It has been observed by many people that “traditional” streaming services are terrible at classical music.
PCmag: Primephonic Wants to Save Classical Music, 1 Stream at a Time
Forbes: Meet Primephonic, The Streaming Company On A Mission To Save Classical Music
LifeHacker: The Best Classical Music Streaming Service Is Idagio
TechAcute: IDAGIO: The Streaming Service For Classical Music Fans
And they are pretty terrible. Classical music is complicated… There are lots of dimensions in which you can slice and dice the music, because the stronger dissociation of composer and performer, and the greater diversity of well-defined genres. I’m not saying that popular music doesn’t have as much diversity (although it might be true that it doesn’t), just that the taxonomy is not as well developed. Another dimension of complexity is the fact that a piece of classical music often needs to be taken as a complete unit, even though it might be split into multiple tracks (but not always, and not for everybody).
So enter the latest contenders, Primephonic and Idagio. How do they stack?
TL;DR: they are certainly better at handling classical music than the “standard” streaming tools. But they are far from perfect. And their “imperfection” is inconsistent. IDAGIO has a big defect (at least on the iOS client) of not supporting today gapless playback, so between tracks you get this short gap which is very annoying. This makes Primephonic the winner in my opinion, but not by much.
I started a trial on each and decided to do some comparisons for how I would use it. Here are the use cases that I tested:
Query for a standard piece with an expected high number of recordings
Query for a standard piece with less recordings
Query for a series of pieces with low number of recordings
Query for ensemble
I also discussed a couple of features related on how it is to listen to long pieces, make playlists and discovery.
I did not go into sound quality. That requires a fair amount of time investment in an environment where I could listen to the quality, so I just accepted what they advertise (Primephonic 24bit FLAC and IDAGIO 16bit FLAC) and that probably if you want to pay extra for it (for both you pay extra for lossless), you will get reasonably equivalent quality which will be more limited by the source recording than the streaming format.
1. Query for standard piece
beethoven string quartet 14
beethoven string quartet 131
(refers to Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# minor op. 131)
“131” returns two works
Oddly, when I was typing it and was at “beethoven string quartet 13” it showed another work
This inconsistency made me ready for what was coming next for the next searches.
“131” returns 0 works! But quite a few albums. That’s what made me decide to also try “14”.
“14” returns 1 work:
String Quartet No.14 in C-sharp minor – 93 recordings, but when you click on it it only shows 82 recordings mixed orchestral and quartet. It had a lot of duplicates, but seems to have more recordings than IDAGIO.
2. Query for a standard piece with less recordings
“part festina lente”
for Arvo Pärt Festina Lente
Not marked as “works” but returns “Festina Lente, for Harp and String Orchestra (1986, rev. 1990) – 5 recordings
“Festina lente” – 8 recordings
Interestingly the recordings have very little overlap.
3. Query for a series of pieces with low number of recordings
Heitor Villa-Lobos “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1-9”
4. Query for ensemble
“roomful of teeth”
Other use flows
They both have a concept of recordings which is a pair of work+recording, which allows you to add to playlist all movements for a single piece easily. That does create sometimes a little bit of a confusing point of what you are looking at when navigating. Moreover, on IDAGIO they have a concept of a “collection” and you can add “tracks”, “recordings” and “albums” to the collection. Some albums contain a single work, so sometimes you may think that you are adding a “recording”, but it ends up in the “album” because you were actually at the album view.
I think it’s a necessary concept, I just don’t think they cracked the UI component of it.
I have this odd use case of creating a “today” playlist, where I accumulate the pieces that I want to listen to today. “Today” doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to listen to all those pieces in a single day and that’s where I have an unsolved issue: I’d love to know the last piece that I listened to on my playlist. Spotify (before my account started being shared with other people in my household) was pretty good at giving me where I was when I left, so, unless I switched to another playlist/album, I could just continue where I left off. Neither IDAGIO or Primephonic seem to do that. Often when I open their app, I start from scratch and I have to figure out where I was. I have a similar note below on playback.
Beyond that, playlists work as expected. You can add tracks, albums or recordings to them. But if you are on an album and you want to add a recording from that album (i.e. multiple tracks at once for the same work), you have to first navigate to the “recording” view for those tracks and then add them to your playlist.
This is probably one of the weakest points on IDAGIO, which made me decide that today (when I tested it) they are not the winner: it doesn’t support gapless playback. And that’s a big sin especially for classical music where you have a lot of works that have multiple movements that sometimes, by design by the composer, don’t have a break between them. Now on playback IDAGIO adds a break.
Beyond that, I also felt that IDAGIO took a little longer to start playing than Primephonic.
Finally, related to the “starting from scratch” that I mentioned on playlists, I also can never get it to autoplay when I start a new bluetooth connection. For example, my car connects to my phone on bluetooth and then I can play music through the car sound system, like most cars today. Let’s say that I select something on IDAGIO or Primephonic to play. Then I park the car, go get something and then when I get back to the car, I expect the bluetooth to connect again and trigger play on where I was, but that never worked on my tests for any of those two services. Kind of like the “start from scratch”, they just don’t know what to play. I have to go to the app and play from there.
For sure IDAGIO has the most number of features from the two:
But I don’t think that’s really enough to make it the winner, but, in technical terms, I believe the gapless playback is probably a smaller missing feature than the features above, so it might not take very long for IDAGIO to be my recommendation.