GARY STEEL has come to the conclusion that people who collect records are meat-eaters and those who stream music are herbivores.

I’ve been trying really hard to get with the programme. I really have. As a music-crazed zombie who also happens to crave the very best in audio fidelity, I’ve finally signed up to the virtual world.

I now have a specially formatted PC with an 8-terabyte music library and internal streamer, which accesses my subscription to hi-res music streaming platform Qobuz, all of it managed and tweaked and organized via another platform called Roon. I’ve even taken on a “lifetime” subscription to Roon to show my fledgling commitment to non-physical music fandom.

I’ve been enjoying flicking through the selections available on Qobuz – supposedly numbering 100 million tracks – and checking out recordings I’d always wanted to hear and the “recommendations” that it automatically throws up.

Potentially, it opens a door to a world of musical adventure that’s been closed to me in recent years on my limited budget. Potentially.

But the reality is – if I’m brutally honest with myself – that I miss playing physical discs. Like, really miss them. I threw off the shackles of so-called vinyl records a long time ago, and while I still have about a thousand LPs taking up wall space, it’s more for the covers and the nostalgia than anything, as they rarely get a spin. But CDs are another matter.

Despite the fact that my ramshackle shelves are bursting with compact discs – many of which haven’t been played in 20 or 30 years! – I can’t quite bring myself to get rid of them. And when I do spontaneously grab one and slap it on my happy platter (or in the in-tray of my SACD player) I feel a connection to what I’m playing that’s indescribably different to trawling through cyberspace and making my selections in the cloud.

So let’s talk about reading for a second. I read a lot every day, most of it on my computer or phone. But my pleasurable reading occurs each evening when I sit down with a good book. You know, a real book. The level of engagement with what I’m reading skyrockets, along with the sheer pleasure of it all.

I’ve discovered that the same thing applies to music. If I take the trouble to select a CD, then I’ll open it, put it on and sit back to listen. I’ve made a commitment to listening to it that I don’t do when I randomly select something from Qobuz.

It happened last night when I put on one of my old favourites, TNT by the Chicago instrumental “post-rock” group Tortoise. This is a classic of its genre from 1998. It’s by no means a squeaky clean audiophile recording, but the sound design is exquisite nevertheless, and the group’s bewitching fusion of various music forms never fails to take me somewhere else. I was in the zone.

Then I looked it up on Qobuz, thinking I’d stream it to compare the sound quality, only to discover that despite having 100 million tracks available to stream, they don’t have the classic Tortoise album TNT. In fact, bizarrely, they only have one Tortoise album, and it’s not a particularly great one. (By contrast, Apple Music have all the Tortoise albums.)

Since I’ve joined Qobuz I’ve found with upsetting frequency that favourite albums are missing, and annoyingly given the French company is the platform of choice for audiophiles, some of my standard hi-fi audition discs are missing in action! These include – off the top of my head – the exquisite Drawn From Life by Brian Eno & J. Peter Schwalm, and International Observer’s Seen. I’ve also noticed that while Qobuz has a good selection of albums at both 96kHz and 192kHz that often, artists who have had their recordings released already on the hi-res format SACD (I’m talking about the likes of ethno-groove Dead Can Dance and Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi, for instance) are only available on Qobuz at CD quality (44.1kHz).

Another bugbear about streaming music services is that when the songs on a recording are intentionally segued (like on most of Frank Zappa’s huge catalogue) they suddenly have gaping gaps, which completely ruins the flow. Is there any fix for that? Who knows?

But while those concerns are legitimate, they’re not really what I came here to discuss. I’d been wondering about why I just didn’t seem to get a metaphorical stiffy for streamed music. While it’s true that on occasions I’ve heard something sound so damned good that my concerns about not having something physical to hold and peruse just melted away, it’s also true that I get palpable pleasure still from walking into record shops, finding wee treasures, discovering and curating my own selections, putting a disc into a player, and playing it. Somehow, my brain just clicks into “go” mode in a way that never quite happens with streamed music.

Is this because I’m 64 and I’ve had a lifetime of listening to relics of a previous time and just can’t give them up for nostalgic reasons? Well, like I said, I had no trouble giving up my vinyl addiction, and when compact discs came along I loved the fact that suddenly the full dynamic range was there right up to what would have been the last track on either side of a piece of vinyl and that there were no pops and scratches or rumble or whatever else to create a barrier between me and the music. Why then, do I still get so much pleasure from CDs? Probably partly because I really love the sound of my CD player. It’s just a really great music source and produces a sound that I’m about 95 percent happy with. But also, I’m a natural hunter and collector with an almost autistic need to control my surroundings and determine what I’m doing from minute to minute. Streaming leaves me feeling all up in the air.


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It dawned on me that giving up entirely to streamed music turns the consumer into the equivalent of a grazing animal, happily chewing away on what comes up next, while playing a disc – whether it’s vinyl, CD or some other defunct format – is like hunting and killing prey. You’ve got to find it and therefore you’ve got the motivation to dissect it in a way that never happens on the endless super-phosphate green fields of the streaming music sphere.

There’s also, of course, the rather vexed issue of ownership. In the streaming world you never actually own anything, it’s being lent to you, and there’s always the chance that it will be withdrawn and no longer available to listen to, as happened briefly with Taylor Swift on that crappy-sounding streaming service, Spotify. There are a lot of albums on Qobuz that, for some bizarre reason, will have a few songs not available, presumably for copyright or geographic reasons. My nightmare is that having sold my physical collection, one day I’ll wake up and all streaming services have been withdrawn. It’s the same with streaming TV.

I’m not yearning for the past, and I’ve actually been using streaming music services since the early 2000s. But until recently, that usage has meant hooking the kids up with portable Bluetooth speakers and Spotify, catching new songs on average computer speakers, or using streaming music as a background to dinner with friends. Getting properly set up on my stereo with hi-res streaming music has been quite a trip, and not an easy one to take. They can be tricky buggers to set up and sometimes I still get out of my depth. (Luckily, I’ve got some technically-minded hi-fi friends).

I’m not advocating going back to physical product. Not entirely, anyway. Maybe I’ll properly get over my issues one day and start enjoying and engaging with streaming music just as fully as I do with discs. But I’m not holding my breath, and I’m not quite ready to give up on physical media entirely. The CD collection might soon go into boxes – carefully leaving out the ones that aren’t on Qobuz yet, of course – so that I can get my walls back, but I’m not quite ready yet.





Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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