Recently, the music streaming giant re-branded it’s CD-quality (flac) tier and is now available on Bluesound’s platform. The announcement is most welcome as I’ve been patiently waiting for a Tidal HiFi alternative. After signing up for their 30-day trial, I listened to a number of very familiar favorites and so far I’m impressed with the sound quality. MQA support is supposedly in the works as well. Time will tell if Deezer ultimately satisfies. I’m encouraged.
After years of playing in Apple’s sandbox, this past Spring I began looking in earnest for non-Apple replacements for my aging gadgets (iPhone 6 & iPad Air). In a nutshell, Acer’s Chromebook R11 convertible replaced my iPad and Google’s Pixel 2 became my 1st ever Android phone.
Late to the party
Google’s Cast technology has intrigued me since it’s release but, being Apple-centric, trying it out proved difficult. Now that I’m all-in with the right hardware it’s time to let the casting begin.
First, let me say I love my Bluesound Node 2 and have no desire to replace it. While not perfect, the Node 2 does so much right. Bluesound supports many streaming services but, unfortunately, Amazon Music and Pandora are not supported. I use both. Of course, I can stream both services via a Bluetooth connection but that method is not exactly ideal.
While Chromecast capability has yet to be implemented by Bluesound there is talk of Bluesound doing just that. (Fortunately, the Bluesound team does in fact listen to their customers.) Enter Chromecast Audio (CCA). Setup was a breeze. I decided on utilizing the optical connection to the Node 2 thus bypassing the CCA’s DAC and within a couple of minutes I was able to cast both Pandora and Amazon Music to my system. What a joy to use .. no stuttering .. no issues at all. Oh, and it sounds good too!
For now the $35 Chromecast Audio device provides a nice work-around until Bluesound decides to bake casting into it’s product line. At this price point .. it’s a no-brainer. Highly recommended.
After much research prior to my 1st Android phone purchase, I settled on Google’s Pixel 2. Despite being extremely happy with the phone I was, admittedly, a bit disappointed with the Bluetooth specs Google had published for their latest greatest .. Bluetooth 5.0 + LE. That’s it. No aptX (never mind aptX HD). I wondered if I’d ever have a chance to hear aptX and it’s reported step-up in quality.
What the … ?
Reports of Android Oreo breaking Bluetooth abound online so a few days after the new phone arrived I decided to test the phone’s Bluetooth functionality. Not only was Bluetooth working flawlessly, it only took a couple of minutes to recognize a distinct sound quality up-tick. Curious, I tunneled further into the Bluetooth settings on my phone and discovered an aptX toggle button! Here’s a screenshot:
Searching online I found this thread on Android Central. The claim is Bluetooth 5.0, A2DP, LE, and aptX HD are all supported, as it is in Oreo. I still can’t find an official confirmation from Google but, my Pixel 2 tells me it’s using an aptX connection to the Node 2.
Toggling the switch on/off I can hear a distinct difference and the increase in sound quality is certainly enough for me to use this connection when I’m streaming music.
In a previous post I stated the Pandora Premium tier wasn’t what I was looking for as a supplement to Tidal and cancelled my subscription. However, it didn’t take long to find myself really missing all that Pandora brings to the table. Music discovery is what I value most with the service and their algorithms are unmatched in the streaming world. After years of “Thumbs Up/Down” I believe the service knows my taste all too well. Obviously, I could just use the free tier but it pales in comparison to the Premium niceties. So back to Pandora Premium it is.
Amazon Music Unlimited
Paid for the year ($79 for Prime Members) with no regrets. The service offers a massive catelogue like Spotify, Apple Music, & Tidal. It’s not so great for music discovery but you can’t beat the price if you’re in Amazon’s ecosystem. I’m happy with it.
In the meantime I’ve been rethinking my needs and wants. Without a doubt the sound quality of Tidal makes for a compelling option (especially for audiophiles), but here’s the thing .. I dislike the service. The price of $240/year for their premium quality tier still seems high to me. Of course, I could have down-graded to their lower quality tier for $120/year, but I didn’t (as stated, I dislike the service). Cancelled.
Maybe I’m not an audiophile after all.
Just a follow-up .. my Amazon Music Unlimited trial is about to end and I decided to purchase a yearly subscription for $79. It’s a good value (for Prime members) over the usual suspects (Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, etc.) even with Apple’s recently announced $99/yr option. Yes, I like the service.
In a previous post about streaming I mentioned signing up for a Pandora Premium 60-day trial and with only a short time left I’ve decided to cancel my subscription. While I enjoy Pandora for music discovery, the Premium service is just not what I was looking for to compliment my Tidal HiFi service. I like Tidal HiFi for it’s sound quality (CD-quality bitrates and MQA) and will continue to use it for more critical listening sessions but much of my music listening is casual in nature and the higher-bitrate Tidal HiFi streams are a bit overkill in this regard.
Enter the Amazon Echo Dot. I love this little gizmo and the convenience it brings to music streaming, so I decided it was high time to give Amazon Music Unlimited a spin. Amazon offers a 30-day trial and they have 2 options I’m interested in if I decide to continue:
- Echo Plan – $3.99/month
- Individual Plan $7.99/month or $79/year for Prime Members
The Echo Plan sounds very tempting for the money but limits the service to just 1 Echo device. The Individual Plan allows you to use the service on all of your various devices including phones/tablets. Both plans offer a no-ads experience and a huge catalog of music. The price difference between these 2 plans is only about $31 (if paying the Individual plan yearly). In addition, the Individual Plan is $41 cheaper per year than Spotify Premium and the catalog is supposedly comparable. Not bad.
Basic setup of the Echo Dot is an easy process using the Amazon Alexa app:
- Download the app and sign in to your Amazon account.
- Plug in the Echo Dot and wait a bit.
- Follow the instructions in the app to connect to wifi.
- Talk to Alexa.
The Echo Dot can connect to the Node 2 via Bluetooth or via the audio out jack for a wired connection. I’m using Bluetooth and after the initial pairing Alexa will remember the connection and will connect/disconnect with a voice command (i.e., “Alexa, connect” or “Alexa, disconnect”). Once connected, another simple voice command is all it takes .. “Alexa, play the album Communique by Dire Straits” or “Alexa, play Skylark by Bill Charlap”. Brilliant.
So why would you disconnect the Bluetooth connection? Well, sometimes you just don’t want Alexa coming through your nice hifi speakers. At times you will want to use the Echo Dot for other stuff like “Alexa, how do you spell audiophile?” or “Alexa, order me an Uber”, the kind of stuff the Echo is built for.
Amazon Music Unlimited is a nice addition to their ever-evolving ecosystem and quite compelling when used with the Echo Dot/Bluesound Node 2 pairing. So far, I like it. I’ll follow up with a decision in the near future.
I’m a fan. In fact, I subscribe to Tidal’s $20/month Hi-Fi tier. I’ve also had paid subscriptions for other services including Apple Music, Spotify, and Pandora. Suffice it to say I’ve more than dabbled in this world of rented music. I still enjoy my own personal library and on occasion purchase music but streaming is just so compelling. How could it not be with literally millions of songs at your fingertips?
I’m a bit old fashioned when it comes to music listening. During much of my day I listen to radio streams, but I much prefer listening to an entire album once I’ve settled in for the evening. Tidal and Spotify are perfect for my listening style and now Pandora is finally entering the on-demand fray with it’s Premium tier. They’re playing catch up to a degree, but their massive catalog coupled with their fantastic algorithms (Music Genome Project) may be enough to propel them back to the top of the heap. Curious to experience the latest from Pandora, I signed up for the Premium 60 day free trial.
Of import to me is sound quality and I can’t help but wonder if the quality of Pandora’s $10/month Premium tier will be good enough to upend Tidal in my world. (I would love to dump Tidal to be honest, but that’s another topic altogether.) Considering Tidal Hi-Fi streams at 1411kbps (CD quality) and Pandora Premium streams at 320kbps it’s doubtful, but time will tell. I’m hopeful. Ask me in 60 days.