Believe it or not, Amazon has now been in the music streaming business for over a decade. Over the years it has launched a free streaming tier, a stripped-back service for subscribers to Amazon Prime, and an Apple Music and Spotify-rivalling service by the name of Amazon Music Unlimited.
But now the shopping and tech giant has decided to go one step further, taking on the likes of Tidal and Qobuz with its own CD-quality and high-res music streaming service. It’s called Amazon Music HD, and it’s a serious contender.
A big part of its competitiveness comes from its pricing, with Amazon Music HD charged at £12.99/$12.99 for those who already subscribe to Amazon Prime and £14.99/$14.99 for those who don't.
And yes, that includes the Amazon Music Unlimited subscription, so those who already pay the £7.99 for that will only need to add an extra fiver a month.
- Read our guide to Amazon Prime Day 2020
Ease of use
When you evaluate a music streaming service you tend to take into account three elements besides price – user experience, library of content and, of course, sound quality. The user experience revolves around the design of the service, how easy it is to use and how easy it is to find music you like. And we can report that Amazon Music HD performs strongly across the board.
Borrowing a lot from Amazon Music Unlimited, you can access Amazon Music HD through three different avenues: a web browser, a dedicated desktop app or through a mobile app (available for Android and iOS devices). However, it’s worth noting that you can’t actually stream CD-quality music or hi-res tracks through your browser. This can only be done through the dedicated apps, which is no bad thing.
If you’ve used Spotify or Tidal, you should get to grips with the Amazon Music HD desktop app relatively quickly. It’s actually more of an extension of Amazon Music Unlimited than a whole new service, so users of Unlimited will find the layout extremely familiar.
The desktop app features four main tabs: Browse, Recents, My Music and Store. Browse shows your main home screen, and places various playlists, albums and tracks on display, including a selection of recently played music, recommended radio stations based on artists you like and a number of recommended songs and albums for you to listen to.
The ‘Featured for this Week’ section at the top of the home page, for example, includes new album launches and curated content such as Best of the Month and Hot Singles. There are also themed playlists, where relevant, such as 100 Greatest Christmas Songs, should you be in the mood.
My Discovery Mix is the equivalent of Discover Weekly on Spotify and it’s a playlist of new tracks created off the back of what you tend to listen to and your favourited tunes. We found that although it didn’t have quite the success rate of Spotify, it still managed to serve up enough new tracks that piqued our interest and should get better over time.
When you’re navigating around the home page, you’ll spot songs labelled HD and some songs and playlists labelled Ultra HD. This is one quirk of the service that deserves a quick explanation.
Confusingly, and rather annoyingly, Amazon Music HD doesn’t use the term HD when it’s discussing high-resolution audio. Where you see tracks labelled HD, this actually means that they’re CD-quality.
Amazon’s decided to referred to and label hi-res music as Ultra HD, (Ultra High Definition). Why? Presumably it feels that this labelling will prove clearer for a mass audience - and perhaps it's right.
Amazon refers to HD tracks as having a ”bit depth of 16-bits, a minimum sample rate of 44.1 kHz (also referred to as CD-quality), and an average bitrate of 850 kbps”. UHD tracks, on the other hand, “have a bit depth of 24-bits, sample rates ranging from 44.1 kHz up to 192 kHz, and an average bitrate of 3730 kbps.”
To Amazon’s credit, it pushes Ultra HD content extremely hard on the service with dedicated playlists and clear labelling, e.g Best of Ultra HD, Ultra HD: New Arrivals, Ultra HD Hip-Hop and Ultra HD Jazz. It doesn’t take long to find a steady stream of UHD music to listen to.
Library 50+ million CD-quality tracks, hi-res number n/a
Sound quality hi-res up to 24-bit/192kHz, CD quality 16-bit/44.1kHz
3D audio yes
Desktop app yes
Mobile app yes (Android, iOS)
Alexa voice control yes
Click on the bright yellow HD or Ultra HD logos that accompany each track (on either app) and you’re shown the sample rate of what you’re playing together with the playback capabilities of your machine. The desktop app will even prompt you to change the audio settings on your computer to take advantage of the improved audio quality. It’s a clever and thoughtful touch, especially if you want to connect an external DAC that can handle all the available sample rates natively and make the most of Amazon’s high-res library.
If you own any Echo devices (2nd-gen and newer), Fire TVs and Fire Tablets, these all support HD audio quality. And, should you own an Amazon Echo Studio, you’ll also be able to access Amazon’s catalogue of 3D audio tracks through Amazon Music HD. Currently, Amazon claims there are over 750 3D tracks encoded in either Dolby Atmos or Sony 360 Reality Audio.
The play bar along the bottom of the desktop app shows track and artist info and includes control icons on the right that allow you to add tracks to your favourites, to a playlist or to your play queue.
A collapsible sidebar on the right allows you to access playlists and there’s a clever feature that enables you to drag and drop tracks directly into playlists or a play queue while you’re browsing.
In the bottom left-hand corner, you’ll see a circular snippet of album artwork. Hover your cursor over it and the artwork expands ever so slightly, presenting you with controls to play/pause, skip track or expand it so the artwork is blown up to full screen.
Before you start streaming, you’ll need to make sure the service is set up for optimum sound quality. This involves clicking on your username and then going into Preferences. Click on the ‘advanced’ tab and you can then set the audio quality and the download quality to the best possible.
The Amazon Music mobile app is similarly intuitive and user-friendly. The layout is a condensed version of the desktop app, with tabs at the bottom to flit between the home screen, search, your music collection and Alexa voice search. Album artwork is bright, colourful and pin-sharp. It takes up half the screen of your mobile, with playback controls taking up the lower section. Again, you’ll need to set up your preferences for streaming and download quality, just so you’re always listening in Ultra HD or HD where possible.
To be fair to Amazon they’ve created an easy to follow FAQ page which covers a number of useful points on how to get the best out of the service, from how to set up the audio output from your computer to how much space SD, HD and UHD tracks take up when they’re downloaded to a computer or smartphone.
The first thing to say about Amazon Music HD is that there’s an excellent selection of music available. We threw in six or seven different artists that we knew other services struggled with and Amazon’s library delivered the goods, putting Tidal to shame on more than one occasion.
We also found a huge amount of music in high-res. Both Amazon and Tidal don’t release exact figures but, using the service over a few weeks, it feels as though Amazon Music HD has a larger catalogue of high-res music to call upon. There were a number of occasions when we found an Ultra HD release on Amazon but couldn’t find it as a Masters track on Tidal.
And, on the whole, tracks on Amazon Music HD sound hugely listenable. Play No Church in the Wild by Jay-Z and Kanye West and there’s an impressive level of detail throughout the track. Bass is probing and powerful - there’s real texture to every note as the bassline punches its way along. Vocals are detailed, clear and expressive.
It’s a similar case with The Beatles’ Come Together. Listening to the 24-bit/96kHz version on Amazon Music HD, the track sounds tight and precise. The drum kit sets the track’s pace with the electric guitar carving its way alongside. You can aurally isolate every element thanks to the open soundstage and insight on offer. You can dial in, or just sit back and get funky with this Beatles classic.
But how does Amazon Music HD compare to Tidal? This is a tricky one to answer. Often, Tidal appears to sound slightly more musical and rhythmic, but listening to Charli XCX's 2099 in Ultra HD (24-bit/44.1kHz) on Amazon versus the same track in Tidal Masters, the former sounds more open, more detailed and more interesting to listen to. Although TIdal makes a bit more of the rhythm of the track, it also sounds more compressed and less open and lively. It can really vary from track to track.
If you've previously been tempted with hi-res streaming but have been put off by the costs involved, Amazon Music HD makes a whole lot of sense, particularly if you're already an Amazon Prime subscriber.
Even those who aren't can get Amazon Music HD for £5/$5 a month less than an equivalent Tidal subscription.
Factor in a more extensive library of CD-quality and hi-res music – and a pleasant user experience – and you've got a serious new contender for the premium music streaming service crown.
- Performance 5
- Features 4
- Ease of use 5