Gadgets, Trends & Strategy

The Experience of Listening to Music is Broken

The realization that music ownership as we knew it was soon to become redundant in favor of streaming services came to me when I signed up for Spotify in early 2009, when they opened up public registration to their free service. At the time it was only available in the UK, and I was fortunate to be living in London. Although I had my entire music collection on my iPod Classic at work, I found myself primarily listening to music on Spotify. Despite the conspicuous absence of some favorite bands like Metallica, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, Spotify offered a vast selection of old and new music, all for free! It was a revelation.

Five years on, music streaming has matured and Spotify has many competitors. There is no lack of all-you-can-eat subscription services for around $10 a month with features mobile apps and offline listening. Some of the more popular ones are Google Play Music, Rdio, Sony Music Unlimited, Xbox Music and the one that has been in the press a lot lately after its acquisition by Apple, Beats Music. Additionally, there are services like SoundCloud that allow emerging and unsigned artists to upload their music for free consumption.

The economics of streaming services from the perspective of the consumer are incredible. We not only have access to a virtually unlimited selection of music but at a fraction of our “willingness to pay”. Thanks to long tail economics at work, we have already become accustomed to having access to a large selection of music when purchasing over the internet, whether buying physical CDs from Amazon or downloading music from iTunes. But $10 only gets you 10 songs on iTunes or half a CD on Amazon. For the same price, a subscription gives you virtually all the latest music. For example, Spotify adds 20,000 tracks per day (though not all of them are new). As a comparison, the majority of the music that I own is a collection of around 200 CDs bought over a period of nine years. At $20 per CD that equates to an expenditure on music of approximately $40 per month, for a grand total of around 3,000 tracks, most of which are album fillers.

However, despite all the goodness, the experience of playing music suffers from some major problems.

Problem #1: Music silos
It is safe to say that the majority of users listen to music from multiple sources. For example, I have playlists on Spotify and SoundCloud as well as music that I own (lossless versions of which are sitting on a NAS drive, and compressed versions uploaded to Google Play Music); that’s four different places. But there is no way to seamlessly mix and match music from multiple sources in a single playlist. Ok, that’s not quite true; there is one service that does allow this, but in a limited manner. More on that later. The ability to buy individual tracks on iTunes meant that playlists replaced albums as the de facto collection of songs that get played in one go. Music was freed from albums. Now it needs to be freed from music services!

Problem #2: Lossy compression
With very few exceptions, all music available for download and streaming on the internet — the de facto mode of listening to music today — is compressed and is significantly inferior to the original recording. This is a real disservice to the music. Lossy codecs like MP3 trade storage and transmission efficiency for audio quality, which is fine for listening to an iPod with crappy Apple earbuds, but doesn’t cut it for proper music listening on decent equipment. Storage and bandwidth are so cheap today that the we don’t really need to make this compromise any more. In fact there has been the recent emergence of “high resolution audio” which offers significantly better quality than CDs.

So here then are my requirements for playing music:

  1. Have a similar experience whether I am playing music at home (audio system), at work (laptop) or on the go (smartphone)
  2. Search, play and create playlists across streaming services and music that I own using one interface
  3. CD quality or better

I haven’t been able to come up with a compelling solution that I am completely satisfied with (hence this blog post), but the situation isn’t completely hopeless either.

The solution that comes the closest to satisfying these requirements is Sonos. The Sonos Connect (and Sonos speakers) can play music from most major music subscriptions services (most notably Spotify and Google Play Music) and lossless music from my NAS. Using the latest version of their Controller app, I can create playlists that span multiple sources. Kudos to Sonos for this innovation! I must say they are doing a tremendous job of creating a highly compelling experience for listening to music at home. Trouble is that even though Sonos has smartphone, tablet and desktop apps, these apps are only controllers that control Sonos devices. I can’t play my Sonos playlists on the go (on my smartphone) or at work (on my laptop). My appeal to Sonos is: Please enable playback on your Controller app and cement Sonos the one-stop experience for music not only in the home but also outside it. Yes I can’t expect to have files on my NAS drive be playable everywhere, but I would happily stream those files using Google Music (discussed next). It would be possible to build a player if the likes of Spotify and Google created APIs like SoundCloud and Rdio have done.

Google Play Music lets you upload up to 20,000 of your own songs for free, which is a compelling reason to switch from Spotify since I could then create playlists by mixing and matching tracks from their subscription service and my own uploaded music and listen to them anywhere. However, lossless files are transcoded to MP3 so the downside of this would be that I would have to live with lossy compression. My appeal to Google is: Please allow lossless uploading of music and charge for it if you must.

Qobuz is a CD-quality streaming service based in France. It is supported by Sonos. It’s only available in certain countries in Europe currently, but hopefully it will be available in the US soon. Looks like a European startup is once again leading the charge in music innovation.

Finally, there are several services that let you buy lossless music, most notably HDtracks and Murfie. Murfie also has an interesting service whereby you send them your CDs and/or vinyl they rip them into lossless files which you can stream or download. They don’t yet offer a lossless locker service for music that you have ripped already.

I still haven’t quite figured out what the best compromise is going to be but I am leaning towards moving from Spotify to Google. Spotify, if you’re listening, please offer a locker service for owned music with lossless streaming.


Home Baked NAS Using a Raspberry Pi and a Portable Hard Drive

I am in the early stages of putting together a hi-fi setup for my future living room. The primary source is going to be a Sonos Connect which will allow me to stream music from cloud services like Spotify and also play my CD collection (from when CDs used to be a thing) which I have ripped to lossless files. However, my lossless files have been sitting on my laptop and needed to be liberated onto a NAS. Rather than spend $300 or more for a decent NAS, I decided to build one from a Raspberry Pi that needed to be put to good use and an old portable hard drive I had lying around.

Here is the result:

The Raspberry Pi Model B is attached to a Transcend StoreJet 320GB using a Quirky Bandit. Powering the Pi and the hard drive (the drive comes with a Y-cable whose extra plug is solely for additional power) is a small, powered USB hub, which is attached to the Pi using another Bandit. The two wires external to the unit are the ethernet cable and the power cable for the USB hub.

Software-wise it’s fairly simple – just Samba running on Raspbian. This is perfectly adequate for my current needs,  since the Sonos Connect just needs a Samba share to play local music, but the great thing about using the Pi as a NAS controller is its extensibility – I could quite easily install MiniDLNA for uPnP support. The setup was fairly straightforward despite by less-than-elite Linux skills, although the Samba configuration took a little bit of fiddling to get right. I also found the Logitech K400 Wireless Keyboard with Built-In Touchpad super useful in working with the Pi initially, prior to running it headless.


Samsung Galaxy SII: The best smartphone you can buy today?

When the iPhone was introduced, it was a true game-changer, defining what it meant to be a smartphone. For a long time it has been the best phone available. By far. It has been the phone that every other phone has tried to live up to.

However, since Android phone sales overtook iPhone sales about a year ago, it’s been hard to miss the clamour surrounding Android.

When my close-to-three-year old iPhone 3G died a few weeks ago, my interest in Android turned from academic to pragmatic. I have been unabashedly enthusiastic about Apple products, but wanted to see what the Android fuss was about, instead of just buying an iPhone 4 or waiting for the iPhone “5”. 

It became clear, at least to my mind, that Android is a better operating system than iOS, and that surprisingly, Apple is playing catch-up. For example, features such as unobtrusive notifications and cloud-syncing have been available in Android for a long time, but are only appearing in iOS 5 now. Android has support for Flash. It also has support for creating a WiFi hotspot that uses the phone’s connectivity!

There’s more to like. The iPhone’s user experience is extremely polished all-round, but you’re pretty much stuck with what Apple gives you. On Android however, you can customise pretty much every aspect of the phone. For example, you can replace the default homesreen, lockscreen, keyboard, sms application or web browser. Android is a lot more open and flexible. For example, you can copy a directory of videos directly on to your phone without having to use iTunes as an intermediary. Or you can automatically change various settings via applications like Tasker and Locale. This is extremely appealing to a “power user” like me. Also, I must say I was quite impressed with the user experience of HTC Sense (HTC’s UI on top of Android).

There are of course far more apps in the Apple App Store versus the Google Android Market, but the Android market is growing fast and developers are increasingly choosing to move to Android’s far less restrictive policies. Apple should be worried.

And then there’s the hardware. The likes of Samsung, HTC and LG are churning out phones at a frantic pace. That means the cutting edge is found there. So, despite HTC’s great user experience, I bought the Samsung Galaxy SII. And I couldn’t be happier with it.

Here’s what I love about it:

Screen: It has absolutely gorgeous 4.3 Super AMOLED Plus screen with very deep blacks and colours that pop-out. It’s hard to imagine using anything else after spending some time with it.

Speed: It has a 1.2 GHz dual core processor that just screams.

Build: At 8.5mm, it’s the slimmest smartphone in the world. It’s also incredibly light. It has a lovely, sleek minimalistic all-black design with an unobtrusive gunmetal insert. Holding it in your hand, it’s hard to imagine there’s so much inside!

Storage: 16GB built-in plus an SD card slot.

Camera: Excellent 8MP camera plus a front-facing camera for video calls.

The rest:

Battery life: The battery life is a little disappointing, even though it’s supposed to be better than most other “superphones”. I often find myself needing to recharge it after half a day of moderate use. But fortunately, “there’s an app for that” 🙂  I haven’t tried it, but JuiceDefender looks promising

User Interface: Samsung’s TouchWiz 4.0 UI is so-so. Again, this is easily fixed. I replaced the homescreen and keyboard with GO Dev Team’s awesome GO Launcher EX and GO Keyboard.

I’m convinced that not only is the Samsung Galaxy SII superior to the iPhone 4 and even the 4S on both fronts (hardware and software) but is the best phone you can buy today (at least in India).