No Time For CDs
Article by David A. Rich
The BAS Speaker Volume 31 No. 3
Each year magazines ask each reviewer for list of the best 10 CDs. This year I suggest sources that give you hundreds of hours of great music for free: the on-demand streaming services that deliver concerts from some of the world’s major orchestras. Better than studio performances, these are live. You get to hear unrecorded conductors and performances. Performers you’ve never heard of can produce a Brahms violin concerto that rivals the best CD, and that applies to the rest of the repertoire. You get to hear new music from our great American tonalists and some works from the other end of the pond that make Boulez sound conservative.
Before the internet, you had to be very lucky to receive a classical music station that played these concerts. Many classical station managers believe that modern works and discussion during these programs drives away casual listeners, so many stations do not program them. Now they are a few mouse clicks away, 24/7.
Some performances are great, but others are bombs. Each show runs two hours. You can slide the player’s “seek” bar past bad performances or atonal works. These streams run at an average bit rate of 128kbps, using fixed-rate MP3 encoding that I find sounds worse than off-the-air strong-signal FM, although better than the HD Radio’s secondary program.
Still, I am addressing the music lover, not the audiophile.
New York Philharmonic (link) keeps program streams online for two weeks (not available in the summer).
Chicago Symphony (link) keeps programs up for six weeks.
Symphonycast (link) features different orchestras each week. The number of weeks the site streams an orchestra varies; sometimes it’s more than six weeks.
Live! at the Concertgebouw (link) includes phenomenal performances by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Rotterdam Philharmonic and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra from Netherlands Radio. They deliver the fastest bit stream at 256kbps using MP3. Each concert is available for only one week, and at the moment they do not appear to be remembering to change programs every week.
String quartet devotees should seek out (link), which will send you to this link. Most programs are free. They sometimes charge for program replays. WFMT also puts programs at this site, such as the La Jolla Music Society summer festival. You will also find the Indianapolis Symphony here, although I have not seen new programs listed. Instant Encore sounds good but does not launch your player (it uses its own on-page player: click on Start and the music plays). With no access to the player’s technical details, its codec type and bit rate cannot be determined. The Cleveland Orchestra has been streaming concerts, but the sound is dreadful. Other orchestras such as the San Francisco Symphony and Jerusalem Symphony do not stream concerts but offer concerts on the radio. Unless you are very lucky, you will not find them locally on-air. A couple of sites will help you locate potentially interesting programs being streamed from radio stations’ sites. Of course, to hear these programs you have to “tune in” at the correct day and time.
Allegro! (link) “Musical Public Radio Programs via Streaming Audio” tracks many programs, but a limited selection of them are classical music. They track programming that runs for at least six months, like the San Francisco Symphony. Many orchestras, like the Jerusalem and the Milwaukee symphony orchestras only supply 13 weeks of programming, so they are not listed on this site. The Allegro! program listings are generally accurate and include the speed of the stream, but don’t identify the coding technology.
Program sound quality depends not only on the bit rate, but also on the care the station takes with the signal it feeds to the codec. Sound quality degrades if the station equalizes or compresses the signal. What you hear will likely be different if the station’s engineer assumes you listen on a laptop vs. a pair of Revel Studios. Unfortunately some engineers don’t seem to care how the stream sounds.
The site’s codec is also important. Most use Windows Media (*.wma) or MP3 formats. One classical station in the USA and several in EU countries are using the advanced aacPlus codec, which employs spectral band replication. SBR is a bandwidth extension technique that is claimed to enable audio codecs to deliver the same quality at half the bit rate. I found the 96kbps stream to sound very good. Streaming audio using MP3 at 196kbps might be a little better, but it is hard to tell given all the other variables among station feeds.
A site called SoundExpert lets you participate in double blind trials of different codecs at different speeds. It rates the sound quality as more data is collected. However, the site appears have stopped being updated as of September 2008.
Stability of the internet radio stream is another criterion for its usefulness. Some streams can go down every 30 minutes, requiring you to relaunch the player. A few will stay up the whole day. I have found DSL is less likely than cable to encounter problems coming up and staying up, but this might be location-dependent.
Download speed should not be an issue for audio streaming, since bit rates are below 256kbps and the players have buffers. I do not know why streams over my cable go down more often than over my DSL on selected internet radio sites, but I have streamed the same program over both simultaneously, and the cable stream drops out while the DSL stream plays on. On other unstable sites they both drop.
Another web site that helps you find concerts is PublicRadioFan, which covers almost every internet radio site on the web, tracking close to a thousand domestic and international programs they present. PublicRadioFan tracks programs that run just thirteen weeks. Only a few stations carry programs with less well-known orchestras or chamber music performers. Often one block of time is devoted to 13 weeks of a single orchestra’s programs, so you will hear four orchestras a year. The stations’ web sites are not always updated when their programming changes, and PublicRadioFan cannot check all the stations they cover more often than once per quarter, so some of the listings might be a month or so out of date; for example, you might find five different scheduled broadcasts for the Milwaukee Symphony series on five different stations, but only one or two might be broadcasting it now.
If you can find the Jerusalem Symphony, it gives great concerts, many with works seldom heard, with controversial commentary by the conductor Leon Botstein.
With so many great concert performances available, you might not have much time to listen to CDs.
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