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    The Computer Audiophile

    UPDATE: Amazon Music HD Is Still Lossy*

     

    Last month I wrote about Amazon's issues with streaming lossless audio (link). The company advertises high definition, yet doesn't offer lossless CD or HD audio. At the encouragement of a few Audiophile Style readers, I obtained a Bluesound Node 2i for testing. The Node 2i enabled me to test streaming from Amazon without using any of Amazon's applications for Windows, macOS, or iOS. The audio routs from Amazon's servers, through the Bluesound Node 2i's coaxial digital output and into my DAC. I could've use analog outputs in the Node 2i, but for the sake of testing the digital outputs were required. Below are my testing methodology and my findings. 

     

     

    Testing Methodology 

     

    I use a Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 3 that identifies and decodes HDCD on all sample rates. When an unaltered HDCD file is played, the HDCD indicator on the DAC is illuminated. The HDCD flag is on the 16 bit for CD files and the 24th bit for high resolution files. Any alteration, DSP, volume leveling, etc... changes this least significant bit and won't enable the HDCD indicator to illuminate. That's the hardware piece. 
     
    With respect to source files, here's what I do. 
     
    I have a list of roughly ten known HDCD albums (although I could use more if needed). Many of these albums were only released as HDCD encoded CDs/files. There is no alternate lossless version. For example, Reference Recordings only releases music that's HDCD encoded. 
     
    I set a baseline by playing my own local copy of the albums and make sure the HDCD indicator illuminates.

     

    I used the Bluesound applications on iOS and macOS for playback during this test. Outside of the Amazon native apps, that I tested previously, the Bluesound app/ecosystem is one of the only systems to integrate Amazon Music HD and stream content up through 24/192. 

     

    Through the Bluesound app and Node 2i combination, I streamed my known HDCD releases first through Qobuz, then through Tidal, and finally through Amazon Music HD. I wanted to use my local file baseline, then two streaming service baselines, before testing Amazon.  

     

    Absolutely there are possible holes in my methodology, but I believe I've minimized them as much as possible. The two major ones are source material. Sure Amazon could have different source material from all other lossless streaming services, but after checking with labels, I highly doubt this is the case. The second one is Amazon's adaptive bit rate. Amazon could be sending me lossy versions of the files and sending other people lossless versions, but I think this is highly unlikely as well. I have a 1 gigabit upload/download unmetered fiber internet connection. I routinely check the speed and see between 800 Mbps and 940 Mbps. If Amazon doesn't think this is a fast enough connection for lossless audio, then I doubt anyone else is going to receive lossless audio, thus making the platform lossy. 

     


    Results

     

    Good news for Bluesound! The Bluesound Node 2i successfully streamed lossless audio from Amazon Music HD from 16 bit / 44.1 kHz up through 24 bit / 192 kHz. Amazon's own apps are unable to do what the Bluesound ecosystem can do with respect to playing the highest quality lossless audio. 

     

    I used the following music to test, and discovered a couple interesting items along the way. 

     

    Neil Young's Greatest Hits, Harvest (2009 Remaster) and After The Gold Rush (2009 Remaster) were all bit perfect at 24/192 from Amazon. 

    Pearl Jam's Live On Two Legs, Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and Minnesota Orchestra's Bolero! (Reference Recordings) were bit perfect at 16/44.1 from Amazon.

     

    Jewel's album Spirit never illuminated the HDCD indicator on my Berkeley Audio Design DAC through Amazon, but the same Album lit the light through Qobuz. 

     

    The Chicks album Wide Open Spaces was an HDCD master when originally released at 16/44.1. Neither Amazon, Tidal, nor Qobuz streamed a version that illuminated the HDCD indicator on my DAC. There is a 24/96 non-HDCD version available for streaming and I wonder if the 44.1 version is derived from that or if the streaming services have a "bad" copy of the original, or if when the 96 kHz version was done, a 44.1 version was also made and delivered to the services. 

     

    I also found what may be the effects of watermarking on a couple albums I tested. The album No Name Face from Lifehouse and the album Pull My Chain from Toby Keith were originally released as HDCD masters on CD. Playing these albums from Amazon Music HD, the HDCD indicator illuminated for about 1 second, then went dark. I've talked to a few people about this behavior and the agreement seems to be that there's a watermark placed on the albums. The watermark didn't effect the first second of the track, but kicks in shortly after, destroying bit perfect playback. 

     

    Upon further investigation I found:

     

    • Qobuz plays these albums perfectly and lights the HDCD light on my DAC. 
    • Tidal plays the Toby Keith album perfect, but not the Lifehouse album. 
    • Amazon plays neither album perfectly, however Amazon offers a second version of Pull My Chain that does stream perfectly and illuminates the HDCD indicator. 

     

    If the watermark is done at the label level this makes a little more sense. The versions that don't playback perfectly are all labeled SKG / Dreamworks. The Amazon version that doesn't have issues is labeled UMG / Dreamworks. Yes, I realize this is a tiny difference in metadata that may mean nothing, but it's the only difference between the albums that playback perfect the those that don't.

     

    Last, I found some MQA content streaming through Amazon Music HD. It's bit perfect as MQA was displayed on my DAC.

     


    Bottom Line

     

    The bottom line is twofold. First, it's great that Amazon Music HD can be streamed to a HiFi system losslessly in high resolution. Amazon's own applications are incapable of this, but fortunately the indispensable Bluesound Node 2i handles it with ease. If readers want Amazon Music HD, the Node 2i is a requirement in my book. Second, all of this testing indicates that streaming can be a mess for those of us who like high quality and care about the best sound possible. I think of all the conversations I've had with people who say one streaming service sounds better than another or their local copies of albums sound better than the identical versions when streamed. I completely understand. It's a mess out there.

     

     



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    13 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    No. The apps for Windows and macOS are incapable of bit perfect. 

    What about if I am using Amarra SQ+ with the Spotify app streaming to my Benchmark stack using the volume control on the LA4 preamp?

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    1 minute ago, photonman said:

     

    What about if I am using Amarra SQ+ with the Spotify app streaming to my Benchmark stack using the volume control on the LA4 preamp?

    My original comment, and this article, reference the Amazon Music HD app and its content. 

     

    Spotify is lossy to begin with and the company doesn't offer lossless. If you like it, you're totally golden. Don't worry about it. 

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    5 minutes ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    My original comment, and this article, reference the Amazon Music HD app and its content. 

     

    Sorry, got off topic a little.  I did try SQ+ with the Amazon Mac app.  It would start out fine but after about 15 minutes of continuous play I would get pops and clicks.  Amarra support looked into it and responded that the Amazon app was CPU intensive from what they saw.  

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    Just now, photonman said:

    Sorry, got off topic a little.  I did try SQ+ with the Amazon Mac app.  It would start out fine but after about 15 minutes of continuous play I would get pops and clicks.  Amarra support looked into it and responded that the Amazon app was CPU intensive from what they saw.  

    Ah. There is nothing Amara, or anyone, can do if accepting the audio feed from the Amazon apps. 

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    14 hours ago, The Computer Audiophile said:

    No. The apps for Windows and macOS are incapable of bit perfect. 

     

    OK, so how "imperfect" are they with no digital attenuation in terms of signal/data degradation?  Are they taking a CD or better signal and converting it to MP3 compressed quality?  Or something better but not 100% of the original file quality?  

     

    Seems dumb for Amazon to advertise HD and then not deliver it, especially when they charge extra for it and it's not like they do not have the resources to develop an app that delivers as advertised.  

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    30 minutes ago, 57gold said:

     

    OK, so how "imperfect" are they with no digital attenuation in terms of signal/data degradation?  Are they taking a CD or better signal and converting it to MP3 compressed quality?  Or something better but not 100% of the original file quality?  

     

    Seems dumb for Amazon to advertise HD and then not deliver it, especially when they charge extra for it and it's not like they do not have the resources to develop an app that delivers as advertised.  

    That's the rub. I have no clue where the DSP is taking place or what it's doing. I suppose I could capture a stream and compare it to the lossless version I have and to other services, then make a difference file. 

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    25 minutes ago, 57gold said:

     

    OK, so how "imperfect" are they with no digital attenuation in terms of signal/data degradation?  Are they taking a CD or better signal and converting it to MP3 compressed quality?  Or something better but not 100% of the original file quality?  

     

    Seems dumb for Amazon to advertise HD and then not deliver it, especially when they charge extra for it and it's not like they do not have the resources to develop an app that delivers as advertised.  

    Seems dumb? Yes, but only if you think like a normal person and not like a predatory corporation. They advertize "HD" and then include also include regular CD quality as "HD". Of course they have the resources to develop an app that would playback everything bit perfect - it would be trivial for them. But they don't care - why not charge customers for something that isn't quite up to snuff if you can get away with it? Except for people who read sites such as this one, no one even knows it's happening - it's behind the scenes in the app. At some point they will probably improve the app...

    As far as SQ, it's probably not a huge degredation. The issue is that if you are paying for audiophile quality and high res, that's what they should be giving you - the hi res file as it exists, not a version altered behind the scenes. 

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    Thanks guys.  

     

    Just updated the app on my Mini and switched on Exclusive Mode, maybe noticed a slight improvement...could be self delusion.

     

    Noticed there is an option to "levelize" volume between tracks, which of course I did not toggle.

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    2 hours ago, 57gold said:

     

    OK, so how "imperfect" are they with no digital attenuation in terms of signal/data degradation?  Are they taking a CD or better signal and converting it to MP3 compressed quality?  Or something better but not 100% of the original file quality?  

    Definitely not MP3, the SQ of HD easily beats 320kbps from Google Play and YouTube Music provided you are using an app that allows it. For me that is only via Windows.

     

    My Chromecast streamers OTOH do downgrade HD to MP3 quality. My sMS-200 and Playpoint can't play Amazon Music at all.

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    Very good tests. 
    personally I have subscriptions with Qobuz, Tidal and Amazon HD. 
    I have a Node 2i that I continue to use as a pure streamer and then I pass through a Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro Dac before entering via Xlr into my amp and electrostatic speakers. 
    Amazon HD has a user interface that is awful if you want to have your own artists or albums because it's all based on playlist: Tidal (the best) and Qobuz are much better. 
    But the sound quality is really good and my Dac shows 24/96 or 24/192 as it should with high res music. 
     

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    On 11/16/2020 at 3:16 PM, KeenObserver said:

    As I said before, it is a sad state that as we get closer and closer to the holy grail of being able to reproduce the musical experience, the music suppliers play games with the source music.

    It's sad for the labels and musicians as well.  We want you to have the full experience of what we've uploaded to these HD services.  What comes out the other end is not what we've uploaded.  When you upload a 192 file, you expect 192... not 96.  I can say that Qobuz and Tidal have both been very open to direct relationships with labels and make efforts to sell what we upload... if they receive it directly from us, which isn't always the case.

     

    Enjoy your listening

    Cookie Marenco

    Blue Coast Records and Music

    https://bluecoastmusic.com/

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    Thanks for the great article and the update. Over the past two years we have moved from Apple Music to Amazon to Amazon HD. Everything has been streamed through our Cambridge Azur 851N via an iPad or iPhone...Certainly not ideal and maxes out at the basic CD quality available through Apple. (Seems a shame to not take advantage of our PS Audio Direct Stream Junior, so we are capable of unfolding better sound quality.)

    I'm looking for an all in one streamer with a hard drive for our 350 CDs and willing to buy more to be respectful of the artists. (I do not have the chops to run something through a Mac Mini/etc.) Intrigued by Bluesound, but a little hesitant about the sound quality.....

    The Bluesound Vault might be the answer, but wonder if I should wait for a NAD version (Thinking NAD is better quality than Bluesound) and better yet an Innuos Mini version. Is the Roon streamer compliant with Amazon?

    My question: Is there a list of streamers/companies that have a relationship with Amazon Music? My searches on the inter-web have not been productive.

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    I think this is a great series of tests and I very much appreciate the effort undertaken and the clear results posted. I am afraid I do not share the same enthusiasm for Bluesound and would like to explain why. I purchased a NAD M10, a higher end version of the Bluesound Powernode, because of the excellent reviews this unit has received. And I think that overall it is a high value product. Playing music from Tidal or some of the other sources via this unit, audio quality seems to be as high as allowed by the source. But not all music I listen to is available from Tidal or Qobuz. As a result I was really disappointed the unit is not Chromecast capable. Taken by itself, this would not have caused dissatisfaction with Bluesound.

    In today's world I expect that a specialty audio company will be accessible to its customer base and will respond reasonably quickly to its customer questions and comments. Neither Nad nor Bluesound offers "Contact us" via their web sites. But they do host a forum. The forum pertaining to Chromecast use on Bluesound, https://support1.bluesound.com/hc/en-us/community/posts/360034972134-Add-Chromecast-support-to-Bluesound-product-line?page=3#community_comment_360013597294 was started more than a year ago and currently has more than 70 posts, many of them asking two basic questions:

    1. Can Chromecast be added to Bluesound

    2. If one adds a Chromecast dongle is the audio available at other Bluesound devices for multi-room use

    As anyone who reads the comments will quickly see, there were no responses from Bluesound staff for more than a year on Question 1. After that long delay, there were first responses from Bluesound that do not appear to be accurate, followed by an explanation that the Bluesound devices do not have adequate memory but without full details. Question 2 has never been answered one way or the other. This lack of transparency and responsiveness has caused me to loose all enthusiasm for Bluesound

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    4 hours ago, WVillet said:

    I think this is a great series of tests and I very much appreciate the effort undertaken and the clear results posted. I am afraid I do not share the same enthusiasm for Bluesound and would like to explain why. I purchased a NAD M10, a higher end version of the Bluesound Powernode, because of the excellent reviews this unit has received. And I think that overall it is a high value product. Playing music from Tidal or some of the other sources via this unit, audio quality seems to be as high as allowed by the source. But not all music I listen to is available from Tidal or Qobuz. As a result I was really disappointed the unit is not Chromecast capable. Taken by itself, this would not have caused dissatisfaction with Bluesound.

    In today's world I expect that a specialty audio company will be accessible to its customer base and will respond reasonably quickly to its customer questions and comments. Neither Nad nor Bluesound offers "Contact us" via their web sites. But they do host a forum. The forum pertaining to Chromecast use on Bluesound, https://support1.bluesound.com/hc/en-us/community/posts/360034972134-Add-Chromecast-support-to-Bluesound-product-line?page=3#community_comment_360013597294 was started more than a year ago and currently has more than 70 posts, many of them asking two basic questions:

    1. Can Chromecast be added to Bluesound

    2. If one adds a Chromecast dongle is the audio available at other Bluesound devices for multi-room use

    As anyone who reads the comments will quickly see, there were no responses from Bluesound staff for more than a year on Question 1. After that long delay, there were first responses from Bluesound that do not appear to be accurate, followed by an explanation that the Bluesound devices do not have adequate memory but without full details. Question 2 has never been answered one way or the other. This lack of transparency and responsiveness has caused me to loose all enthusiasm for Bluesound

     

    In my discussion with them they said Chromecast essentially needs the full version of Chrome browser running and the Node 2i can't handle that , alongside everything else it's running. There would be a performance issue that would affect the BluOS experience.

     

    They will try to add it if it becomes leaner in terms of resources but i imagine it's a sure bet for a Node 3 or whatever the next hardware will be called ...

     

    There is the Cambridge Audio CXN V2 that supports Airplay 2 + Roon + Chromecast Built in + Tidal Connect (coming) + Spotify Connect

     

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    19 hours ago, JPK said:

     

    I'm looking for an all in one streamer with a hard drive for our 350 CDs and willing to buy more to be respectful of the artists. (I do not have the chops to run something through a Mac Mini/etc.) Intrigued by Bluesound, but a little hesitant about the sound quality.....

    The Bluesound Vault might be the answer, but wonder if I should wait for a NAD version (Thinking NAD is better quality than Bluesound) and better yet an Innuos Mini version. Is the Roon streamer compliant with Amazon?

    For what it’s worth, I'm really enjoying the Node 2i.  I use it with an external DAC.   While there may not be a list of specific devices, Amazon does provide a listing of “preferred brands” that might help narrow your search a bit: https://www.amazon.com/music/unlimited/why-hd#hd-edu-brands

     

    it’s also worth noting that the Node 2i has a USB port on the back of the unit, and can read music files from a flash drive plugged into that port.   So, here's something to consider:

     

    First, you'd need to rip copies of your CD's, and save them in a file format that's easy for the device - in this case the Node 2i - to read.  Might take some time, and you'd probably look to a program like dbPowerAmp or similar to help make the ripping process easy. 
     

    Next, you'd want to copy/store the files in a safe place, maybe a couple of places like an external drive for backups.  You probably wouldn't to have to go through the effort of ripping those CD's again if something happened to the drive that stores all your ripped CD's.

     

    Finally, get a flash drive large enough to hold all your ripped CD's.  I suspect a 150 or so GB USB flash drive would be sufficient for 350 CD's ripped to FLAC, but you might get something a bit bigger in case you want to add more ripped CD's to your collection later on.  Something like this might suffice: https://www.bestbuy.com/site/sandisk-ultra-256gb-usb-3-0-type-a-flash-drive-black/9208267.p?skuId=9208267&ref=212&loc=1&ref=212&loc=DWA&ds_rl=1260402&gclid=CjwKCAiAtej9BRAvEiwA0UAWXqX-U55X9V45Y9Vv0N8iHQb9w4TXwDcd0KCOZsVPdQcSnmaAUdU_lBoCUlAQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds

     

    Then, plug the flash drive into your Node 2i, follow the instructions to have the Node 2i play music from the flash drive, and enjoy.

     

     

     

     

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    Whell....Thanks for the great guidance and I will check out your preferred brands link. Would I be able to avoid the use of a flash drive by going to a Bluesound Vault? Or is there something inherently better by going through the rip via dbPowerAmp/others and separate drive? Thoughts on NAD being a better quality product and maybe await a streamer/drive combo from NAD?

     

    Thanks for the great article and the update. Over the past two years we have moved from Apple Music to Amazon to Amazon HD. Everything has been streamed through our Cambridge Azur 851N via an iPad or iPhone...Certainly not ideal and maxes out at the basic CD quality available through Apple. (Seems a shame to not take advantage of our PS Audio Direct Stream Junior, so we are capable of unfolding better sound quality.)

    I'm looking for an all in one streamer with a hard drive for our 350 CDs and willing to buy more to be respectful of the artists. (I do not have the chops to run something through a Mac Mini/etc.) Intrigued by Bluesound, but a little hesitant about the sound quality.....

    The Bluesound Vault might be the answer, but wonder if I should wait for a NAD version (Thinking NAD is better quality than Bluesound) and better yet an Innuos Mini version. Is the Roon streamer compliant with Amazon?

    My question: Is there a list of streamers/companies that have a relationship with Amazon Music? My searches on the inter-web have not been productive.

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    Good stuff here. If you are using Amazon (or Qobuz) and don't need MQA the Audiolab 6000N Play is a great alternative to the Node 2i. My streamer runs through a processor in an AV system with room correction so all signals are digitized and therefore the DAC is somewhat useless meaning the Node and 6000N should should the same. For some reason I like the 6000N better (likely output signal is at different levels so I just think it sounds better, but that is part of this gig, right?). 

     

    I admit to missing the Tidal user experience and I am not an MQA hater so I do miss that capability in the Node. 

     

    Did I see mention of a sort of Tidal to Amazon listening comparison? I'd love to read that if someone could point me in the right direction. @The Computer Audiophilehas the opportunity to perform that using the same equipment and I'd be curious to hear your thoughts Amazon UHD and Tidal Masters, same tracks, even if the original master is different (and the obvious being one is MQA and one isn't) but does that matter? We don't have the opportunity to know the master the track was sourced from and Tidal uses MQA and Amazon doesn't; so, does Dominique Fils Aime 9LRR sounds better in the Amazon UHD eco system or as an MQA file? Or Rebecca Pidgeon Spanish Harlem, Mark Knopfler Laughs and Jokes Drinks and Smokes, Chris Stapleton Either Way, Lana Del Ray Love Song, Tool Invincible, Daft Punk Get Lucky, Black Pumas Colors, Lorde Royals, Gogo Penguin Raven. You know, as a starting point.....

     

    Thank you. :)

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    I've cancelled my Amazon HD account after the trial period, because it cannot stream via DLNA to any of my three devices (exaSound, SOtM, RPi), and Chromecast Audio only casts MP3.

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