Classical music lovers sing “Hallelujah”. Pop-music fans have had great streaming options for years, while we have been ignored. That all changes as we ring in 2020. I've auditioned a number of streaming services that cater to us, and you can find good choices at every price point.
Do I need hi-def/hi-rez audio?
That depends on your equipment, your ears, and your tastes. Almost all the services have a low-fi option, some offer it for free. If you're listening on a small smart-speaker, you may not hear the difference. On the other hand, if you have invested in quality speakers or headphones, you may find the upgrade in quality well worth the expense.
What is the difference between Streaming and Purchasing?
The biggest difference is similar to renting an apartment versus buying a condo. Music you buy is yours forever; streaming music is yours as long as you maintain your subscription (and as long as the service decides to license a particular recording). Boomers tend to want to own their library, a taste that was cultivated in their youth. However, younger listeners, brought up in an era where media is often streamed (and where items appear and disappear from the digital space as part of the norm) seem more likely to live with the ephemerality of on-line rented media.
Is streaming a good value?
You'll certainly gain access to more music for less money (in the short term) with a streaming service than buying disks or electronic tracks. Ask yourself how much you're currently spending on recorded music to get part of the answer. If you're spending less than the cost of a subscription and are satisfied with the amount of music at your disposal, then you may not want to get started. However, if you're going to want to buy disks as well as stream, you're merely adding an expense to your budget. But, remember: With a subscription your music goes away when you stop paying. Those monthly fees are not an investment, but an expense.
When we start talking about Classical vs Pop music we're already (unfortunately, and speaking in generalities) talking across a generational gap. But, there are also age differences in the way different generations treat regard their music collections. Boomers who grew up in record stores tend to want to own their collections. Plus, as they age it means that they don't have the monthly expense, a positive as many are beginning to deal with a fixed income. Those subscription fees (Netflix, Cable, Amazon, etc.) can slowly build up to a big monthly nightmare. On the other hand, some are quite content not to have to deal with the storage space required from a big record collection. I've found that younger listeners are more sanguine when it comes to ownership. They've become accustomed to the subscription model. You'll have to answer the value question based on your own preferences.
What are the options?
Most free services are similar to the old-school radio services of the past. In fact, some are updated versions of old-school radio.
WQXR, and many other stations broadcast over the airwaves as well as via the internet. They have the advantage of being mostly free (and yes, you should make a pledge to your public radio station, regardless). In fact, even my cable TV provider has a couple of classical channels you can stream for free, though the quality of the sound is nothing to write home about. SiriusXM has multiple classical channels, so if you subscribe to it for Doctor Radio (where I appear) or (more likely) Howard Stern, you've already got a good source of music. However, these services don't give you a choice in what piece or performer you're going to hear.
Another source of (almost) free streamed classical music is Amazon Music, available for "free" to Amazon Prime members. The selection of classical music is not extensive, but you can find many good choices in this service that many of us have but didn't know about. Unlike radio streaming, here you do get the option of specifying what you're going to hear.
But what about really free streaming where I get to choose the music I want to hear? Free, as in "Free Beer".
YouTube is often my first stop when I need to hear a piece of music that isn’t in my collection. The quality is eratic, and it may take some sifting through unwanted stuff, but as often as not I can find the piece, if not the particular performance I’m looking for.
Idagio Free comes close. Just for signing up you get an ad-supported Idagio Free account that gets you access to over two million tracks, The catch?
Well aside from the interstitials that will encourage you to upgrade you don't get the ability to drop the needle on a particular track in the free mobile version. You build your own radio-like playlist by choosing tracks and albums you'd like to hear. With that information Idagio generates a stream based on your choices. Also, on the mobile app, you aren't allowed to skip forward or back. Finally, the audio is supplied in a compressed format. If you want that direct access on your mobile device you need to upgrade to the paid service described below.
The great news, though, is that if you log into your account using a web browser on a PC (sorry tablet users) you do get on-demand playback, meaning you are able to select any track, album or playlist and play them directly. This is just amazingly generous. You get direct access to over a million high-quality classical tracks for free!
Idagio has two levels of paid service, the only differenceb between them being the quality of the audio. Idagio Premium ($9,99 USD per month) gives you the ability to play any album or track in the library just as if it was on your device; in fact, you can even download and play tracks when you're off-line as long as you maintain your subscription. The premium service is, of course, ad-free. You can build your own collection, adding tracks and albums, plus there are pre-selected playlists when you just need a quick fix; there are literally collections to fit every mood. Idagio Premium+ ($12,99 USD per month on iOS / 14,99 USD per month on Android) gives you all of the Premium features plus lossless audio.
Idagio offers a free trial for the premium service, but to get it you’ll need to give them a credit card. Unless you cancel the subscription, they will then begin to bill you at whatever level of service you have selected.
Idagio makes a big point of the way it compensates artists for their music. Instead of paying by the track it pays by the length of time the piece is played. This is a fairer method, particularly for symphonic works and opera, where the traditional payment system "per track" is geared to the 3 minute songs of pop-music. I'd have to know a lot more to see how that plays out in the real world (particularly if you are an artist specializing in shorter pieces, like a madrigal group, but I'm happy to hear about a company at least paying lip-service to looking out for performers.
The quality of the selections and the audio stream is most impressive. I've listened to Idagio on everything from earbuds to large towers, and I'm duly impressed. Streaming was uninterrupted, and the quality was at least as good as my CDs of the same pieces.
Primephonic is a similar service, though there are differences. First, while you can sign up for a free trial to Primephonic without a credit card there is no “free” option once the trial is over. Beyond the pricing, the overall look and feel is more welcoming than Idagio. There are editors picks and new releases on both sites, but Primephonic goes further with podcasts, playlists by artist, genre, mood, instrument, and composer. I loved the “Hidden Gems” and “Composers Undiscovered” playlists that both help you find recordings you might not have heard.
Primephonic has two levels of pricing. Premium ($7.99 / month or $79.99 / year) gets you 320kbps mp3 streaming of over a million classical tracks. The Platinum Plan ($14.99 / month or $149.99 / year) streams lossless flac files. Both services, however use a variable bit-rate, so while the original may have started as lossless, what reaches your machine might be different. Like Idagio, Primephonic allows you to listen to an album you’ve downloaded to the app so long as your account is active, even if you are off-line.
While Idagio claims a library of over two million tracks, Primephonic claims over a million. However, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Comparing the libraries of the two services is difficult; both had more than enough variety and depth to keep me from my own CDs during my subscriptions. A casual search for recordings of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony resulted in many more on Primephonic. Primephonic had four symphonies by Philip Glass, Idagio had three. But, Amazon lists over ten in its CD store.
Video Streaming Services, Free and otherwise
Beyond YouTube, classical lovers who want to see music performed, as well as hear it, have a number of good options.
Operavision.eu curates operas, new and old, as performed throughout Europe. Unfortunately, the videos are only up for six months or so and then they are taken down. Some of my favorites have disappeared and have not been reissued on DVD or otherwise. A real pity. Although last year the works we hosted internally, they now are also found on YouTube. Whether this means they will remain available after the six months is not certain.
The Metropolitain Opera hosts hundreds of videos, many of them in HD, on its subscription service. The quality of the productions and singing is top-notch, as you might expect from one of the world’s leading houses. There is a free 7 day trial, but $149 per year thereafter.
Finally, if you want to hear some of the best symphonic music streamed live, the Berliner Philharmoinkier will stream over 40 live HD performance to your computer, plus hundreds of archived recordings for 149 Euros per year. They also offer a free trial, a performance of Beethoven’s Symphonies 4 & 7 conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.