Expanding Music Listening Options – Spotify Cool

Earlier I wrote a bit about how I am being a bit more intentional in what I am listening to… but I still like variety. I discover new music the old fashion way: recommendations from friends or reviews in magazines like Paste. When I learn of a new artist I might be interested in, I search YouTube for samples to listen to. If I like the music, I order a physical CD. When the CD arrives, I rip it using a lossless codecs, and then play it through our stereo or one of our Apple i-devices.

I have known about Spotify for awhile as well as other music stream services. The idea of a HUGE library of music which is immediately accessible for no money is very attractive, but I am fairly picky about audio quality. I knew the audio quality from all the streaming services wouldn’t be as good as my personal collection, so I didn’t really give any of them a try. This weekend I was feeling rather nostalgic… I wanted to listen to some music I hadn’t listened to in years. Some of that music is on records or CDs owned by friends who live thousands of miles away, some of it is on records that I haven’t been able to play for many years. I decided to give Spotify a try since I had a number of friends who seem to love it. Spotify didn’t have all the music I was looking for, but they had a lot of it. It’s very convenient to use, just type into the search box what you are look for, and the results are grouped by song title, artists and album. Select an artist and you get a list of their most popular tracks on Spotify and a list of albums with tabs for a brief bio and a list of “Related Artists” which could use some work but is a good start. The audio quality wasn’t as good as the CDs I had ripped lossless, but it was good enough that I could enjoy listening to the music that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. I would recommend checking it out if you haven’t yet.

Spotify has a bunch of “social” features. It’s pretty easy to make information about what you are listening to available to other Spotify users, or to the larger community via Facebook or Twitter. I like the idea of being able to see what my friends are listening to as a way to discover new music, but I am not sure I am comfortable broadcasting my playlists. For the time being I have turned off automatic sharing on the preferences panel. Maybe I will be a bit more comfortable when more people share their playlists.

What’s truly cool, is this can all be done using their free service.  The ads are a bit annoy, seems like 30 seconds every 15-60 minutes. So hard the ads have been only about music and one ad for Mini Cooper. For people who are happy listening to music through computer speakers go ahead and stop reading now.

Besides the free service level, Spotify offers an unlimited level which frees you from the ads, and premium. Premium is $10/month and offers higher audio quality, supports streaming to Sonos, Squeezebox, Boxee, and the Spotify app that runs on numerous smartphones and tablets. I started with with free service, and then signed up for the free 30 day trial of the premium service.

There is a fairly complete article about how to stream spotify wirelessly to your stereo. They are missing two variant/options: use Airplay ready stereo equipment rather than an Apple device, and using a smart phone or tablet rather than a computer to provide the audio stream. I am already using an Apple Airport Express WiFi device to enable iTunes to stream music to our stereo, so a slight modification of “Option A” from the above article was the obvious winner. My modification is that rather than feeding the stereo directly from the audio jack on the Airport Express which has fairly marginal audio quality, we are using the optical output which feeds a DAC with bit-perfect music. So long as the DAC has a good anti-jitter circuitry, the audio quality is hugely better through the external DAC with both lossy and lossless sources.

Airfoil is a nicely done piece of software. It lets any audio on the computer to be sent to any Airplay device. This is something Apple should have built into the OS. Oh well. The free Airfoil client for i-Devices not only lets you listen to the audio stream, but gives you some basic controls (pause/start, skip forward, skip back)  with both iTunes and Spotify. A nice touch.

A few words about the Spotify software for smart phones and tablets. The app is a bit clunky, but it works. There is something kind of cool about having access to a huge (>13M tracks) library from a pocket size iPhone. I tried using my iPhone plugged into the Tivoli PAL which produces a portable system which can play tunes for hours anywhere that has a network connection. Way different from the days of records which some members of the younger generation hasn’t seen (funny video)?! Then I realized that the Spotify iPhone app can send its audio via Airplay, and since everything is living in the digital domain, this will be the same audio quality as using the computer to drive the stereo in our living room. Better yet, using the iPhone means that the Spotify controls can be in my hand, rather than on the screen of a computer which is in a different room. Now the dilemma… is the convenient, no ads,  and better (but not ideal) audio quality worth the premium service fee. In past years, the answer would have said yes… but right now I am working to keep my burn rate down, so I am not completely sure.

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