When we heard Primephonic was launching a classical-only streaming service to complement its excellent download site, we had high hopes.
Its five-star download site provides a superb selection of high-resolution albums for classical music fans, and a streaming service built upon that model seemed the most logical next step.
But the two things that made the download site so good – excellent search facility and great catalogue – are the big let-downs of the streaming service.
You’ll find all the classical giants there, from Beethoven to Rachmaninov, along with some Gershwin thrown in for good measure.
There isn’t much in the way of modern classical (no Nils Frahm, only a handful of Arvo Pärt, bits and pieces of Elliott Carter and Philip Glass), although contemporary artists such as British pianist James Rhodes can be found.
Primephonic’s sole focus on classical music makes its appeal niche compared to rival services, but it’s paid off nicely thanks to partnerships with label giants Warner Classics and Sony Classical.
Plenty of specialist classical music labels such as Naxos, Harmonia Mundi, Chandos, Bis and 2L are contributing to the catalogue as well.
There are albums here you won’t find on any other streaming site, which gives it an air of exclusivity. However, its current 100,000+ catalogue is, relatively speaking, tiny.
It would be unfair to compare that number with streaming services like Tidal and Qobuz that offer other genres of music in the millions, but even by its own standards – that is, the Primephonic download site – the selection is far from complete. Primephonic has assured us it will be adding hundreds more tracks over the coming months, though.
We certainly hope so, as the other feather in Primephonic’s cap is its ability to stream all songs in 16-bit/44.1kHz (FLAC) audio quality for a monthly £15 subscription fee. That compares well with Tidal and Qobuz’s £20-per-month CD-quality tiers.
There’s also the option to drop down to MP3 (192kbps) if your network is poor – either click the FLAC button on the 'now playing' bar to switch to MP3, or toggle 'automatically switch audio quality' on in the settings.
Primephonic’s streaming service can only be accessed on web browsers for now (there is an MP3-only version for mobile websites), although there is an iOS app in the works that’s due in September.
The streaming service’s purple-themed design is appealing and logically laid out. We particularly like the spinning record animation accompanying the 'now playing' bar.
More after the break
You can add songs to multiple playlists using the 'shortcut' icon that pops up when you hover over a playable track. There is another ‘add to playlist’ icon in the 'now playing' bar, but at no point did that work for us – it gets stuck on the spinning record of death.
You’ll find featured albums, new releases and highlights from labels and genres in the 'browse' tab, while you’re invited to go through categories such as composers, artists, works, moods, labels and periods in the 'explore' tab.
It’s a good place to start if you’re overwhelmed at first. You can start by going for Romantic in the periods section, or picking ballet in genres, if you’re searching for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, for instance. But don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for that easily…
Ease of use
Where things start to break down is basic functionality. Searching for songs, the results you get, how easy it is to discover music... these functions take precedence over any other aspect (including, unarguably, sound quality) when it comes to streaming services.
It’s what keeps Spotify – not the best-sounding music service out there, but still the best designed and easiest to use – high on our favourites lists.
Primephonic is the opposite of that. Searching for anything is frustrating. Firstly, the results shown are listed by album and playlists first, related composers/artists second (although sometimes it doesn’t even come up with the composer you’re searching for), and then “works” – which, annoyingly, aren’t playable tracks.
So if you’ve searched for Debussy’s Clair De Lune, you won’t find a list of ready-to-play tracks in any of its many variations.
You have to trawl through albums or playlists (some which don’t even have the piano piece) to find it. It’s slow, and defeats the point of a convenient streaming service.
Searching for Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets is its own mini-saga. You have to scroll past the albums and playlists (which suggests Beethoven and Vivaldi, but no Prokofiev), find the “works” list for Romeo and Juliet (where, remember, you’ll find the track but not the ability to play it), click the work’s title, scroll past the works list again to finally find “recordings” – where you’ll eventually discover the one you’re looking for. To call this process maddening would be polite.
It doesn’t matter if you use the popular name for a piece or go specific: the search results remain opaque. Good luck finding Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.
Even when you know an album is available (The New Sound of Maria Callas, for instance) because it shows up in the featured section, the same album doesn’t come up in the top 20 results when you search for the opera singer. We can’t fathom the logic behind this.
And God forbid you might want to go back to a previous results page: hitting the 'back' button takes you back to an empty search page, where you have to start the whole process again from scratch.
Smaller details, such as how the periods category isn’t listed chronologically (or alphabetically), further expose the haphazard nature of the service.
While the genres and periods categories are a bit more helpful in pointing you towards a specific type of classical music, the mood category is utterly pointless, offering just six selections that include ’relaxing’, ‘epic’, and bafflingly ‘BBC Proms’.
The most helpful feature we’ve found is nearly all albums link out to Primephonic’s far more successful hi-res downloads site – which is the best course of action you can take.
What makes Primephonic all the more frustrating is that it sounds good. Play Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre (once you've jumped through all the necessary hoops to find it) and the piece comes through packed with drama and tension. Each instrumental strand sounds detailed and clear in an open, airy soundfield.
The piano notes in Bach’s Aria from The Goldberg Variations have a fluidity and solidity that’s lovely to hear. Whether you’re listening to a sparse piano solo or a full-blown orchestral masterpiece, there’s plenty of depth and subtle dynamic ability.
With the right partnering kit for your laptop (we’d recommend at least an Audioquest DragonFly DAC and a good pair of headphones such as Sennheiser Momentum 2.0), you can hear the layers of harmonies and nuances in a piece.
We’re completely disappointed with Primephonic’s streaming service. There’s such a fundamental awkwardness in using the service that we can’t put it down to simple teething issues.
Despite its great sound quality, the small catalogue and frustrating functionality renders it unrecommendable and nigh-on unusable.
Give the 30-day trial a go if you’re curious, but you’d be better off getting your classical fix buying albums from Primephonic’s far superior downloads site.
See all our Primephonic reviews