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Newbie’s Roadmap to Streaming Audio and Music

We’ve been a diehard audiophile beginning with our in-person autograph from Elvis on a Sunday afternoon while he was playing touch football in the vacant lot beside his mother’s home in Memphis. My first serious setup was a law school graduation present that included a McIntosh amp, preamp, and tuner with Bozak Concert Grand speakers in the early 70’s. From there we added Revox, Tandberg, and Nakamichi tape machines. And then along came MP3, Napster and 10¢ music downloads from sites in Russia. That finally persuaded the RIAA to come to the bargaining table over streaming audio compensation, the same issue facing the movie industry today with the Writers Guild of America strike.

Fast forward a few decades and XM Radio introduced streaming audio for your car and later for your home. Sonos saw the writing on the wall and quickly followed with sound systems offering the flexibility to play streaming content from different sources in every room of your home or office. We actually lived in several homes that were pre-wired for speakers in every room and, thanks to Sonos, the days of multi-zone receivers costing thousands of dollars were numbered. And then along came Spotify to make streaming music a household word and music piracy a thing of the past thanks to reasonable pricing and $5 a month streaming subscriptions for college students which live on to this day.

Choosing a Provider for Streaming Audio

That brings us to today with streaming music content from Apple, Amazon Music, and Spotify. With Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited, you can choose CD-quality and high-resolution audio streams at no additional cost. And you can stream the content to wireless speakers with dynamic range comparable to speakers costing thousands of dollars and occupying a fraction of the space required by standalone speaker systems. So we begin with our recommendation for a streaming provider that offers the best feature set for families. With all three providers, the breadth of the music content is virtually identical topping 100 million songs and each of the family plans supports six accounts. With Apple, you’re pretty much locked into the Apple ecosystem. If your family is loaded with iMacs, iPhones, and iPads, then Apple One is worth a careful look which bundles Apple Music, Apple TV+, some iCloud storage, and Apple Arcade for $22.95/month or $16.95 a month for an individual subscription. While there is no Apple One student plan, their Apple Music Student plan is $4.99 a month and includes Apple TV+ but no Apple Arcade or iCloud storage. Spotify’s student plan is priced the same and bundles Hulu but no longer includes Showtime. And, speaking of Spotify, the deal breaker with their $15.99/month, 6-user, family plan is that all members of the family must reside under one roof. Spotify reportedly uses the location of each family member’s phone to verify location.

So we’re left with Amazon Music’s $14.99/month Family Plan which includes six accounts with no restrictions on location of each family member and no requirement that all users own a Mac, or iPhone, or iPad. That works out to $2.50 per person per month. Quite a deal. In addition, you always get HD audio quality which is more than double the quality of standard quality streaming services. For millions of songs, Ultra HD audio quality is offered with up to 10 times the quality of standard quality streaming services. The absence of gotchas made this an easy choice for our family, but your criteria may differ. The one objection we heard from a family member was preservation of their Spotify playlists, but this was easily solved here.

Speaker Recommendations for Streaming Audio

Now that we have music content, we need something on which to play our favorite tunes. With the exception of Apple, both Spotify and Amazon permit streaming to virtually any smartphone, tablet, or desktop PC. But the silver lining is the ability to stream the content to three of today’s best wireless speakers, all of which we have put through their paces. These include the Denon Home 350, the Sonos Five, and Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin. Suffice it to say, all three provide superb audio quality using both Bluetooth and WiFi with AirPlay2.

We’re big fans of most refurbished electronics products but, if you’re new to the game, we would caution you to carefully pick your provider. Make certain that their offerings include a good warranty and free returns with free shipping with problematic devices. These speakers in particular are fairly heavy because they also include sophisticated electronics in the form of amplifiers and network connectivity. That also means they are more subject to problems down the road. There’s a reason there are so many refurbished offerings for these particular speakers. So you may also wish to consider extended warranties if you go the refurb route. If you’re not dissuaded, we cannot recommend a better supplier than Accessories4Less.

Insofar as audio quality is concerned, if you are a fan of booming bass in your speakers, then the Denon Home 350 and Sonos Five are your best picks. The Zeppelin has equally pleasing audio quality, but the bass emphasis is not quite as pronounced. All three provide excellent mid-range and tweeter response, and all three allow adjustment through a smartphone-based app that includes an Equalizer.

Paired Denon Home 350 Speakers

Setup of the three devices is performed using a smartphone app, and the Denon Home 350 and Zeppelin also provide a button for automatic Bluetooth connectivity. The apps on our Denon Home 350 and Sonos Five worked flawlessly for painless setup. On our refurbished B&W Zeppelin, we never got connectivity using the app despite the fact that the speaker was successfully connected to our phone with Bluetooth. Initial unpacking revealed that the factory-refurbished Zeppelin was dead on arrival. We only managed to restore it to a functional state after hours digging through B&W’s web site to locate this tutorial to restore the firmware on the speaker. Despite a generally favorable impression of Zeppelin and its sound quality (once restored), we never managed to get connectivity to the smartphone app and ended up returning the unit, a real disappointment given its gorgeous design.

Sonos Five Speaker

In choosing between the Denon Home 350 and the Sonos Five, we would rate this pick as a tossup. We own both units. If you are already heavily invested in the Sonos ecosystem, then the Sonos Five will not disappoint. The Denon Home 350, however, is less dependent upon its smartphone app in terms of usability. On a Mac, for example, navigating to Sound preferences in Setup, lets you instantly switch your Mac sound output to AirPlay after which all apps on your desktop machine play flawless audio through the Home 350. And on either an iPhone or an Android device, Bluetooth connectivity is as simple as pressing the Bluetooth button on the back of the speaker and selecting the Home 350 on your phone or tablet. Similarly, if multi-room and multi-device connectivity are on your radar, both the Sonos unit and the Home 350 speaker through its HEOS app provide this functionality. Finally, both speakers support Amazon Echo devices so Alexa awaits to power on and off your speaker as well as to adjust the volume and skip songs.

Both the Sonos smartphone app and the Home 350 HEOS app provide the ability to stream content from a number of sources without Bluetooth interaction with your phone. Using the Home 350 HEOS app, you can also drill down into your Amazon Music Playlists to choose individual songs to play. You also can play music from your favorite NAS or USB flash drive.

Once you dive into streaming audio and wireless speakers, post a comment and add your 2¢.

Originally published: Monday, July 31, 2023

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  1. Years ago I bought the lifetime subscription to Free Your Music, which currently costs about $12, and it works great! Why be locked into a streaming service? For example, I walked away from Spotify in protest because I don’t want to financially support Joe Rogan’s podcast, due to misinformation concerns. Before that, I walked away from Pandora because it is US only. Still, my playlists are mine! https://freeyourmusic.com

  2. Also check out Snapcast, (GitHub.com/badaix/snapcast). The server can run on a Pi, and stream from pretty much anything you can think to throw at it. The clients can be Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android. Whatever you have, if you can hook speakers up to it, it should work. Using this to stream music, alarm system sounds, Allstarlink node audio, and whatever else I can come up with across two apartments, with 4 speaker clients. Audio is amazing, very tightly synchronized and, most important to some, free/open.

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