Computer Audio Is Dead. And Streaming Has Killed It.

Do you remember when computer audio was hard?

When AudioStream launched in 2011, with yours truly as Editor, the world of computer audio was the wild west of hifi. Small, relatively unknown players could shake up the Computer Audio world with the drop of an acronym (like DSD) and just getting things to work as they should required real research of the deep web.

Back in the day, let’s call them the Dark Ages, Computer Audio was synonymous with things like music storage, disc-ripping, and high-res downloads. Stuff. The challenges were many and included any number of kludges, software add-ons, and manual labor (remember searching for “best batch file-format converter” and editing all of your metadata, again?). File-format and SOS (Stupid Operating System) wars, dictated by the likes of Apple and Microsoft, made the notion of cross-platform plug-and-play an impossibility. Just getting your album cover art to stay attached to your music files was for many a major victory. Computer Audio was. . .ugly. And stupid.

Thankfully, those days are long gone—Computer audio is dead and streaming has killed it. Of course there are still people interested in music storage, disc-ripping, and high-res downloads but these people are part of a demographic—Age. Seeing as I’ve been getting AARP literature for coming up on a decade, I speak as a member. Hell, I’m old enough to remember when being able to quote something was impressive.

We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities. Oscar Wilde

But lets face facts—the clear majority of people consume music via streaming and this trend will only continue. If you think the world of hifi will remain immune to this reality, all Farneheit-451-like with audiophiles squirreling away hard copy, I’d beg to differ. Why? Demographics (age) and reality. The days of accumulating lots of stuff are dying a not-so-slow death because we can have it all without needing a place to put it. We can consume limitless amounts of music, movies, books, magazines, news, and more from our phones, computers, and smart TVs and the endless self-perpetuating stream of social media fills in the blanks.

We ditched cable TV some time ago, replacing it with an Amazon Fire TV Cube and some apps. While Alexa and I have a strained relationship, cutting the ties to cable TV was a freeing experience and as it turns out I do not miss any of the hundreds of channels I never watched or the endless stream of the same shitty movies.

“Hey Dad, you know you can load the Tidal app on the TV, right?” That was Jess educating me about the meaning of owning a smart TV. I used to have an older Intel NUC acting as Roon Server on our in-home network so that I could stream music to my old-meets-new-school family room hifi—a Sonore micro-Rendu took care of the network to DAC connection, an original Mytek Brooklyn feeding an even older SAC Thailand single-ended EL-84 amp driving a pair of really, really old Horn Shoppe Horns (the ones with the binding posts up top). There was even a brief period where I kept a NAS with a copy of my Barn music library in-house but that was short-lived because I didn’t need it. I had Tidal. Using the Tidal app on our TV, with its optical output feeding the Mytek’s input, I was able to get rid of stuff. As contradictory as it may seem, I love getting rid of stuff, especially when it’s superfluous.

Of course, I also use the Tidal app on my iPhone, which acts as my traveling music player, and I can also play music from my iPhone/Tidal to my car stereo when I’m not listening to FM radio, which I still love doing. Do I miss carrying around a box of 8-tracks, cassettes, or CDs? Or does having streaming access to millions of albums on my phone, in my car, on our TV, and on my hifi help ease that pain?

What About Quality?

Streaming music sounds as good as any other form of music playback. That’s just a fact and if you have not experienced this reality, odds are you aren’t doing it right. [footnote 1]

I still buy downloads. But, and this a big but, > 90% of the time those downloads come with the LPs I buy (remember, I’m part of that demographic that collects stuff). The downloads are essentially freebees, which if you think about it, makes perfect sense.

Truth be told, my music-buying habit has slowed dramatically for a few reasons—I’m running out of LP storage space, just as I’m running out of book shelf space, and the thought of buying something in order to house other things is feeling more nostalgia-tinged than practical and I’m not ready to lie down and cozy up to my demographic just yet.

1. I’ve written and deleted more “How To” posts about getting the best sound from streaming than I can remember. Why? Because I have not figured out a way to write them without mentioning that everything matters, which makes writing any kind of guide rather pointless, or feeling as if I’m beating the tail of a dying horse. But if you want advice, buy a good router (from ASUS or Netgear), wire your network audio connections, electrically isolate your network stuff from your hifi, and subscribe to Tidal HiFi or Qobuz HiFi. I think Qobuz sounds better, YMMV.