Interested in CD-quality uncompressed streaming? Also check out our review of TIDAL.
In September European music streaming platform Deezer entered the US with its Deezer Elite service which delivers true CD-quality uncompressed sound. Currently Deezer Elite is only available to owners of Sonos wireless audio systems.
The Sonos system has been around more than a decade. It consists of speakers and audio components that connect wirelessly to play music stored on your computer or mobile device, or to stream internet music and radio services. Sonos uses wi-fi rather than Bluetooth, which permits the system to handle the uncompressed audio streams of Deezer Elite that require five times the data.
I had the opportunity to audition the service for a couple of weeks using a Sonos Connect and a Sonos Play:1 wireless speaker. The Connect is essentially a component that you connect to an existing hi-fi to use the Sonos system with your own speakers and amplifier, while the Play:1 is a standalone powered speaker that connects to your wi-fi or wired network.
In this review I am focusing on the sound quality and fidelity of Deezer Elite, since that is the chief advantage of the service compared to its major competitors, like Spotify. Recently another uncompressed streaming music service, Tidal, also debuted in the US (check out our review). To the best of my knowledge these are the only two uncompressed subscription music services available in the US.
This was my first time using Sonos. The Deezer Elite experience is presently tied to the system, so my review will also cover some aspects of it. In a separate post I will review other more general aspects of the overall Sonos system. In that review I will cover the Sonos Play:1 speaker.
For the purposes of clarity and transparency there’s quite a bit of detail to this review. You can jump right to my testing results and conclusion if you’d prefer.
The Argument for Uncompressed Music
I am a music lover, and I also appreciate high fidelity music reproduction. One quibble I’ve had with the shift to digital music files and streaming is the reliance on lossy compression technology, like MP3. Such compression reduces the size of a file by throwing data away that theoretically is not perceived by the human ear.
Now, the best implementations of lossy codecs, as they’re called, indeed can sound very good. At the same time, in my experience that gain in data efficiency comes at some sonic cost, that can range from very subtle to annoying and glaring, compared to an uncompressed CD version of the same music.
It is true that CD itself is a compromise–as every music storage and playback medium is–but one that works well and is capable of very realistic sound reproduction. It is, in most cases, the standard by which we compare most commercially available digital music.
At this point in time, my primary complaint with compressed music is that lossy compression is increasingly unnecessary. When MP3 first gained popularity in the early 2000s most computer hard drives were less than 1/10 the size of today, iPods and smart phones did not exist, and most households used dial-up to connect to the internet.
With such constraints in downloading, storage and streaming lossy codecs were a good solution. But today computers routinely come with a terabyte of storage, capable of storing more than 1,500 uncompressed CDs, while home broadband connections easily can handle the data rates required for uncompressed music streaming.
I also have an economic complaint. When buying digital music I think it’s absurd to pay nearly the same price for an MP3 or iTunes version as the CD, when I’m getting only about 25% of the data, and at a sonic compromise.
That’s why I think the time has come for uncompressed digital music to become more broadly available, and why I was interested in trying out Deezer Elite. I wanted to hear for myself if uncompressed streaming audio offers a perceptible advantage over the more common compressed services.
When I talked with Deezer US CEO Tyler Goldman he told me that his company chose Sonos as the exclusive partner for Elite because he believes it offers the best end-to-end solution. Ostensibly, this means Deezer can better ensure that subscribers are listening using equipment able to deliver the requisite fidelity. That should also avoid complaints from listeners using tinny laptop speakers or cheap bluetooth speakers.
Now, one can use the Sonos Connect with any amplifier and speakers. But given its $349 price there’s likely little risk that someone would bother connecting it to a cheap, substandard stereo.
For most of my listening I connected the Connect to my main system, which is based around a Yamaha Aventage RX-A1000 receiver and Polk RT600i tower speakers. For comparison purposes I also used my Yamaha Aventage BD-A1010 blu-ray player, which handles most high-resolution formats and to my ear plays CDs very well, with involving and detailed sound. While not necessarily high-end equipment, I would characterize this gear as solidly high quality and quite capable of revealing the nuances of most music sources.
The Sonos Connect has both analog and digital outputs, and comes with a set of stereo RCA cables included. My best advice to anyone who buys a Connect is to immediately replace these cables with something better. I used a pair of high-quality, but inexpensive 22-gauge Monoprice cables and experienced an immediate improvement in detail, especially in the low and mid bass. You could spend more, but even this modest upgrade made significant improvements.
I also tested the Connect using its optical digital output connected to my Aventage receiver’s digital input. The Aventage has very nice Burr-Brown digital-to-analog converters (DACs) capable of resolutions up to 24 bits at 192 KHz sampling. CDs and Deezer Elite have a resolution of 16 bits at 44.1 KHz sampling, which means the receiver is more than capable of handing this audio data. I wanted to see what, if any difference, bypassing the Connect’s own digital-to-analog converters would make in the sound.
For all listening I put the receiver into “Pure Direct” mode. This disables all tone control, EQ and DSP settings, which should provide the most uncolored amplified sound that is closest in quality and character to the input signal.
Using Deezer Elite means using the Sonos system, which requires using the Sonos app on a Windows or MacOS computer, or on an Android or iOS device. The documentation for setting up the system was straightforward, and I was able to get both devices connected to my home wi-fi and up and streaming music within about 15 minutes.
Sonos supports more than two dozen major online radio and streaming services, including 8tracks, Slacker, Pandora, Spotify, DAR.fm, iHeartRadio, TuneIn Radio, Rhapsody and SiriusXM. Sonos also plays music from your device, or from a music server. Each service requires a one-time setup to authorize Sonos to access your account. Many services with both free and paid options, like Spotify, will only stream to Sonos for paid subscribers.
I connected Sonos to my Amazon Music account and a Spotify Premium account for the sake of making comparisons to Deezer Elite.
But How Does It Sound?
Ease of use counts for a lot, but for me, at least, it’s not enough if the system doesn’t sound good. In short, listening to Deezer Elite over the Sonos Connect sounds very good. Most of the time I can hear an improvement with Elite compared to listening to MP3s, AAC tracks from iTunes, or compressed music from Spotify. The degree of difference depends on the source material. Some MP3s or Spotify tracks are more poorly encoded, while some original recordings suffer more from MP3 or AAC compression than others.
I listened to tracks using both the analog RCA output on the Connect and over its optical digital connection direct to the DACs in my Aventage receiver. By and large I had a slight preference for the digital output, finding the placement of individual instruments in the soundstage to be just a touch more precise while still sounding integrated. I’m not necessarily surprised by this, since the receiver had a retail price of about $1100 when new–nearly four times the cost of the Sonos Connect.
At the same time I have to stress that this preference is slight, and really only important when doing focused, close listening. When putting on music as a background to reading or other activities the difference pretty much fades away for me.
Listening to Music
Steely Dan is one of my favorite classic rock bands. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s meticulously orchestrated and recorded albums make good examples for testing. I listened to tracks off the well-mastered “Citizen Steely Dan” box set, released in 1993, to compare Deezer Elite with my own CDs.
Listening to “Kid Charlemagne” on Deezer over the Sonos’ analog output I was immediately drawn into the track, with good timing, clear unmarred sound and a nice three-dimensional soundstage. Switching to the digital output, the soundstage got a little deeper, a little more like a live studio performance.
By comparison, the CD on my Aventage blu-ray player had even more definition. Drum fills sweeping across the kit were precise; with my eyes closed I could more clearly imagine hear where each drum was located in space. With Deezer the sweep was still quite lively and 3-D, just a touch less precise.
I chalk up this difference primarily to the excellent DACs in the blu-ray player, which I prefer over those in the receiver. If I were able to connect the Sonos to use the blu-ray’s analog output I suspect I would hear a slight improvement.
I then auditioned the same track on Spotify Premium through the Sonos Connect. That service delivers 320 Kbps Ogg Vorbis audio, generally regarded to be at least as good as MP3 at the same bitrate.
With Spotify the soundstage seemed to collapse, almost as if the speakers moved closer together. Instruments panned more strongly to either side, like the hi-hat, remained firmly planted, but there seemed to be less space in between the left and right speakers. To Spotify’s credit I didn’t detect much high-end shimmer or graininess. However, the difference in quality between Deezer Elite and Spotify Premium was much more obvious than the delta between Deezer and the CD.
Moving to a more contemporary album, I checked out Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” from 2013. While I really like the music on this record, I feel like it suffers from too much dynamic range compression, all too common on recordings from the last decade. So I was particularly interested in how this might affect my listening tests.
I started with an MP3 of the title track that purchased from Amazon that I played from Amazon Music through the Connect. This is the version of the album I’m most familiar with, and it sounds good, though it can be a little fatiguing when listening at higher volume because of there’s so little dynamic range.
Moving to Deezer Elite, once again the soundstage opened up a bit, the placement of instruments became more precise, creating less muddiness than the MP3, especially in the midrange where vocals, guitars and synth battle it out. In particular the tenor saxophone line is much more defined and clear with Deezer. Still, the difference between Deezer and MP3 was less pronounced with this track than the difference between Deezer and Spotify with “Kid Charlemagne.”
Shifting to something entirely acoustic, I chose “So What,” from the Legacy Edition of Miles Davis’ iconic album “Kind of Blue.” Listening to Deezer Elite the soundstage had both good depth and height. Miles’ trumpet is on the same side as Paul Chambers’ bass, yet both are distinct and don’t compete. Things get more challenging when John Coltrane comes in for his solo, accompanied by Bill Evans’ piano. Despite Coltrane’s powerful blowing, it doesn’t overcome the piano, with Evans’ comps ringing with clarity and natural timbre.
Compared to the CD I was hard pressed to hear a difference. There was a touch more air with the CD, and a tiny bit more definition to the brushes hitting cymbals. But that’s about it.
Moving to Spotify Premium the bass gets a little more tubby, and Miles’ trumpet seems to get smeared in space, becoming less distinct. Coltrane’s sax seems to mask the piano, losing the attack of some of Evans’ notes. I had no difficulty hearing a significant difference between the Deezer Elite and Spotify Premium versions with this track.
Summing Up Results
On the whole Deezer Elite really does deliver CD quality streaming music, and the Sonos Connect plays it well. The Connect’s analog output is the system’s biggest constraint, but the one most easily overcome, especially now that very high quality standalone DACs are available, and many amplifiers and receivers have digital inputs. And, again, I have to emphasize that the analog output’s limitation isn’t a major concern to me, but may be more critical to some audiophiles.
I hear a definite improvement in overall sound with Deezer Elite compared to compressed music files or compressed streaming services, like Spotify. Across the entire frequency spectrum there is more definition, allowing individual instruments and voices to be more distinct, with more three-dimensional depth.
The difference is less pronounced at lower volumes or with background listening. But folks who enjoy just listening to music as a foreground activity should appreciate the boost in quality.
Since Deezer Elite is only available through Sonos, my interaction with it was primarily through the Sonos app, which makes it operationally similar to Spotify and other services. At least for the music I am interested in, the Deezer catalog was roughly equal to Spotify. There are bands I wanted to hear–The Beatles, Metallica and King Crimson–that I could not find on Deezer, but they are also not available on Spotify. Though her music is not my cup of tea, I should note that Taylor Swift’s first four albums are on Deezer, while she has pulled her entire catalog from Spotify.
Elite subscribers can also use Deezer via smartphone app and web interface, but these methods access only the Premium Plus service, which delivers 320 Kbps MP3s.
If you’re a Sonos user who has resisted subscribing to a streaming music because you don’t want the compromise of lossy compressing, then Deezer Elite most certainly deserves an audition. It is also merits a trial even if you’re already a subscriber to another streaming service. At a price of $9.99 a month with a full-year commitment there’s no price premium compared to competitors. The month-to-month price of $14.99 is still pretty reasonable.
The bigger question is if Deezer Elite is enough of a draw to entice someone to buy into the Sonos system. Frankly, I find myself more convinced than I anticipated. I enjoyed how the service sounds, but also how seamlessly it works with Sonos. Of course, it works no more or less smoothly than Spotify, Rhapsody, Rdio or Slacker. But those services don’t offer uncompressed audio.
With the debut of Tidal there is now a competitor to Deezer Elite that is not tied to one brand of hardware. Given that Tidal offers the same uncompressed music format as Deezer, I have no reason to believe that there will be significant fidelity differences between the two.
Your choice would more likely depend on whether or not you have a Sonos component, and how willing you are to buy one. I also understand that Tidal may soon be available on Sonos, too. That equipment flexibility comes at a cost, however. Tidal costs $19.99 a month, which is twice that of Deezer Elite with a year commitment, and still $5.00 more than paying for Deezer month-to-month.
In the end I’m pleased to see uncompressed streaming audio become a viable and serious option for music lovers and audiophiles who don’t want to be limited to lossy compressed files in order to enjoy the benefits of near-instant access to catalogs of millions of tracks.
If you have a Sonos system or are considering one I would seriously consider a Deezer Elite subscription. If you don’t have a Sonos but have your interest is piqued by Deezer Elite I would definitely recommend visiting a dealer to audition it for yourself.
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