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Music streaming, simplified

LiveMint logoLiveMint 18-04-2017 Vishal Mathur

Over the years, the way we listen to music has changed —from vinyl records to cassettes and CDs to downloadable MP3 files. Now it’s the era of music streaming.

Earlier, if you wanted to listen to music, you would have had to download an audio file in formats such as MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG, or even the higher-resolution format known as Flac. Streaming, simply put, is a way of delivering audio without downloading a file.

Streamed-music files rely on Internet connectivity, enabling you to access the library of a service (such as Google Play Music), select what you want to hear, and start streaming—parts of the file (known as data packets) are sent to your device at regular intervals (this is known as buffer, and it depends on the Internet speed), stored in the temporary storage cache of the app you may be using, and played back like a standard downloaded file.

How fast should my Internet be?

If the Internet speed is fine, and these packets keep coming in, you’ll hear the music without any interruptions. The 3G/4G/Wi-Fi speeds will dictate the quality (also known as bitrate) of audio you are streaming.

Lower bitrate tracks at 64 kbps or 128 kbps will work well even on very slow Internet connections, but quality will obviously not be as good. To get a satisfactory music-streaming experience, you’ll need to be streaming at least 256 kbps or 320 kbps bitrate tracks. For this to work well, anything faster than a 1 Mbps Internet connection would be ideal—this will ensure stutter-free playback and no skips. With mobile and home broadband connections now offering more data than ever before, this is a good time to access millions of new music tracks. 

How can I access streaming services?

At present, most popular music-streaming services are available on a variety of platforms. This means you’ll get apps for your phone, apps for Windows as well as MacOS. Some services allow access to the library of music via a Web browser. 

Are Internet radio and music streaming the same thing? 

No, they are not. But many streaming apps also offer Internet radio stations as an option. Internet radio works the same way as terrestrial radio—it continuously transmits a predefined music playlist over the Internet connection to your phone or PC. You have no control over which tracks are being played back, just the way you wouldn’t be able to control what plays on a radio station.

How big is the catalogue?

This is the first big question for music aficionados before they sign up for a music-streaming service. The catalogue refers to the number of tracks or albums available for your listening pleasure. The more, the better. At present, Apple Music and Google Play Music have over 40 million tracks, while the popular Saavn app has 30 million tracks.

Second, you’ll need to assess which service offers more of the genres that you prefer.  

If you’re curious about trying out multiple services before committing to one, make use of the free trial periods that each offer. For instance, Apple Music has a three-month free trial period. When you do sign up, you pay a monthly subscription fee—and in case you change your mind, opting out isn’t difficult. 

What if I have no Internet access?

Even though you may have access to 3G/4G/Wi-Fi, most streaming services don’t want to take chances. So they allow you to save your music library on the phone or PC, for listening at a time when you may have spotty or no Internet. The other advantage of this is that you will not use your Internet data limits while listening to the same album or playlist every day.

Once the music is saved on your device for offline use, it doesn’t require Internet connectivity. But before you download the music, do go to the settings and select the highest available quality setting for downloading offline music—the better the quality, the richer it’ll sound on good speakers and headphones. 

Can I save my personal music too?

Some services permit the additional flexibility of clubbing together your personal (read, downloaded) music collection to the streaming-service library. You will need to manually point the app to where the downloaded music files are stored on your PC, for instance, and wait for them to upload to the cloud storage (this will depend on your Internet connection speed). Once this is done, all the music—streaming as well as downloaded—will be available for seamless streaming. 

Where can I find my music?

Here are some suggestions on which music-streaming service will work best for you

Google Play Music

Rs89 a month

iOS, Android, Web

The latest arrival on the streaming scene in India, Google Play Music offers 40 million titles. The curation of top music in 12 Indian music genres will be exactly what many users are looking for. Streaming audio quality is fantastic, and, in some cases, the bitrates are better (read louder and more detailed music) than any rival’s.

But even though Play Music uses the same HTML5 standard (as YouTube) for running in a Web browser, it still asks for Adobe Flash, which makes it incompatible with the likes of Apple’s Safari, for instance. Despite a powerful library, and a very capable iOS app, Google Music still runs the risk of being perceived as an app for Android.

Apple Music

Rs120 a month/Rs190 a month (Family; share with up to six users)

iOS, Android, iTunes

Apple’s entry into the music-streaming space has been a successful one: Official Apple numbers released in December showed it already had 20 million subscribers.

This too offers more than 40 million titles for streaming. The recent update for the Android app brings it on a par with the iOS 10, visually. The exclusive Beats 1 radio station (among others), improved recommendations, and access to your iTunes music library anywhere in the world, are some of the highlights. New subscribers get a three-month free trial.

Saavn

Free/Rs99 a month (Pro)

iOS, Android, Windows, Web

Saavn currently has 35 million tracks. Unlike Apple Music and Google Play Music, it has an advert-supported free subscription tier—useful for users who don’t mind the occasional ads in between.

The app offers playback bitrates as low as 16 kbps (the highest quality goes up to 320 kbps) for each track, helpful if your Internet connection is sluggish. The Pro subscription allows for an offline mode with unlimited downloads and access to some exclusive content as well.

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