Hi-Rez and Lossless Classical Streaming from Naxos

On Monday January 5, Naxos rings in the New Year with the worldwide launch of their ClassicsOnline HD•LLclassical music streaming and download site. ClassicsOnline HD•LL streams music in both "high-definition"—Naxos' term for high-resolution audio up to 24-bit/192kHz sampling rate—and full CD quality (lossless, or, in Naxos' lingo, LL). The site also sells high-def, lossless, and MP3 downloads in FLAC, ALAC, WAV, AIFF, and 320kbps MP3 formats.

Naxos claims that its service, which costs $14.99/month, is the first in the US to use "adaptive bitrate streaming technology." They further explain that adaptive bitrate streaming allows subscribers to "listen to classical music at the highest possible sound quality available on their home or mobile networks without buffering or loss of signal." In other words, you won't experience what I've experienced one too many times on Netflix: right at the climax, everything suddenly stops without warning as the signal rebuffers.

ClassicsOnlineHD•LL includes an "intuitive search engine" crafted specifically for classical music, that allows you to search by performer, conductor, composer, period, country, instrument, year released, year composed, label, genre, and, of course, title. It claims a wide range of repertoire from "most" classical record labels, easy playlist creation, genre and artist radio programming, and off-line listening via mobile devices. The company also states that liner notes, libretti, and composer/artist information are provided for most recordings. This may be true for commercial recordings, but it is often not the case for "pirates" and live recordings from labels that specialize in reissues.

To take full advantage of ClassicsOnline HD•LL, PC owners need Windows 7 (32-bit or above), a machine manufactured no later than 2010 that uses an Intel Core i3 processor or better, 2 GB RAM, and support for stereo 16/44.1 audio output. Mac users need at least OS X 10.6, and the same additional requirements as above. Supported browsers include Chrome 32 or above, Firefox 24 or above, Safari 7 or above, Opera 24 or above, and, for Windows-equipped computers, Internet Explorer 10 or above.

Yours truly has helped with the site's beta testing for Naxos. Not only has sound quality been excellent, but I have also found a host of delicious surprises on the site. When this vocal lover searched for recordings by the late soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, I came up with 27 albums, including rare opera recordings and recitals by the soprano. While I didn't necessarily find librettos or translations, nor issues from Schwarzkopf's major label, EMI/Warner, I was delighted to discover any number of rare opera recordings from the 1940s and 1950s; Idomeneo and Madama Butterfly sung in German(!); a Pelléas et Mélisande from 1954, conducted by von Karajan; Schwarzkopf's performance at Bruno Walter's Vienna Farewell Concert in 1960; and the famed Furtwängler 1953 Don Giovanni.

Speaking of Furtwängler, if you search under "Furtwangler," with no accent needed, you'll find no less than 72 albums, including material recorded as early as the 1920s. Toscanini brings up 43. However, given the absence of the Universal Classics, Sony, and EMI/Warner catalogs, one of the greatest conductors of our age, Claudio Abbado, scores only three entries, while the infrequently recorded Carlos Kleiber gets just four. Then again, the entire BBC Legends series is available, complete with liner notes, and there are 15 entries for Nicholas McGegan.

Contemporary recordings abound. If you want to hear the excellent work that conductor Ludovic Morlot is doing in Seattle, you'll discover his recent Cantaloupe Music recording of John Luther Adams Become Ocean streaming in either full CD-quality or 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution sound. If piano is your thing, you'll find a number of Paul Lewis' recordings for Harmonia Mundi, including two discs of Schubert Piano Sonatas and a set of the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos. Do an advanced search under the Chandos label, and you'll find no less than 1603 albums. And 13 of Chanticleer's albums are also available.

Nonetheless, collectors and aficionados will lament the absence of all of Naxos' excellent historic release remasterings that are available in Canada and Europe. I've sampled some of these on CD, and they are often superior to the filtered CD remasterings from the companies that own the masters, EMI/Warner being a prime example. While Naxos explains that the absence of their historic reissues is due to stringent US copyright laws, it seems to have no difficulty streaming releases of the same or similar material from other labels.

There are also inconsistencies in documentation. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: Rare Recordings 1946–1954 (Idis) includes contents and attribution, as well as liner notes in Italian, but you'll find neither for Singers of the Century: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Jube Classic), which includes studio and live tracks from 1941–1960. Some of this information may be on the CD's back cover or brochure, but it is not currently available on the site.

Balancing this out are the sound quality, and the wealth of music that is available. It would cost a small fortune to purchase such a collection, and far more to have the space to house it. Now it is readily available, 24 hours/day, for the price of something like 12–18 physical CDs a year. High-resolution classical music streaming is here, and it sounds wonderful.

wc33's picture

As much as I enjoy the convenience of streaming music sites, I am a bit troubled by the economics. It would be great to know if this Naxos site, much like Spotify, pays artists only a fraction of a penny for each play. Hopefully, a model can be developed where the artists and streaming services can make a profit, and consumers can enjoy their favorite music without a physical album.


orastream's picture

According to the article below" "The Naxos service calculates what proportion of online plays each label attracts and offers a 50-50 split of that proportion revenue after operating costs. ‘So we will be paying out much better money than Spotify.’


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

This is, indeed, a major issue. Thank you for raising it. Perhaps the folks at Naxos will care to address it.

Anon2's picture

You will find no bigger fan of Naxos recordings than I. Naxos has covered niches in the classical music repertoire that the larger classical labels have never explored. Naxos's series, like the Guitar Collection, deserve the highest accolades. I am a Naxos fan writ-large.

Despite my enthusiasm and advocacy for the label, I simply cannot see how I could pay $14.99/month for a streaming service from Naxos, or from anyone else.

I speak for myself. If someone's bliss comes from the aforementioned array of services and features, good for them.

With a DAC, a computer, and a very modest stereo set-up, I have found a near endless cornucopia of free streaming of classical, jazz, pop, world music of all description from the European national radio services. I haven't even gotten to other continents' services yet.

Just this weekend, I discovered that Radio Switzerland has 92 kbps streaming of jazz, pop, and classical music. No sign in, no fee required; just an assent to have one's cookies gleaned. Is the sound as good as the Naxos service mentioned here? Perhaps not, but it is not--knock on wood--a $179.88/year expense to sit among all the other bills. No one's--well, most's at least--budgets are expanding in our 5th year of "economic recovery."

While the bit rate was not disclosed, I also found superb quality of streaming music from the service of Radio Sweden this same weekend. Radio Nacional de Espana has more intriguing programing than there are hours in a day to listen to it all. ORF Radio 4 had an all-day show of interesting electronic music on Saturday. The BBC's venerable offerings speak for themselves. Naim and Linn offer streaming of their tracks, though you can cycle through them all after a time.

If the music you want to hear for computer audio comes with a fee, signing away your demographic data, or other encumbrances, then do it, if it is what gives you the experience that you seek.

For now, at least, the offerings of free streaming from around the globe seem to expand by the day.

Computer audio streaming of international radio services is the shortwave radio of the 21st century. It is bounded only by a person's time and willingness to explore for free programming, and the sound improves with each day.

Supperconductor's picture

I can stream Netflix's content, which costs far far more to produce for $9 per month. I just don't see how these music services can justify their prices.

Chinatown's picture

It's called economies of scale DinnerMaestro. And you're overpaying with that $9.

jimtavegia's picture

But, it is clear from some comments here that free at some low bit rate wins most, if not all, of the time. Sad commentary on the state of the music business. It seems we are accustomed to listening to lower bit rate music that we are "satisfied" if it less as long as it is free. Convenience and free still rules the day, sadly.

dalethorn's picture

In classical music, the selection seems overwhelming to non-experts, but dig deeper and there are so many limitations in content at most sites, that experienced users given this kind of choice compared to the broader market, won't subscribe to the smaller services unless they have very flexible budgets of money and time.

blackwash's picture

I'm flabbergasted.

I assume, given this is Stereophile, that readers have an interest both in music and in high quality recorded sound to listen to said music.

And yet, when given the opportunity to listen to basically unlimited legal, high-quality recordings of said music for just $14.99 a month, the readers above complain about the cost and profess to be quite happy with 92k as long as it is free.

No wonder both the recording and playback sides of the industry are in such trouble.

That said, the new service isn't for, although it is much more tempting than Spotify and its ilk.

I like owning my music. I have several thousand albums on my hard drive carefully selected for quality of performance and recording and I like being able to dip in and out and listen to exactly what I want. I also think streaming services rip-off artists, as mentioned by the first poster.

But that's just me.

For those who aren't quite as anal, the Naxos service would seem to fulfil all the oft-professed desires of Stereophile readers.

And yet some would rather listen to streams that barely qualify as fi let alone hifi just because they are free.

Truly depressing.

Anon2's picture

There was a concern over people who have audio equipment and partake in this hobby while evaluating budgetary constraints in a challenging economic environment. There was disillusionment that some question the marginal utility of an increasingly fee and demographic data disclosure-based entertainment and information services environment.

The backdrop to this is an economy which has essential outlays (like healthcare, housing, auto insurance, food, retirement savings) taking greater shares of a person’s stagnant wages. It is useful for providers of fee-based services to know what alternatives are available to consumers.

Let’s evaluate some of the specific observations made above:

1. “Readers have an interest both in music and in high quality recorded sound to listen to said music:” There are no minimal standards for equipment, music delivery configuration, and annual budgetary expenditure for participating in the audio hobby, nor for reading industry publications. If there are standards, many of us would like to know what these standards are.

2. “The readers above complain about the cost and profess to be quite happy with 92k as long as it is free:” Yes, some of us do like 92k as long as it’s free. So what?

3. Let me help further. Many of these 92k (and lower bandwidth) services contain a repertoire of music that is not found through many traditional musical distribution services available in the US—even such admittedly broad offerings as those that Naxos makes through this streaming service.

4. Much of the “free” content I have discovered, if I like it and if distribution channels permit it, ends up as a CD purchase for me, thus giving the performer some semblance of remuneration (now, I’m sure I will be attacked for still listening to and for purchasing CDs and SACDs).

5. “Fulfil (sic) all the oft-professed desires of Stereophile readers:” Is there a census and published report on the desires of “all” audio enthusiasts? Is there a body of specific evidence—and associated standards and rules--as to what these “oft-professed desired” are?

There are no standards for participation in audio, equipment buying, and for listening to music. I am glad—as I’m sure are the audio periodical industry, the dwindling number of dealers, and manufacturers of modest gear—that budget-constrained people have some measure of participation in this hobby.

If fee-based services take the hit in the economics of this and other hobbies for some, then so be it. I am sure that providers of ancillary services and products are being hit by similar economics in a wide range of hobbies, not just audio. Club memberships, non-essential accessories, and add-on services are suffering in a wide array of pursuits. Do cutbacks on these extras by enthusiasts invalidate the participation of people in these other pursuits, too?

More adverse circumstances might one day force many to abandon the audio hobby altogether; perhaps this would “cleanse” the hobby according to some. Many enthusiasts are under budget constraints, have other financial priorities, and, yes, are going to question any fees—fees not limited to audio--that are proposed when there are free alternatives.

newby15's picture

I seem to be in a tiny minority that finds the whole streaming tsunami a complete rip-off.

If the idea is I would listen to streamed "hi-rez" (often just CD-level) at home, then I will be able to listen to said music only as long as I keep paying that monthly fee...forever. Moreover, only as long as my digital overloads (and their lawyers) decide I can listen to said music--recall that you don't own said music, you only get to rent it as long as they decide you may do so. So...pay forever, never own anything. Sound like a good deal to you?

Next, if the idea is I now get to listen to said music anywhere (big selling point), note that mobile data plans are not free. I already pay big bucks for my bucket of data and use up most of it every month. Streaming all this hi-rez data will mean paying for it, folks. So now there are data charges on top of the music renting charges--for something that you never own.

It's clear why the music and Silicon Valley set wants this new regime to take over, but it strikes me as a Trojan horse-style rip-off. Anyone recall Sony, et al secretly hacking your computer when you tried to rip your CDs, and, of course, blocking you from ripping SACDs altogether? I want to own my music, at a fair price, but this industry is trying very hard to pi** me off: a) can't rip hi-rez SACDs, b) don't make highest quality files of broad catalog available for sale, c) charge ridiculously high prices when they do, d) rig the game to force us to choose the pay-forever-'til-you-die streaming route.

If streaming is the only choice, they I'll stick with ripped CDs and free streaming to discover new music...that I will only purchase on rippable CDs at reasonable prices.

Come on music "suits": Make the entire catalog available at highest PCM/DSD quality as reasonably priced, non-DRM-rigged files ("albums") we can actually OWN!

yuvalg9's picture

I am very enthusiastic about this new service, and $14.95 a month sounds reasonable to me. However,there is no mention in the article about the equipment needed for the high resolution content, neither how (and where) to connect it to the PC. This is a major absence of information. Will someone please explain these issues to me?

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Apologies. Given the deadlines associated with CES coverage, I have failed to follow comments to this article. I'd like to refer you to the basic primers on computer audio at AudioStream.com, which address your questions. But, in a nutshell, yes, you need a DAC, ideally asynchronous, that connects to your computer via USB, and that is capable of decoding hi-res content. Stereophile has been writing about these for years, from the basic AudioQuest Dragonfly on up. There are a ton of hi-res capable DACs on the market, ranging in price from $149 to over $100,000. In general, sound is commensurate with price. Some do DSD, some don't. Some of the least expensive don't even require cables. Some of those cheapies only have mini-plug outputs for headphones, but some also include RCA-out so you can connect them to your main system. If you look at the report from CES 2015, you'll see a whole crop of new DACs in various price ranges.

Dtown9's picture

User interface not very good.