CD Quality Versus Streaming Quality

I realize this will be a contentious subject, and far be it from me to challenge any of the many expert opinions on this forum, but if I may offer my feedback vis-a-vis what I am hearing, and gain some knowledge in the process.

i will begin saying that my digital front end setup is not state of the art, but i have had the good fortune to listen to a number of really high-end systems. I guess the number one deficit in my digital front end is a streamer server, and no question about it that will improve the sound.

My CD player is a universal player; Pioneer BDP-09fd. It uses Wolfson DACs. It has been modified to a degree. I have bought and sold other players, but kept this one, because it has a beautiful sound that serves the music well.

Recently, i ventured over to my son’s place and we hooked up my player (he doesn’t have one and rely’s on streaming only) We compared tracks / albums of CD quality and master quality streamed on Tidal with ‘redbook’ CDs I have. For example, some Lee Ritenaur CDs and some Indian classical and the wonderful Mozart and Chopin.
His system is highly resolving.

we were both very surprised to find the CDs played on the player to be the better sound. And not just by a little. The sound was clearly superior, with higher resolution and definition, spatial ques, much better and clearer imaging. Very surprising indeed. Shouldn’t there be no difference? This would suggest the streaming service is throttling the bandwidth or compressing the signal?

i am most interested to hear others’ observations, and suggestions as to why this might be? I do love the convenience aspect of streaming, but it IS expensive for a chap like me of fairly modest means. The Tidal HiFi topline service is $30 per month I believe, something the good lady is not too thrilled about. God forbid I should suggest Roon on top of that I may likely get my walking papers. I jest, but only partially LoL. My point is, if I pay this sort of money, isn’t it fair to expect sound to equal the digital stream from the CD player and silver disc?


I have always loved music. I had a thousand albums.  I always seeked out the new trends.  And a $4 album was actually quite a bit of money.  

Move forward.  My old stuff was worn out.  My LPs gone, my CDs scratched.  I chose streaming.  I want to listen to music again or for the first time.  I have Amazon all the way to 24/192.  I like it.  Sounds good to me.  Details both soft and loud, dynamics, Imaging, 3D, frequency response is there.  Don't wish to argue but this setup works pretty damned good.

Hi JPeter568,

Thanks for that great information. Your work as a senior systems engineer gives you the advantage of knowledge from a technical standpoint. Some very interesting and relevant points you make, although from my personal experience, and don’t ask me why, different players as transports do affect the sound one hears (note that I have only used players as transports, and not dedicated transports which could be a different result);

a) no noise is carried in the digital stream
b) even a modest or rather network setup, it is capable of carrying a bit perfect stream with no problem
c) Transports as separate from an external DAC will have zero effect on the sound quality

quote; “So to the original OP - my guess is that it was a difference in configuration or a setting that might have been off - certainly the dac WILL have an impact on the sound, so I'd recommend connecting a digital out on your transport, checking your settings to ensure you're streaming the same thing, and then re-doing the test. Because coming through the same DAC should be identical sound (WITH the caveat that George points out too - provided they're the exact same mix/ release of the album.)”

The test was as follows;

On my son’s system, a Devialet Expert Pro 220 driving Magico S3 through Synergistic Research Foundation speaker cables run a stream of albums on Tidal that I have on CD and them compare them. I also brought my Pioneer BDP-09fd to his house to use as CD player. We did the following;
- First test: Run ethernet cable from his router directly to Expert DAC input, then using iPad and Devialet Air, stream the songs via Airplay-Eth
- Second test; Connect Apple Macbook Air (first gen where direct USB connect possible without dongle) via USB into Expert Pro and stream same songs over USB, with the advantage of first stage MQA unfold
- Third test; Connect CD player via coax to Expert Pro to run digital stream to Expert Pro DAC, sourced from CDs or same albums of tidal streams
- Fourth Test; Connect CD player via analogue outputs running transparent ultra and synergistic research foundation i/c. In this case, the Wolfson DACs do to D to A conversion.


Sir you are obviously very knowledgable as networks and systems connectivity is your professional vocation. Everything you’ve said make sense although i would have to offer an alternative viewpoint  on transports, only because i have observed the differences between several that I have. For example, as superb as the Oppo 205 and 203 are, purely as transports, they don’t sound as good as the BDP-09fd purely as transport, which produces a more dimensional and captivating sound to my ears. Again I can’t explain why. Perhaps its in the execution of the interface? As an aside, I think for 1080p, I prefer the picture and sound of that Pioneer $2,200 flagship from around 2008-2010 to the venerated (justly so) UDP205 and 203.

It stands to reason that bits is bits. Streaming should sound no different than the CD. They are both after all 1s an 0s that are checked to be bit perfect. There is of course the matter of jitter and I would suspect at the micro levels it doesn’t affect sound quality too much for the average high resolving system. But for über resolving systems that might be different.

So then, we are left with two possibilities that might account for the differences heard in the test we conducted. These differences are not massive but they can greatly affect ones enjoyment listening to music, and can be stated as loss ‘something’ especially in high frequency purity and clarity, bigger more clearly definite / solid  imaging or put another way  a more ‘definite’ presence and vitality to the sound, a more accurate less homogenized soundstage, more defined bass performance, and less ‘smearing’. Incidentally I should add, that on occasion I have heard streaming sound very very good, good enough to keep me with wine in hand sat in place for hours listening. The two possibilities as i see it are;

a. Noise, from EMI / RFI pollution
b. A compromised stream that is not full bandwidth or where compression algorithms are screwing up timing causing smear, and messing with information vital to the full sonic picture. Again sometimes the sound is better than others…

The streaming companies need to give the album Cat No. with all their streams/downloads, so you can find for yourself on the DRDB if
your paying for and listening to compressed rubbish.

That would be great and should be available without question for the very reason you state. I can only speak to Qobuz, but some of the dig downloads I have purchased (new releases) have included cat numbers in the metadata. 

I don't understand for the life of me, why the f*&% complete meta data isn't part of these dig purchases.  It's not the services fault, but the labels that provide the files.
Your ASSUMING that the labels arent giving the services the data. Perhaps the info IS given and the services are choosing not to give you that info. Could be they dont WANT you to see the data so you cant do your due diligence and compare different master/remaster versions.  Certainly not saying this is true but it is in the realm of possibility.
It stands to reason that bits is bits.
Things are not always as they appear at a quick glance.
Streaming should sound no different than the CD. They are both after all 1s an 0s that are checked to be bit perfect.
That is mistaken. While outright errors on an audio CD are usually rare - there is redundant encoding of the data which are interleaved on the disc - the CD-A standard includes interpolation when an error cannot be recovered. By definition, the interpolation is an estimate and not necessarily bit perfect. ( The interpolation is needed because unlike a CD-ROM, an audio CD needs to read in real time.)

It’s easy to imagine that when streaming audio from a server farm miles away, errors could creep into the signal that would require error correction or interpolation. So it really isn’t accurate to say "bits is bits" if you're talking about audio playback in real time.