What is Amazon Music HD?
What is new is that this is Amazon, a massive, infinitely funded leviathan of a company that exists to compete in the mainstream. Amazon does not, and never has, chased niches. In fact, it is possible to argue that their risk aversion has at times cost them in the face of more dynamic opposition. This is not a company that has decided to launch a service like this to make TIDAL and Qobuz’s life difficult. Amazon clearly feels that after the best part of twenty years, audio quality is a mainstream argument and this effort is pointed firmly at more mainstream rivals.
From my personal perspective, before we go any further, it almost doesn’t matter if this review is positive or not. As someone first and foremost concerned with the reproduction of music in two channels in the best quality possible, the last fifteen years have been pretty tough. It demonstrated that for decades, the vast majority of people are not concerned by audio quality; an issue masked by the highest performing format often being the most convenient. Now we exist in an age where most people’s internet cares not whether the file coming down the pipe is 320kbps MP3 or 24/96 FLAC, is this the point where convenience and quality dovetail again to the benefit of everyone?
Specification and Design
The crucial aspect of the new service is the entirety of this library is available in either 16/44.1kHz lossless FLAC or in higher resolutions up to 24/192 (although, at the time of writing I have not located a 192kHz file). In a slightly cringeworthy move, Amazon has elected to call lossless content ‘HD’ and Hi-Res ‘Ultra HD’ which makes little sense but is one of many kickbacks of companies telling customers for years that 320kbps MP3 was as good as it gets. What is also noteworthy is that Amazon has decided that there is no requirement to use any additional ‘packing’ on the Hi-Res res files so there is no use of MQA on the Hi-Res service. This means that, unlike TIDAL, so long as you have hardware that can handle the sample rate, you will get what is on Amazon.
The proviso to this is that this will happen if your DAC and your PC are getting on correctly. Unlike Qobuz or TIDAL, the Amazon desktop app will not allow you set a direct USB connection between it and your DAC which leaves you at the mercy of your computer’s audio management. In the case of my computer, it seems determined to lock everything to 24/96 which means that a degree of faffing is needed to ensure it is playing the files in question at the correct sample rate and not one it feels like. This is something I don’t have to do with TIDAL or Qobuz and at the moment, it places Amazon at a disadvantage.
Neither is this the only current limitation. Where TIDAL has always excelled (and where Qobuz has also been strong in the last year or so) is the level of third party integration on offer. Along with Spotify, TIDAL is perhaps the most consistently encountered service on network audio players. At this very early stage in its life, Amazon is nowhere near this level of ubiquity. It is supported by NAD/Lembrook’s excellent BluOS operating system (and the big row of brands at the foot of the promo page suggest that more are coming). You can use AirPlay with iOS app and Chromecast with the Android version but both of these appear to be limited to 16/44.1 at present. Naturally, it’ll play via Alexa and there are discount subscriptions to this effect.
The interface itself is pretty good though. It isn’t all new for the arrival of Music HD and borrows heavily from the Unlimited app, which has been around for a little while now. The good news is that both on desktop and mobile, this app is well sorted and commendably easy to use. Little things like the search function being sympathetic to the odd typo, and the Hi-Res material is clearly marked and generally brings up some information about what sample rate it is. On a 20 meg 4G line, everything has played promptly and without interruption. One thing that is to be commended is that Amazon has backed off how enthusiastically it tries to take you back to the store to buy things.
Of course, there are two areas that, for now anyway, Amazon doesn’t seem to be making any immediate efforts to conquer. The first is learning your listening habits. Music HD is savvy enough to go ‘if you liked artist A, here’s B, C and D which you should like but there’s no comparison to Spotify’s Discover Weekly or Deezer’s Flow system. Likewise, there is a quantity of curated content but compared to the efforts of TIDAL and Qobuz, it’s pretty workmanlike with none of the ‘deep listen’ style playlists of the other two high res services.
The thing is though, you can console yourself about some of these features being a little lightweight with the money being saved. TIDAL has - to their credit - kept their sub pegged at £20/m which has remained the cheapest mainstream HD content you can get, until now. Qobuz has finally introduced a monthly tier that allows access to their Hi-Res content for £25/m. Amazon pitches up with a hefty ninety-day free trial and a price that - if you elect to pay annually - is £10.75 a month, or 76p more than Spotify or Apple Music want for their MP3s. This is a huge statement of intent and one that, if Amazon genuinely does start achieving decent levels of third party integration, is surely going to make a difference.
How was Music HD Tested?
The good news is that Amazon is competitive with the purebred audiophile competition. In fact, if my laptop is behaving itself and the USB management is allowing for the correct, unmolested version of the track being played to make it to the DAC, it’s frequently, almost impossible to tell it apart from Qobuz or TIDAL. This in itself should not be too surprising. For a lot of the time, the files that the services are getting are the same which makes for a playing field where the quality of the decoding hardware is going to be more important than if you have ASIO options.
Intriguingly though, the files are not always the same and with this comes the first Bold Statement™. This can only be a subjective impression as I have no real means of picking through millions of tracks but based on two weeks of testing, I think that Amazon has a better spread of Hi-Res material than TIDAL. If we take Qobuz to be the best chance of finding a Hi-Res version of anything (and based on running TIDAL and Qobuz in Roon and seeing what is available from both services, I feel confident stating this), Amazon is second. Take a recent podcast album recommendation, Tool’s Fear Inoculum. Both Qobuz and Amazon have access to a 24/96 version while TIDALmakes do with standard lossless. For less money, Amazon is delivering more Hi-Res content than Tidal is.
It is also reaping the benefits of doing so without the MQA layer. Even when I use the MQA decoding in Roon (which is exceptionally good), I have found that there are small but worthwhile gains to the native FLAC in Amazon. This is an area that is going to come down to the presence of MQA decoding on your equipment and how good a job it does but, for me, access to the file in the form that my equipment is going to decode it is a definite advantage.
Neither do you need a really ornate system to feel the benefits. Testing Amazon Music into a 1st gen Naim MuSo Qb against Spotify (we’ll ignore that the Naim has Spotify Connect for a moment), the Amazon rendition of the brilliantly bonkers Sound & Fury by Sturgill Simpson still sounds fuller, more spacious on Amazon even though you can’t access the 24/48 version that Amazon has on the service itself. Even on relatively mainstream equipment, Amazon has the scope to sound better than the compressed rivals.
No less importantly, it behaves like the mainstream rivals. Can I hear a difference between Deezer and Amazon Music HD via the SBC Bluetooth in my car? Absolutely not. Will it happily play my ‘Time for a drive’ playlist for when it’s time to make some healthy progress cross country? Very much so. One thing that TIDAL recognised early on was that their service had to be as bulletproof as the mainstream rivals for the large amounts of time where subscriber use it for convenience rather than because they want to hear what colour underwear the artist is wearing. Amazon has been slower to learn this lesson- it’s not contentious to say that their TV interface is still miles behind Netflix- but they have ensured for the launch of HD Music that using the service across multiple roles is entirely painless.
- Great value
- Sounds competitive with more bespoke rivals
- Good selection of content
- No direct USB mode
- Limited third party support
- Prosaic curated content
Amazon Music HD Review
Let me be brief. For now at least, Amazon Music HD is not the best service on the market. If you have the money (and especially if you have Roon), Qobuz, in its monthly Studio subscription is still the best out there. What is more important is this. Out of the box, Amazon Music HD is cheaper than any rival and can run the more bespoke competition close. If the integration program goes as I think Amazon hopes it will, I don’t feel it will be terribly long before this is a more compelling option than Spotify, Apple Music and TIDAL - it already doesn’t struggle to sound better than them.
What this also means is that, much as I fervently want Qobuz to prosper; excellence should be rewarded - this is the equivalent of making it to 32 grand on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and banking up because, however tenuous the fiscal existence of many streaming services are, Amazon isn’t going anywhere. This is the point where lossless audio become something pretty much guaranteed to survive in on demand streaming. For me - and I think for many of you reading too - that’s a huge thing after years of compression. For these slightly disparate but all valid reasons. Amazon Music HD comes Highly Recommended.
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