Before digging into cloud storage and lossless streaming I should address an obvious question. Why would anyone want to do this? Let me start by describing what "this" is before covering why "this" may or may not be desirable. "This" is simply moving my music from hard drives in my house to hard drives in a datacenter owned by a company such as Google or Amazon. In this model I would no longer play music from hard drives in my house. I would access all music from the hard drives in the offsite datacenter. The reasons for my curiosity in such a model are many, including ease of use, no maintenance, no setup, no worry. I'm frequently contacted by audiophiles, dealers, and distributors with questions about storing music on USB, Thunderbolt, and Network Attached Storage drives. The topic may seem simple. Just purchase a 2, 4, 6, or 8 bay Synology and fill it up with drives. However, doing it the right way opens a whole new can of worms. Items considered before selecting a storage method should be 1) How much space is currently needed? 2) How much space may be needed during the life of the drive? 3) Will the number of drives need to expand? 4) Can current hard drives be replaced by larger drives seamlessly? 5) Can the data be accessed by computers on the network or just one music serving computer? 6) Will a complete duplicate of the solution be required for backup? 7) Is more expertise needed for setup and ongoing maintenance (updates, failures, etc…)? There are more considerations to be made depending on each individual's needs.
How would storing music in the cloud help? In an ideal world none of the aforementioned seven questions would need answers from the user. Cloud storage is simply a limitless hard drive in the sky that the end user doesn't setup, maintain, plan for future needs, or even care about in the least. Again, under ideal circumstances this cloud storage would be a drive letter such as D:\ on Windows systems and a drive on the desktop named Music on Mac OS X systems. In addition, purchases from HDtracks or Pono could simply be transferred to a user's cloud storage location without the need to download to a local computer and upload to the cloud. The way we store music now is equivalent to all of us running our own email servers and network for seemingly ever. The Gmail web interface can be less than spectacular for people, but the advantages of global access to email, instant search results, terrific availability, no configuration, and no maintenance far outweigh disadvantages such as loss of control and privacy (obviously my opinion, I just wrote it). Currently computer audiophiles control everything in-house. With control comes responsibility. I'd rather not be responsible for anything other than purchasing and playing music. I have no issue with giving up control of music storage or allowing a cloud service to scan my music in order to serve me better web advertisements.
Most existing streaming solutions serve lossy MP3 files to customers. A couple services have started offering lossless streaming in the US and Germany among others. Why not just wait for the lossy services like Beats and Spotify to offer lossless streaming or use an existing service? Beats and Spotify could offer lossless quality streaming but the chances are slim to none they will offer high resolution and all the reissues and remasters I currently own. Existing services such as OraStream allow customers to upload lossless, including high resolution, but the main problem is with the interface. Existing services need to integrate with existing applications that can send DSD over PCM, use WASAPI, and have great remote control apps for iOS. I don't want to take a step back to the 1990's by using a web interface or lackluster desktop client and get up to change tracks every ten minutes. For those reasons, I don't see any existing solution or near future solution as viable for my purpose.
My ideal cloud storage and lossless streaming solution will enable me to move my files to the cloud without changing anything else in my system. In other words, change my music from something like drive C:\local to drive D:\cloud. I want use my Windows 8 CAPS server running JRiver Media Center being controlled by the JRemote iOS application. Connected to the CAPS server can be any USB DAC of choice going out to the rest of my system. Is such a cloud based setup possible and practical today? Yes and no. It's entirely possible (objective) but not entirely practical (subjective).
I set out to test cloud storage and lossless streaming by using two popular consumer online storage services and one that I consider the best cloud storage service available. I selected Dropbox and Google Drive as the popular services for end user cloud storage. Currently these two services synchronize a local folder on one's computer to the cloud. It obviously doesn't make much sense to stream audio from the cloud if one already has the original copy stored in the local folder. However, for testing purposes I set aside that configuration issue as it could be sidestepped via a few different methods. The real thrust of this is storing and streaming, both of which were tested for this article. The other cloud storage service I selected was Amazon's S3 (Simple Storage Service). I've used S3 (with Cloudfront) to store images for Computer Audiophile for several years. S3 works very differently from Dropbox and Google Drive and is less user friendly, but it's the best in the business.
It goes without saying that one's Internet connection is critical when it comes to streaming anything. I obtain my Internet service from Comcast with "guaranteed" speeds of 105 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload. I tested my connection several times before uploading, downloading, or streaming any music for this article. My connections speeds for downloading were consistently between 113 Mbps and 119 Mbps while upload speeds ranged from 23 Mbps to 24 Mbps.
My test music consisted solely of lossless compressed FLAC files at 16/44.1, 24/96, 24/192, and DSF (DSD) files at 1/2.8224 MHz. I placed identical copies of the music listed below in my Dropbox, Google Drive, and Amazon S3 accounts. The total folder size was 6.2GB.
16 bit / 44.1 kHz - Pearl Jam, Yield (Bitrate ~1000 kbps)
24 bit / 96 kHz - Pearl Jam, Vitology (Bitrate ~3000 kbps)
24 bit / 192 kHz - Green Day, American Idiot (Bitrate ~5400 kbps)
24 bit / 192 kHz - Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Stravinsky Apollon musagete & Pulcinella Suite (gapless) (Bitrate ~5100 kbps)
1 bit / 2.8224 MHz - Pink Floyd, The Dark Side Of The Moon (gapless) (Bitrate 5644 kbps)
My test computers were a CAPS Zuma and Macbook Pro retina connected to the network via gigabit Ethernet. Both computers ran JRiver Media Center for playback and music management. The Mac also ran Audirvana Plus for music playback. I created new libraries in each application, then added the music stored in the cloud to the libraries. In JRiver I also created smart playlists for each cloud location, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Amazon S3.
Storage - As a cloud storage platform Dropbox worked. Upload speed was a little slower than Google Drive, even with the upload speed set to unlimited, and drastically slower than Amazon S3.
Streaming - As a lossless streaming platform Dropbox failed. On both Windows and OS X with JRiver Media Center and Audirvana Plus, Dropbox struggled to play 16/44.1 material and couldn't play any higher resolution tracks without series issues. After selecting a 16/44.1 track for playback there was a delay of at least five seconds before playback started. This was most evident with non-sequential tracks as sequential tracks may be preloaded ahead of playback. For the most part 16/44.1 material played without hiccups, but it wasn't perfect. Higher resolutions were unlistenable due to dropouts, pops, and hiccups.
Storage - As a cloud storage platform Google Drive worked better than Dropbox simply because files were synchronized quicker with GD. Google Drive didn't compete with Amazon S3 for upload speed.
Streaming - I noticed real differences between streaming performance on my Mac versus my CAPS server. On Mac OS X using JRiver, 24/192 material had a tendency to stutter during playback. For awhile I consistently heard a two second dropout once per 192 track. Buffering for a few seconds before 192 tracks started was also common. DSD fluctuated between perfect gapless playback and barely working at all. All material at 96 kHz and under worked well during playback. There was frequently a two second pause before non-sequential tracks started playing. Some of the issues could've had something to do with caching behind the scenes in JRiver Media Center. I disabled any caching in an attempt to eliminate this variable. I also tested memory playback, but experienced worse playback than non-memory mode. I also tried streaming through Audirvana Plus. All PCM up through 24/192 and DSD material played back very well. I experienced a ten second lockup when switching between 24/192 and DSD material. Once playback started I had no issues with DSD, even gapless. On a few 24/192 PCM tracks I heard small dropouts and could see Audirvana pre-loading the track slower than needed. This was only seen with tracks of 7+ minutes in length. Switching between PCM tracks was really fast, both sequential and non-sequential. DSD tracks paused for about one second between selection and playback. Navigating the "library" while playing DSD was frequently slow and made the multi-colored OS X pinwheel start spinning.
Storage - Amazon's S3 is terrific as a cloud storage platform. Uploads are blazing fast. I frequently reached speeds of 20 Mbps, nearly maxing out my Internet upload bandwidth. Placing files on Amazon's S3 service can be vastly different from Dropbox and Google Drive because it requires a separate application, such as Panic's Transmit, for uploading. I much prefer an application like this as it features better detail into the upload process than Dropbox and Google Drive. However, uploading through an application like ExpanDrive, as discussed later int his article, can level the playing field for all three services in term of ease of upload but not upload speed.
Streaming - As a lossless streaming platform S3 is the best. S3 is what allowed me to conclude that lossless high resolution streaming from the cloud is possible today. JRiver Media Center running on Windows performed flawless. From 16/44.1 to 24/192 to DSD, it all played without issue and gapless. Compared to my local Synology NAS, playback from S3 was a maximum of one second slower once a track was selected. DSD playback was delayed one additional second. My guess is this was due to the DSD encapsulation into a PCM container for DoP transmissions (I could see the WAV file creation in a temp directory). On Mac OS X JRiver Media Center only suffered from a several second pre-track buffer of non-sequential tracks. Playback of sequential tracks was gapless. Audirvana Plus has some issues with Amazon S3. Non-sequential tracks were very slow to start, some times approaching seven to ten seconds. DSD playback was never smooth.
It's possible to store one's entire lossless and high resolution music in the cloud and stream that music to a HiFi system. Is it practical to do so? Not currently. I'll exclude Dropbox from this part of the discussion because it doesn't work as needed. Using Google Drive or Amazons S3 for storage and streaming isn't practical even though it works. If a design changes were made I can definitely see revisiting the practicality issue in the future.
In order to use Google Drive and Amazon S3 as just another drive on my computer I used a third party application named ExpanDrive. This app enables users to map or mount the cloud drive without needing to know the technical details behind the scenes. ExpanDrive features a fairly simple user interface that requires a username and password for each service and allows the user to select a specific drive letter in Windows. This app must be running in the background for a music application to see the files stored in the cloud. Once ExpanDrive is running users can upload files by just copying them to the newly mapped drive (D:\) or mounted folder on the desktop (for Mac). This enables users to work around the synchronization function of Google Drive and alleviates the need for a local copy of all one's music.
Larger issues that make cloud storage and streaming less practical are upload speed, metadata editing, library browsing speed, and inefficiencies. I'll address the last issue first. It's terribly inefficient to re-download the same music every time it's played through a HiFi system. The other issues are more day to day annoyances. Upload speed, even with my fairly fast Internet connection, is annoyingly slow when moving hundreds of GB into the cloud. Depending on how much music one purchases and how often this annoyance may or may not be that much of an issue. Editing metadata with everything stored in the cloud is very slow, especially adding or changing album art. This often requires the complete file to be re-written. Waiting for an entire album to be re-written can be annoying. Moving around in one's library may be the most annoying issue. I like to scroll very fast through my albums and run searches for items whether or not music is currently playing. This freedom to move is drastically hindered by the design of current playback apps and how they handle data stored in the cloud. Long pauses and lock-ups can be frequent when doing "too much" at one time. This is just the current state of affairs. There's room for improvement to make all of this as smooth and practical as using local storage.
The inefficiency of re-downloading every time a track is played is always going to be there if music is stored in the cloud. However, once we all have 10 Gbps Internet connections at home this will fade from people's mind just the same way as streaming MP3. People don't consider the inefficiency of re-downloading MP3s for each listen because it's so fast and it's the new normal. Even though speed and normalcy don't have much to do with efficiency, the two tend to let people forget about what's going on behind the scenes.
Upload speed could be a non-issue if users send their data to Amazon for placement in their S3 account. New purchases could be uploaded individually without the amount of pain caused by the initial "terabyte" upload. Even better, online stores such as HDtracks and Acoustic Sounds could enable customers to link Amazon S3 accounts with their store accounts. once new music is purchased the content is copied to the user's S3 account without traversing the Internet to the user's home before upload to Amazon. many online stores, including HDtracks, already use Amazon S3 to store and deliver high resolution downloads. Copying these "downloads" from one S3 account to another would be a breeze and possibly save bandwidth cost for HDtracks.
The issues of metadata editing and library browsing speed need to be addressed by application developers such as JRiver and Apple. We all know how fast cloud based email can be when browsing, reading, and searching. If an app like JRiver's Media Center was built for cloud storage, browsing, searching, and playing our music could be identically easy. This interface needn't be web based, as many of us know web based music interfaces have been very lackluster to date. Ideally record labels would work with companies like JRiver to work out the cloud based issues, then open their entire vaults of music for lossless streaming for a monthly fee. Another way to enable access to the lossless and high resolution vaults of record labels is similar to the way Prima Cinema operates. HiFi companies could build a component that talks directly to the labels and handles pulling the music form the cloud to hand off digitally to a DAC. Again a monthly fee for all-you-can-eat access while at the same time allowing labels to have some control of their content. This really could be a great way to go as the user would only need a simple HiFi component connected to the Internet. Lossless to my iPhone is cool, but lossless to my HiFi is far better.
Part of the practicality question must also include price. What does it cost to store and stream lossless high resolution audio? Doing it right isn't cheap. Dopbox doesn't work so I won't include its pricing in the discussion.
Google Drive charges solely for disk space. Consumers can select one of the following Google Drive storage plans. Concluding if local NAS or cloud storage is economical is a matter of doing the math. However, users should consider all the benefits of cloud storage discussed above. Looking at the math for my 3.5TB library, it would cost $100 per month for the 10TB GD storage plan. Google apparently has a bandwidth limit users can download, but trying to find this limit in official terms of anywhere on the Internet was impossible. The GD storage plans are billed monthy without a minimum commitment. This is nice for users who want to test the waters and for users who may run into a problem down the road.
Storage Monthly Rate
100 GB $1.99
1 TB $9.99
10 TB $99.99
20 TB $199.99
30 TB $299.99
My 105 Mbps Internet connection from Comcast = $100 /mo.
Google Drive = $100 /mo.
Yearly total = $2,400
I would greatly benefit from a 4TB plan, but Google doesn't currently offer such a plan for consumers. The one-time cost to store and stream my music from a local NAS is far less. A Synolgy DS214se two bay NAS is $155 and two Western Digital 4TB drives is $360 ($180 x 2). The total hardware cost is fixed at $515 for the life of the unit. In my situation the cost difference between local and cloud storage & streaming is roughly $1,900 the first year. It's hard to justify this extra cost even considering the benefits of cloud storage.
Amazon S3 has a much more complicated pricing model than Google Drive, but customers only pay for what they use with S3. If I want to store 289GB worth of music, I only pay for 289GB. The down side of this model for many users is lack of a fixed monthly price. Not only are users charged for the amount of storage consumers per month, they are charged for the amount of data download (bandwidth) per month. Below are the main charges for using S3. There are some charges I didn't include such as request pricing (PUT, COPY, POST, or LIST) of $0.005 per 1,000 requests. Essentially free for even the heaviest of music listeners.
Running the rough numbers for my own 3.5TB collection and streaming 5GB of music per day for 30 days equals $120 per month. Add my 105 Mbps Comcast Internet bill of $100, and my monthly music storage and streaming bill is roughly $220 or $2,640 per year. Compared to the one time $515 cost of a NAS, Amazon S3 is a "bit" more expensive :~)
Readers can run their own numbers using the Amazon calculator. Make sure to select S3 on the left side. You can also play around with different storage locations. Link - > Amazon Calculator
First 1 TB / month $0.0300 / GB
Next 49 TB / month $0.0295 / GB
Next 450 TB / month $0.0290 / GB
Next 500 TB / month $0.0285 / GB
Next 4000 TB / month $0.0280 / GB
Over 5000 TB / month $0.0275 / GB
First 1 GB / month $0.000 / GB
Up to 10 TB / month $0.120 / GB
Next 40 TB / month $0.090 / GB
Next 100 TB / month $0.070 / GB
Next 350 TB / month $0.050 / GB
Next 524 TB / month Contact Us
Next 4 PB / month Contact Us
Greater than 5 PB / month Contact Us
Storing and streaming lossless high resolution music form the cloud is entirely possible today. I successfully streamed 24 bit / 192 kHz and DSD 1 bit / 2.8224 MHz gapless music from the cloud, through JRiver Media Center, and on to my HiFi system. However the practicality of such a cloud solution is quite a bit less than the standard storage solutions in use by most computer audiophiles. It's also inefficient to stream the same 1.8GB of music every time one wants to hear The Dark Side Of The Moon in DSD. When it comes to price, the whole cloud solution falls to the ground. The price of a cloud based solution is roughly $2,000 greater in the first year and possibly more the following years. The major benefit of a cloud solution is simplicity. Some people place a high value on simplicity and may be willing to pay for the cloud solution. Objectively cloud storage & high resolution streaming is possible. Subjectively cloud storage & high resolution streaming is questionable.