Netflix nine ways
Oh the wonders of today’s streaming and multiroom platforms! As you’ll see from the products selected by the awards judges in this issue, many of the most interesting new components have streaming platforms built in; they’re capable of app-controlled and now often voice-controlled access to music from Spotify Connect and/or Tidal and/or many others… And often able to command or receive to and from other devices in the home, delivering a multiroom audio system and more — all linked and controlled from your phones and tablets.
There’s a cost to these technologies being included, of course, but it’s invariably worth it for the significant extra abilities, and not least because the quality of most streaming services when received direct to a piece of decent hi-fi is a firm step-up from your standard Bluetooth-from-the-phone streaming solution. These built-in platforms can bring both control and quality.
They can also have a notable effect on system building, as the streaming/multiroom platforms do enforce a degree of brand loyalty. Once you have an amplifier, say, with a particular platform, and assuming you use it and enjoy it, you’re more likely to buy other products with the same technology; sometimes you pretty much have to. Few platforms are inter-operable (through Roon has become a great integrator), and the obvious conclusion is that you don’t want half your home on one platform and half on another.
Nor do you want to duplicate too much, mind you. It’s all too easy these days to end up with an audio system which has a smart source, maybe several smart sources, and a smart amp, and even smartish speakers — and perhaps a smart TV as well. If all these are on the same platform and are together in the same room, you’ve paid for it several times over, but you can only use one of them at once. And it’s not only the hardware cost of the module itself to consider, there are also the licensing fees the manufacturers pay. It all adds to the price of your product.
So in this situation you might actually be better with a HEOS music player, a BluOS amp and a set of Chromecast-equipped speakers — you’ll have more options for both services and future interoperability. Although your head may explode as you swipe between apps trying to remember what is where.
It’s the same in TV & video — indeed here sometimes the duplication is extreme, notably for Netflix, since that’s seen as a ‘must-have’ for any self-respecting connected video device. Consider for a moment — how many ways can you access Netflix?
Let me count the ways in my home. Netflix is in my Android TV (dedicated button), it’s in both of two PVRs (one with a dedicated button), it’s in my Oppo Blu-ray player (dedicated button), and I think it’s in my UHD Blu-ray player. I could use my Chromebook or my iPhone or my iPad, or my wife’s Motorola Android phone. So that’s nine ways to access Netflix, and that’s just in the lounge room! Even discounting any hardware/software development costs required in implementing the Netflix stream, I assume each piece of hardware at least will incur a licensing fee for that — so many times that’s been paid in this one room! Oh and I forgot the AppleTV… that does Netflix too, though for this and the phones/tablets Netflix will have created its own app... and possibly paid fees in the other direction.
Given this profusion of Netflixes, an interesting question is whether some devices get better quality streams than others, even through the same internet connection. This is difficult to test within the swirling variables of the real world, but I can firmly if anecdotally suggest that it’s certainly true of ABC iView. Watching the same show from iView on different devices, some platforms throttle back resolution while others happily pull something bearably close to HD. The AppleTV often seems to win out, though factors like scaling quality are also part of the equation.
In audio, comparative quality of streams is not an issue. So far as I’m aware, all internet radio streams are equal within the selected format, all Spotify Connect streams equal unless deliberately requested lower in hardware. So in audio systems, it’s less about which device receives, more which DAC you use to convert it. If you have a great standalone DAC which has onboard MQA, say, you might not want to stream Tidal directly into your amplifier’s streaming section; you might be better off playing from your computer into the DAC, or even using the Tidal app on a networked disc player (from CD to UHD BD) with its digital audio output into the DAC. Or something.
Duplication isn’t too great a disaster — it’s always better to have too many options than not enough. But why waste your money buying smarts for a system that already has the same smarts? Sometimes it’ll be smarter to buy something dumb.