled on the router, Brio desktop communicates with one's mobile device through server tunneling. The desktop app creates a connection to OraStream servers on the east coast of the US, and from there communicates with the Brio app on one's mobile device. This is a fairly circuitous route and can be unreliable. According to OraStream's CEO Frankie Tan, "This is the reason why we have de-emphasized features around streaming audio data between BRIO Desktop to Mobile in recent years and re-emphasized on improving ease and increasing the free allowance of uploads to Cloud library."
When streaming from Brio desktop to my mobile device, using OraStream's server tunneling (no setup required), it worked 80% of the time. Once in a while the app would lock up. I currently use Google Fi as my wireless carrier and I have to say the coverage and network speed is terrible at my house, where I tested Brio. Fortunately, and according to FedEx, my new AT&T SIM card will arrive by the end of the day and finally enable me to test on a 5G network. More to come on this front.
Readers should note that Brio desktop uses random ports each time the app is opened. This means that manually setting up port forwarding on one's router needs to be done every time the app is closed and reopened because the port will be different each time.
Streaming from one's home PC using Brio to the Brio mobile app works decently, not great, but decently, and is vastly different from streaming not only with the Vox app but almost all other apps on the market including Qobuz, Apple Music, and other home based solutions. The reason is OraStream's innovative MPEG-4 SLS adaptive encoding. The Brio desktop app incorporates a codec to encode (in real-time) local library tracks in MPEG-4 SLS for delivery to mobile.
From the podcast episode above:
"If there is one technology that should be embraced by all the music streaming services, it’s Orastream’s MPEG-4 SLS offering. It’s a solution to real problems, that requires no special hardware or decoder, and leaves the audio signal 100% unaffected for those streaming with a good network connection.
As you’ll hear, The OraStream Service is an end-to-end audio delivery platform. It works with full resolution audio recordings to deliver the highest quality of streaming audio on web, desktop, and mobile music players. The Audio adapts automatically to network bandwidth fluctuations for uninterrupted playback on cellular, Wi-Fi, or wired networks. When bandwidth allows, music plays at full bit-perfect resolution. When bandwidth degrades, music plays at less than full resolution audio quality. The process of network-based, audio quality adaptability is dynamic and transparent to the music listener."
This is the beauty of Brio and MPEG-4 SLS, it's seamless to the end user and only turns lossy when bandwidth is reduced sufficiently, and it's lossy is very different from other forms of lossy in that it peals away bits through an adaptive process. It's really good technology that streaming services should all use because it leaves the original recording alone when we have good bandwidth.
Similar to apps from the major streaming services that enable users to select different qualities of streaming when on mobile cellular networks versus when on a wifi network, Brio offers these option as well. In the Brio mobile app one can select offline quality, streaming quality and enable/disable the adaptive mode altogether
Desktop And Mobile With Cloud
Given that Brio desktop is capable of streaming directly from one's home to one's mobile anywhere in the world, why use the cloud? First, let's backup and briefly cover OraStream's Brio cloud offering. For consumers OraStream offers three cloud plans, Basic (free) with 25GB of storage, Mobile ($29 USD) with 100GB of storage, and Cloud ($110 USD) with at least 1TB of storage. I say at least 1TB because as I was typing this I received an email from Frankie Tan saying, "We spoke about the time, effort and commitment on part of end-users in uploading hundreds of GBs of audio to cloud storage. As such, whenever an end-user approaches 1TB BRIO cloud storage and wishes to continue to upload beyond 1TB, they can continue to do so without any change in BRIO cloud pricing. We will remove the storage limit for the BRIO Cloud plan for BRIO Cloud subscribers to do so." This is a big win for consumers with more than 1TB of music they wish to make available on the cloud.
Now to the question of why use the cloud when I can stream direct? I see at least three reasons to engage OraStream's cloud service. One, to untether the mobile listening experience from the necessity of a constantly running computer at home with the Brio app running. Two, ease of use and use experience / speed are much better when using the OraStream cloud because UPnP can remain securely disabled on one's router, circuitous server tunneling isn't needed, and streaming from the cloud is much faster. Three, when using the Brio desktop app at home and at work or remotely at a coffee shop (or similar), the local content tab only shows what has been added to Brio via the local interface. For example, I added music using my CAPS Twenty server and it all shows up on the local tab using Brio on that server. When I launch Brio on my MacBook Pro, I see zero music on the local tab because I haven't told Brio to scan my NAS for all my music. Even if I did scan my NAS on both computers, when my MacBook Pro isn't on my network, the NAS isn't reachable. Here's the rub, either way, it isn't possible to stream from Brio desktop at home to Brio desktop remotely unless music is stored in the cloud.
Note: Technically the Brio web application should see content stored locally on one's home server. I had some issues with this and received the message, "your local library is currently not accessible." After restarting the Brio desktop all on my server, I was able to see content local to this server, from my MacBook Pro via the Brio web interface.
Uploading content to OraStream's servers through the Brio app was an amazingly neat experience for me. I'm well aware that this isn't the case for everyone, and this is duly noted. To start, I pointed Brio's cloud upload page to roughly 70GB of music. The upload speed was faster than anything I've ever encountered at home. Brio hit over 500 Mbps when uploading music on my fiber 1 Gbps up/down internet connection. I'm fully aware that this type of connection is somewhat rare, but my experience details what Brio is capable of with respect to upload speeds.
Brio cloud can accept FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, AAC and MP3 (16 bit/44.1 kHz up through 24 bit/192 kHz. DSD is not supported in the cloud because all uploads are encoded in lossless MPEG-4 SLS. That's the heart of OraStream's technology. Note, DSD playback is fully supported on the desktop app when using local content.
Streaming from the OraStream's cloud to my iPhone 12 Pro was a really good experience. It was really good from a music lover's perspective and a geek's perspective. The adaptive MPEG-4 SLS technology senses network speeds and streams either the highest bit rate possible or the highest bit rate enabled in the app settings. Using my less than stellar Google Fi coverage, music started playing shortly after I hit play in the app. The usual bit rate was fairly low to start, but increased quickly as Brio "understood" the limits of my connection. In some areas of Minneapolis I had four full bars of signal, but while at home I have one measly bar using Google Fi.
The bottom line here is that Brio and MPEG-4 SLS work as designed. Playback and the process of pealing off bits when needed is all seamless to me as the end user. When I have a good connection, I get the full quality of whatever I uploaded to the cloud.
Brio streaming various sample rates to my mobile from the cloud. Notice the high bit rates.
One of my requirements for a good personal streaming service is offline storage for playback when a good internet connection isn't available or when one wishes to save bandwidth. Brio offers offline storage in the same was as Vox and all the other major streaming services. In the Brio app it's called "Like." When an album is liked, it's downloaded for offline playback. A nice part about this is liking an album from the desktop app, automatically makes it available offline on one's mobile device. While it'd also possible to Like an album that isn't stored int he cloud and it will download to one's mobile, I found this a bit spotty and much preferred getting offline music from the cloud.
One somewhat quirky part of the Brio "like" system is that it has two sets of liked albums, one local and one in the cloud. Both technically should download to one's mobile, but it's a bit strange to navigate and fully comprehend the system unless one is familiar with the app and uses it frequently.
One frustrating part of the Brio cloud experience was the inability to remove more than a single album at a time from the cloud. Consumers on a limited storage cloud plan will likely remove and upload new music when needed, as storing an entire collection in 25 or 100GB isn't possible. Currently, the Brio app requires three clicks to remove each album from the cloud. Vox on the other hand has a nuclear option that allows selecting all one's cloud albums and hitting delete. Perhaps there's a happy medium.
Note: As this article was published OraStream notified me that it had enabled its web based downloader and spectrograms for one's music. So far, I only see the option to download albums individually. This is a nice touch, but for someone like me with 21,871 albums, the download option doesn't really work for re-downloading an entire collection. The spectrogram feature is really nice. Clicking the three dots next to a track and selecting Show Spectrogram, displays the spectrogram right in the web browser. These features will be available in the applications as soon as Friday July 23, 2021.
Spectrograms from Brio Web Player. A Reference Recordings high resolution track followed by the new Qobuz Q Sessions high resolution track.
Differences Between Brio and Vox
These two apps and services are clearly different in several ways.
- Brio desktop app has more audiophile type features including exclusive mode, DSD over PCM, and memory mode.
- Brio desktop app supports sending network based audio to DLNA/UPnP, Chromecast Audio, SONOS and AirPlay devices.
- Brio is roughly $110 USD per year for at least 1TB of storage (unofficially unlimited) whereas Vox is $50 per year for unlimited storage.
- Brio streams using adaptive mode / MPEG-4 SLS whereas Vox streams exactly what's uploaded to its cloud bit perfectly.
- Brio won't upload DSD to the cloud, whereas Vox supports both playback and cloud upload of all PCM and DSD files.
- Brio can stream content without a cloud plan but it may have limited performance. Vox has no such capability.
- Brio re-downloading of content must be done individually per album whereas Vox can download all content at once.
- Brio can only show playback screen on CarPlay enabled stereos, whereas Vox has full CarPlay support and navigation of the app.
- Brio has a web player with identical adaptive MPEG-4 SLS quality to its desktop and mobile players, whereas Vox requires app installation.
- Brio mobile app can be used as a remote control for the desktop app using the option to "Play Music On A Remote Device."
Brio CarPlay "Now Playing" screen, not a native CarPlay app.
What This Means
I used the term Personal Streaming Services because, in a way, that's what both Vox and Brio enable. It's entirely possible to stream one's music collection to any location in the world, without much hassle or cost. There are many roads to Rome. I've covered two of them in this series. Vox and Brio are the two that best meet my needs and satisfy my requirements. Both apps and services offer different solutions to the same problems. This is where options for consumers are terrific. We can read about how each app works, and even try them for a nominal fee, before making any long term decisions.
I like both apps and services for their approaches to getting my music to me anywhere on the planet. As the CEO of OraStream, Frankie Tan, told me in my podcast interview, Brio has been somewhat of a side project over the years because it isn't what pays the bills. Based on my extensive use of Brio, this clearly shows. The app has some quirks and rough patches that need to be smoothed out, if the company wants to perfect this app and service.
If I had to select one app and service to use, I'd currently select Vox. It's the app I subconsciously go-to and it's the app that checks more of the boxes about which I care. On the subjective side, the Vox interface just feels really good to use on all platforms including CarPlay. On the objective side, the app just works better than Brio and is more consistent. I can count on Vox to work when I jump in my car and want to play Kind of Blue for my daughter when she asks, "Who is Miles Davis." I believe the long term outlook for Brio is better than Vox, because of its innovative use of MPEG-4 SLS and its deep industry knowledge. As it stands right now, Brio is more of a work in progress that could be made excellent, if the desire is there from OraStream.
More Information About OraStream Brio - https://www.orastream.com