Computer Audiophile readers likely remember when Geraldo Rivera cracked open Al Capone's vault at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago in 1986. The amount of hype was inversely proportional to the amount of booty found in the vault. The whole underwhelming televised event will be remembered as two hours of our lives we'll never get back. Similar to the hype surrounding the opening of Al Capone's vault is the hype surrounding cloud music storage from Amazon, Google, and in my estimation Apple. Everyone is talking about the beauty of storing music in the cloud, accessing this music from anywhere, and even the lack of licensing agreements with the major record labels. Apple is said to be close to agreements with the labels but to be honest, who cares. Instead of CA readers spending two hours researching this modern day Capone vault that is cloud music storage, I've wasted my own time on their behalf. This article is going to give readers those two "Al Capone" hours of the 80's back.
Amazon Cloud Drive and Cloud Player
The race to launch a music service capable of storing consumer's purchased content in the cloud was won by Amazon March 29, 2011. There are two pieces to the Amazon cloud puzzle, Amazon Cloud Drive and Amazon Cloud Player. The names are fairly self explanatory. Cloud Drive enables consumers to store all Amazon purchased music on Amazon's servers in addition to storing content uploaded from a local hard drive. Cloud Player enables consumers to stream the content stored in Amazon's cloud via any web browser or Android based device running the Amazon MP3 application featuring Cloud Player. That's the concept, now the details.
- Currently all music purchased from the Amazon MP3 store is lossy 256 kbps MP3.
- Uploaded files are limited to the lossy MP3 and lossy AAC formats.
- It's possible to upload less-lossy 320 kbps files with the required Amazon MP3 Uploader.
- Offline listening to files one already owns.
- No files over 100MB permitted.
- First 5GB of storage free then prices increase incrementally to $1,000 per year for 1TB.
- Sorting by Track, Album, Artist, Genre, and Time. Yes, this is listed as a feature.
- Playback via web browser on computer or iOS devices (no iPhone app) and Android application.
That's what all the Amazon cloud music hype is about. Streaming low quality files that one has purchased via a clunky web interface or an Android device. Suggesting that offline listening, where the player caches a copy of selected music on the local device, is a nice feature is comical. If consumers already own the music it follows they can store this music on an Android device without the use of any cloud. When testing this service I converted about 1GB worth of music to 320 kbps MP3 and uploaded the tracks with the required help of Amazon's MP3 Uploader. Uploading this music was a long process even with my current Internet upload speed at 10Mbps. The vast majority of Internet users have upload speeds much slower than 10Mbps. Download speeds are something entirely different for those less learned audiophiles. For the most part if a feature was not mentioned above it's unavailable. Sounds a bit like Al Capone's vault.
Google Music Beta
Second place in the cloud music race was won by Google with its Google Music Beta service. The term Beta is built right in to the name. So far the service is available via invite only. After this article I wonder if my invite will ever arrive. Google's and Amazon's music services are very similar. The one major difference is the lack of a music store in Google's service. Google doesn't have an online store equivalent to Amazon's MP3 store. Thus all music stored in Google's cloud must be uploaded from one's computer. Google's Music Beta advertises the same benefit of access to one's purchased music from anywhere at anytime. Similar concept, similar details.
- Uploaded files are limited to the lossy MP3, lossy AAC, lossy WMA, and FLAC* formats.
- It's possible to upload music up to 320 kbps with the required Google Music Manager application.
- Offline listening to files one already owns.
- 20,000 tracks worth of free storage while in Beta.
- Sorting by Track, Album, Artist, Genre, Rating, Plays, and Time. Yes, this is listed as a feature.
- Playback via web browser on computer or iOS devices (no iPhone app) and Android application.
- Ability to edit metadata.
- Automatic or manual synchronizing of music between computer and cloud.
- Sound quality decreases as available bandwidth decreases.
Just like Amazon's Cloud service Google is excited to let the consumer cache his own music on his own local device. Both services have enabled this feature mainly to check the box that says Offline Playback to compete with much better services that have much better implementations of offline playback. I can see one benefit to Google's and Amazon's offline playback feature. Sitting at the airport and downloading that forgotten new album to one's phone before the flight would be nice. Lack of an online store to purchase and store music may be an issue for some people, but without better quality from such a store it's of no consequence to audiophiles.
*By far the biggest disappointment with Google Music Beta is its purported support for FLAC files. Simply put Google Music Beta does not support FLAC files. According to Google itself FLAC files are transcoded to 320 kbps MP3 files before uploading! Hopefully writers reviewing Google Music will read the fine print about FLAC "support" and turn it into large print**. Google bring us one step closer to Al Capone's vault opening by claiming a booty of FLAC file support, but delivering unremarkable transcoded lossy MP3s.
** Google Music Beta does not support FLAC. Transcoding FLAC into 320 kbps does not count as supporting FLAC.
The Competition -> MOG, Audiogalaxy, and Subsonic
Competitors to Amazon and Google cloud services have been around for years. These applications and services frequently offer more features for free or a nominal fee. The only feature competing services don't offer is the ability to store one's music in the cloud. Fortunately there are other non-music related services like Carbonite or even Amazon's S3 that can store one's music collection in the cloud. I've selected two types of services and applications that both accomplish much more than Amazon or Google offerings. MOG is an online music service that I absolutely can't live without. This service offers access to ten million tracks in higher quality than Amazon's Cloud and at least as good as anything allowable in Google Music Beta. Applications such as Audiogalaxy and Subsonic are run locally on one's computer. These applications offer streaming access to all the music one owns on that computer. Access via web browser or mobile device is supported. Best of all these applications have been around for awhile and are free. Amazon and Google cloud services don't look so good after the most cursory of looks at MOG, Audiogalaxy, and Subsonic. Now for the real details that have me listening to more music than ever.
MOG is an online service that completely does away with the need for Amazon Cloud Drive and Google Music Beta. MOG doesn't allow uploads of one's own music but does allow one to access ten million tracks for $5 (web only) or $10 (web and mobile) monthly. Wy upload music if it's already there? MOG has almost every track I've ever search for in its database. There are no Beatles tunes of course, but as most everyone owns The Beatles it's easily synchronized to a mobile device in lossless quality anyway. MOG is not an audiophile's service as it doesn't offer lossless streaming. It is however a service for music aficionados and civilian iPod users. Please keep in mind that audiophile and music aficionado are not mutually exclusive terms. I count myself as an audiophile and music aficionado. Unlike Amazon, MOG streams music at 320 kbps and allows mobile device downloads at 320 kbps for offline listening. Every Tuesday when new music releases are available I download many of these releases at 320 kbps to my iPhone. After listening to the albums I frequently make a trip to the local record store and purchase the physical Compact Disc or download the lossless version if available elsewhere. MOG also features a web interface that is far better than Amazon's. Discovering new music is quite simple throughout MOG as well. Enabling MOG Radio allows the listener to hear music very similar to or somewhat similar to a specific artist. MOG Radio is in a way similar to Pandora with the exception that MOG allows access to specific tracks at all times. Rhapsody is also similar to MOG with the exception that Rhapsody offers streams at 256 kbps instead of MOG's 320 kbps. Here is a little comparison of MOG and the Amazon and Google Cloud offerings.
- Amazon Cloud Drive / Player and Google Music Beta = Limited online storage, additional space for price.
- MOG = No need for online storage.
- Amazon Cloud Drive / Player and Google Music Beta = Offline listening to music one already owns.
- MOG = Offline listening to any of ten million tracks.
- Amazon Cloud Drive / Player and Google Music Beta = Android app for mobile or clunky web interface.
- MOG = iOS and Android mobile apps plus nice web interface. Google Chrome browser extension is very nice.
- Amazon Cloud Drive / Player and Google Music Beta = Purchase 256 kbps music or upload up to 320 kbps music.
- MOG = Unlimited 320 kbps streaming and offline listening.
- Amazon Cloud Drive / Player and Google Music Beta = Upload all music and synchronize when needed.
- MOG = Music available as soon as released by record label.
I simply can't imagine purchasing or uploading files to Amazon or Google when I can listen to the exact same files plus nearly ten million more files for $10 per month. The music aficionado in me can't get enough exposure to new music and will settle for a 320 kbps stream when necessary. Maybe if my iPhone had a dCS Ring DAC and linear power supply I would think otherwise. The civilian iPod user really has no need to purchase an album or individual track through the iTunes or Amazon MP3 Store at 256 kbps and upload that track to a cloud service. It makes no sense when a 320 kbps stream is available for online and offline listening. Plus, users not schooled in backing up to an external hard drive etc… don't have to worry about losing purchased music with MOG. Services similar to MOG include Rdio, Rhapsody, and Napster.
Audiogalaxy and Subsonic
Audiogalaxy and Subsonic are applications that enable users to stream their entire music library directly from their computer to anywhere in the world. The applications themselves are free. Extra features and some mobile applications are available for purchase. There are many other applications like Subsonic and Audiogalaxy. Some of them have been scooped up by the big players like Google while others continue to innovate and add better features. Audiogalaxy and Subsonic are simple apps to install on Mac, Windows, or Linux (Subsonic only) computers. Once installed the apps can scan folders for music and make it available via web browser and mobile application. There is no need to synchronize by uploading tracks to a cloud server. The one possible drawback is the computers running these applications music remain on at all times one wants to access the music.
As an audiophile Audiogalaxy and Subsonic have more promise than Amazon or Google cloud services for one reason, lossless file support. I say more promise rather than something else because obtaining lossless playback through these applications is far from certain. Within Subsonic it's possible to disable transcoding of lossless files, but I was unable to play these files without getting a Ph.D. in Subsonic. A main feature of Subsonic is the ability to play lossless files by transcoding them into MP3 for streaming. I was unable to find a definitive answer stating it is 100% possible to stream lossless without transcoding. Streaming is accomplished through Subsonic's plethora of mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. Again, Subsonic has promise but it's not perfect. One note about Subsonic is it can be installed on Sonore Music Servers.
Audiogalaxy is a bit different and bit easier to use. The general purpose of the application is the same. Streaming audio from one's computer to anywhere in the world. I was able to easily select and stream my music stored as FLAC files using both the Audiogalaxy web interface and iPhone or Android applications. However, I am unsure if there is any transcoding before the music arrives at my phone. There are no transcoding options within the Audiogalaxy settings. This could be a good sign for audiophiles.
A Note About Apple's iCloud
It appears that Apple will call its forthcoming cloud music service iCloud. Most the information available at the time of this writing surrounds Apple's licensing deals with the major record labels. Unlike Amazon and Google, Apple is seeking to fully license the material it offers via iCloud. Based on Apple's history I'd say audiophiles shouldn't expect much from iCloud. I'd love to be wrong and announce to the world iCloud supports lossless file formats.
Hey (Hey) You (You) Get Off of My Cloud
There are many reasons why this site is named Computer Audiophile. Chief among them is a passion for reproducing music with a computer at the highest possible quality. Even though I really like some of the music services mentioned in this article it's still highly unlikely I'll use any of them for playback in my main audio system. However as a music aficionado discovery of new music is completely different. It would be nice if all music discovery came through 24/192 capable music services and downloads. Right now that's only a dream. Access to a virtually unlimited music library and the ability to stream that library anywhere in the world is only a convenience at this point. Services like MOG have made Amazon Cloud Drive and Google Music Beta dead on arrival. Even the lowest common denominator, civilian iPod users, have better options than these two cloud services. Allowing users to stream lower quality versions of their own files and to store these lower quality versions on a mobile device is marketing at its best. What's more, charging these users for the "privilege" of accessing their own music is a joke. Without lossless support there is no need for a cloud music service that doesn't literally allow access to ten million tracks like MOG. Amazon Cloud Drive and Google Music Beta just don't make sense. Services with such limited features are singing the praises of their offerings out of one side of their mouth while singing Hey (hey) you (you) get off of my cloud out of the other side. The big cloud music services thus far are like the reopening of Al Capone's vault in 2011. All bark and no BYTE.