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Lossless audio: Is it worth the data drain?
After years of hosting compressed, lossy audio formats, music streaming services have embraced the potential of lossless audio. With this, music fans can expect a superior, high-quality listening experience. But does streaming lossless music justify the cost to your data allowance? Can you even really notice the difference? Well, I really wanted to find out. So let’s discuss which streaming platforms offer the service, and how my own experience of playing normal and lossless audio used (and abused) my data allowance.
What is lossless music anyway?
When we talk about lossless music, we’re referring to an audio file that doesn’t lose any of its original quality when uncompressed. This is in contrast to lossy audio, which has its file size slashed by cutting out practically inaudible bits of data. Although there’s often no perceivable difference in quality, cheaper or free subscription-based streaming platforms often use lossy bit-rates as low as 96kbps. This is where some would argue that regular streaming leads to a lower-quality listening experience compared to lossless audio. Through a pair of decent headphones, you might just hear the difference.
Unlike lossy compression, lossless audio doesn't lose any of its original quality when uncompressed
While lossless audio is great to have, it’s not the only thing to consider in a music streaming service. Unique app features and the library size you’ll have at your fingertips are just as, if not more important. Taking these into consideration when choosing your streaming service is a must.
Music apps you can count on for superior audio quality
Almost all of the household names you’d recognize now offer a lossless quality option. Some offer it as part of their standard subscription, while others will charge you an additional fee for the privilege. Here’s a list of some of the front-runners to keep in mind.
- Spotify Hi-Fi (this service isn’t rolled out yet, but will likely require an additional add-on)
- Apple Music
- Deezer Premium
- Tidal Hi-Fi (requires additional add-on)
- Amazon Music Unlimited
In order to gather some information on how much data lossless audio uses, I decided to sacrifice my monthly data allowance (gulp!). Streaming in one-hour sessions, I played regular, high-quality, and lossless music using Tidal Hi-Fi, Deezer Premium, and Spotify premium. Here’s what I found out.
How much data does lossless audio really consume?
In short — a lot!
As you can see in the graph above, streaming via Tidal’s lossless Master option ate up nearly 14x the amount of data than playing regular audio quality on the same app. Tidal’s Master playback consumed a whopping 723MB of my allowance in just one hour. That’s in stark contrast to streaming at the regular setting, which only used a tiny 52MB. Whilst playing CD-quality HiFi music on Tidal, I consumed 368MB of data. That comes in at just over 7x the amount of data I used when streaming regular audio quality but nearly half as much as when streaming lossless masters.
Tidal's lossless Master option ate up nearly 14x versus regular, lossy streaming.
Just to be thorough, and at great expense to my mobile contract, I also decided to stream lossless audio on the Deezer app. Again, there’s a mountain of difference between regular usage and streaming lossless. I used 54MB when streaming regularly and 498MB when playing lossless HiFi music. That’s more than 9x the amount of data (and at this point, I’m running pretty low).
Finally, I streamed regular and very high-quality music from the Spotify app. Streaming regularly costs me 46MB of data in an hour, as opposed to 187MB when playing back via the high-quality setting. Although not as aggressively data-hungry as using lossless, that’s still over 4x more data used than when streaming normally.
A closer look: Why different streaming apps affect data usage
It’s seemingly obvious that choosing a higher-quality streaming option will increase your data usage. But why does streaming seemingly similar audio quality across multiple apps consume different amounts of data? Well, as mentioned earlier, it’s all about compression and bit-rate.
Tidal boasts both HiFi and Master lossless as high-quality audio options. In terms of bit-rate, HiFi streams CD quality FLAC at 1411kbps, whereas the master option streams high-resolution audio between 2304-9216kbps. This compares to their regular AAC-quality option, which runs at just 160kbps.
The level of compression and bit-rate are deciding factors in how much data you'll use when streaming music.
Deezer HiFi also runs CD quality FLAC at 1411kbps, and their regular audio option plays MP3 quality at 128kbps.
Although artists can only upload their songs to Spotify as either WAV or FLAC audio formats, Spotify streams very high-quality audio back as HE-AACv2 at 320kbps. Meanwhile, their regular audio quality option runs Ogg/Vorbis as low as 96Kbps.
Interestingly, there was a large discrepancy in the amount of data I used when streaming HiFi lossless audio from Tidal and Deezer. They both claim to stream FLAC at 1411kbps, so I assume it must have something to do with the total file sizes of the songs that I was streaming during those separate hours of testing, varying levels of compression for certain tracks, or perhaps even preloading.
How to make the most of HiFi streaming
Considering streaming lossless chomps away at mobile data, is there a smarter way to use it? I wanted to see if I could transport pre-downloaded lossless audio around with me from home. Thankfully, many apps offer download-for-offline listening options, but you better hope you have some decent storage space available.
I downloaded Radio Moscow’s album Brain Cycles over Wi-Fi on Tidal as master lossless quality. For a 10-track album, it stored 305MB of user data (the app itself uses just 92.38MB of storage space). I could fit just over 100 of these albums on my somewhat limited 32GB phone if I had no other apps installed. But obviously, apps, OS, pictures, and more already take up a fair chunk of memory. To port around a decent offline lossless music collection, you’ll want at least 64GB, if not 128GB of storage. Interestingly, when I downloaded the same album as HiFi quality, I again used 305MB of storage space (Tidal doesn’t have Master quality for everything). This compares to downloading the album as regular quality, which used just 46.18MB of space.
Modern 64GB or 128GB phones can save hundreds of CD-quality albums for offline listening.
Another big question I had was whether streaming a single song on repeat using lossless would increase my data usage. To put this to the test, I looped Over and Over and Over by Jake White. After my first play-through, I’d used a massive 50MB of data. I played it again, and apparently, I’d used 100MB. I realized afterward that there was a music video playing in the background. That explained the massive data dump!
Yet more data down the drain, I went back to play a song without a video, looping Still Into You by Paramore. I started out using 27MB of data on my first play-through. At the end of my 2nd stream, I’d still only used 27MB. I looped it for a 3rd time and had exactly the same result. That’s good news if you love listening to your favorite tracks on repeat.
It appears that Tidal, and presumably other streaming apps, successfully cache songs to save on data usage. You’ll just want to ensure that there isn’t a music video playing in the background!
Is streaming lossless worth it?
Unfortunately, this is a fairly subjective question to answer. Firstly in terms of data usage, streaming lossless is a hungry luxury. For just three hours of lossless playback, I consumed nearly 1.6GB out of my monthly 15GB data allowance. At that rate, I could play just over 28 hours of music per month. That might seem like a lot, but it would certainly be much less than that when combined with data used by other apps.
Streaming lossless is a great option if you’re on a mobile contract with an unlimited data allowance. For others on limited tariffs, though, it might be an expense too far. There are alternatives, though — you could download high-quality lossless audio over Wi-Fi at home. Just make sure that you have the relevant storage space available.
To make the most of lossless audio, you'll also want great headphones, a healthy data allowance, and plenty of offline storage.
You’d also want to make sure that you own a great pair of headphones to really take advantage of streaming lossless. It’s worth remembering that compressed audio formats mostly chuck away data the human ear isn’t really capable of hearing. Whether or not you’ll be able to hear those nuances depends on whether the device you’re listening from is good enough to reproduce them and the type of environment you’re listening in.
It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re in the majority who are now listening via Bluetooth, most codecs aren’t lossless and will therefore reduce the quality of your lossless stream. Qualcomm’s aptX HD and Sony’s LDAC are popular, high-quality choices. However, true lossless wireless audio will be an option in the near future with Qualcomm’s aptX Lossless Bluetooth codec. Although it’s only currently supported by the unreleased NuraTrue Pro, it’ll allow users to receive CD-quality (16-bit, 44.1kHz) audio over Bluetooth. If more headphone brands jump on board with this trend, you could see lossless streaming become the norm.
From my own experience, though, and at the mercy of my data cap, I’ll only be streaming lossless over Wi-Fi for the foreseeable future.