When I bought a Pixel 3 last year I got access to YT Music Plus (for a year free), which gave me google music as well. I got used to the quality of music I was hearing in the car (via my smartphone) or in my headphones, via Google Play Music in a browser.

When my year subscription ended, I thought I’d try out some other alternatives. Friends recommended Spotify so I checked it out.

Free Spotify is Limited in Quality

First, trying out the free version of Spotify, it was clear it sucked in comparison to the quality of Google Play Music… and/or iTunes. As it turns out, this is because the free version of Spotify has a bit rate cap on the streaming audio.

Spotify Settings Panel

If you go into the Spotify settings panel, there’s a section on Music Quality. By default it’s set to “Normal,” which I imagine is around 160 kbps. Supposedly, “Very High” is 320 kbps, but it’s not available for free accounts.

That seems a weird choice for me… why give people a shit experience (compared to your competition) in the hopes they’ll upgrade?

Anyway, I upgraded to try out the “high quality” of Spotify.

Premium Spotify STILL Sucks

At this point I upgraded on a 3 month trial. I wanted to check out the service and I expected to hear the same great quality. But song after song really sucked. I mean SUCKED.

What I heard was diminished audio. The lower frequency ranges were completely removed, or muddled up. Separation of sound was also a problem, again like frequencies are being filtered out.

Examples

Since I like EDM, I picked a couple random songs in my playlist:

Oboloka by Born Dirty

Girls by Noizu

Hi Friend! by Deadmau5

I ran these songs in a test using a pair of descent headphones plugged into a macbook using the Spotify app; As well as using my Google Pixel phone running through my car’s sound system.

Results

The newer songs, like Oboloka and Girls have great bass and separation of sound on Google Play Music, as well as iTunes. However, when the same songs are played on Spotify they sound muffled by comparison.

In fact, upping the volume in Spotify, so that the songs sound good, and switching to Google or iTunes, is a shock. Google and iTunes is like 30% louder.

Headphones – Comparison

In my over the ear headphones I can hear tones and bass in Oboloka and Girls with Google Play and iTunes that I just don’t hear in Spotify. The difference in volume is about 20-30% louder using the other services, and Spotify comes off sounding very lacking in comparison.

This is most notable in the song Girls by Noizu.

Car Stereo – Low End Comparison

But this isn’t just about loudness. There’s whole frequency ranges missing in the songs. Playing “Girls” by Noizu via Google Play Music, in my car, at a medium volume level, has a sub bass frequency shaking my chair slightly. Everything is slightly vibrating.

That same song on Spotify sounds like FM radio by comparison. Nothing. I mean NOTHING is felt in the lower range when using Spotify.

Other Songs

“Hi Friend” by Deadmau5 actually sounded pretty much the same across the services. This got my interest. Why did THAT song sound good on Spotify? I looked at a few more songs (more popular) for comparison:

The Beautiful People by Marilyn Manson

KILL4ME by Marilyn Manson

Opr by Gesaffelstein

What I noticed is that some songs do sound the same in Spotify, as with Google Play Music and/or iTunes. However, other songs, sound much worse on Spotify.

In the list above, Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People sounded the same across the board.

HOWEVER, his newer song KILL4ME was horrible in Spotify, in comparison to Google Play Music and iTunes.

Opr by Gesaffelstein sounded close across the board, but I’d still give Spotify a down mark on it, as it felt a tad less bass. The difference here though was almost insignificant.

Song by Song

The quality issues I’m having with Spotify do not appear to be related to the clients (desktop installer, or mobile), as some songs sound really good. Yet other songs sound like trash, when compared to Google Play Music or iTunes. Why is that?

Since this difference is related to different songs, I wonder if it might be related to this:

https://community.spotify.com/t5/Accounts/What-of-tracks-on-Spotify-are-streamed-at-320kbps/td-p/151548

Support at that time (2012) said that not all of the music is 320 kbps encoded. But they do indicate almost all is, with a 99.99% coverage. This is doubtful to me, unless I happen to be hitting the 0.001% in my random picks that sound off.

At one time Spotify had a means by which people could check the encoding rate of each song played, it was by calling the executable with a -console parameter.

I attempted this on OSX with no joy. I also ran this from the executable via the console, which did give me various data in the logs… but the encoding details were not mentioned.

It’s as though the bitrate encoding has been removed from the output.

Conclusion

As some noted, Spotify sounds the same or close enough to iTunes/Google Play to make it worth the purchase. Yet there’s a significant difference in other songs.

I’m going to take a guess and think that this is a song by song problem – perhaps Spotify does not have the ability (legally) to offer some songs at higher bitrates… or perhaps the artist doesn’t deliver higher bitrates to Spotify. I never heard a song sound better in Spotify though. This seems to be a Spotify specific problem.

Either way, I can’t see why I’d give them $10/month for less quality then using Google Play.

Irregardless of this issue, the free version of Spotify is horrible. You will not be able to listen to songs, the way they were recorded. In the end, people will probably do what I did… download the trial of Spotify and see what it sounds like on your personal sound systems and headphones. If the music you listen to sounds good, you’re in luck. If you compare it to iTunes or Google Play and Spotify’s version is off… well you know which is the better alternative.

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