Thanks to COVID-19, and artists and venues shifting their focus to online streams, we may be seeing more jazz performances than ever before. What we’re hearing, though, isn’t always so appealing. The quality of an audio track within a video stream from YouTube, Facebook, and most other sources is a step down from live sound. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to make it better—and venues and festivals that are trying to go beyond low-resolution sound.
“When we went into lockdown, everyone’s life changed,” says Adam Moses, project director and co-chief executive of the U.K.’s Jazz Re:Freshed, which puts on the annual Jazz Re:Fest festival. “We’ve been promoting jazz concerts for 17 years, and sound is so important to that experience. Once musicians started broadcasting from their homes, the decrease in quality was shocking.”
In fact, the quality of audio in YouTube and Facebook video streams is comparable to Spotify’s lowest-quality tier. Spotify’s mobile streaming uses the Ogg Vorbis codec (compression/decompression) technology running at 96 kilobits per second—about 30 percent as much data as used in Spotify’s best-quality downloads, and only 14 percent as much as in a typical CD-quality FLAC stream. YouTube and Facebook use the AAC codec, which is similar in sound quality to Ogg Vorbis, typically at 128kbps.
As you know if you’ve watched jazz performances on YouTube and Facebook, the quality of 128kbps AAC streams can be okay, provided the production is good and everything goes just right. But last August, Jazz Re:Freshed, in conjunction with audio electronics maker Bluesound and audio technology company MQA, streamed the entire Jazz Re:Fest 2020 in 24-bit/192-kilohertz high-resolution sound.
The high-res audio stream of Jazz Re:Fest was available (and excerpts still are) to all owners of devices using Bluesound’s BluOS software, which include products from NAD Electronics and PSB Speakers as well as Bluesound itself. Because no video streaming format supports high-resolution audio—even Netflix and Hulu can’t do that—it was impossible to stream a full high-resolution audio/video presentation.
According to June Ip of Bluesound’s parent company Lenbrook, “You had the choice to watch on YouTube, so you could see the performers, but then you’re limited audio-wise. If you’re an audiophile and audio is more important, you had the option of using a BluOS-enabled device and just listening to the audio. If you wanted to combine the two, it’s somewhat possible to sync up the YouTube images and the MQA stream, but with all the different ads on YouTube it’s impossible to get it perfect.”
I listened to Jazz Re:Fest 2020 performance highlights in MQA high-res through an $899 Bluesound Powernode 2i streaming amplifier connected to my $3,500-per-pair Revel Performa3 F206 speakers. With all the details of the saxophones, cymbals, and other high-frequency instruments coming through in high-res quality, it sounded more lifelike than the YouTube stream. Because the Powernode 2i has an HDMI input, I was able to connect it to my TV and stream the YouTube program from my Roku Streaming Stick+, which made it easy to switch between listening to the high-res audio and the low-res audio/video presentation.
Some Assembly Required
According to Ross Eustis, producer and project manager of the weekly Fridays at Five streaming program from San Francisco’s SFJAZZ, the quality of concert audio/video streams can be excellent, but you need good gear to appreciate it.
“We want to make it sound like you’re sitting in the hall, not like a typical live recording or studio album,” Eustis says. “We start with a high-resolution, 24/48 WAV file. For concerts where we have multitrack recording, we may do some panning of different instruments [into the left or right stereo channels]. If you have a hi-fi system attached to the TV, or great headphones, you can really hear all this. It feels like a live show at SFJAZZ.”
The end result, though, depends on what you’re using to access the stream. And as Eustis acknowledges, those devices range widely. “Usually it’s 65 to 70 percent desktop computers, 25 to 30 percent smartphones, and a small contingent on tablets,” he says. All of those devices are capable of connecting or streaming to a TV set. “The best experience we’ve found is to cast it to a TV with a separate sound system. That way it’s taking up more of your attention. If you’re watching on phone or computer, you’re probably looking at other stuff.”
Provided you put a little bit of effort into assembling a system to get the best sound quality from streams—and that could be as simple as a laptop with a good set of headphones—there’s no reason that sonically, at least, your streaming jazz experience can’t be very good, perhaps even great. And as we get used to this new medium, the benefits for jazz fans and artists may be huge. As Lenbrook’s June Ip puts it, “Before, you couldn’t access Jazz Re:Fest unless you were in the U.K. Now they have a global audience.”