Primephonic - Classical Music Streaming

Primephonic is a classical music streaming service that Ive been using regularly for 2 months. There hasn’t been much said about it on this forum and since it fills a void for classical music that is usually poorly addressed by most other contemporary streaming services I felt I should offer up a review/impression of the service.

Quick evaluation : if you are a classical music fan disappointed by other streaming services than this is an option to very strongly consider (assuming you are OK with the monthly fee).

If you want more details then read on.

Primephonic can be accessed via mobile device or computer. I use Apple products and I have had no issue using the app on either phone or tablet. The web player, which is my primary means of accessing Primephonic, has some quirks that I will mention below.

Things to Improve

First, it wont work on Safari. If you are a MacBook user Chrome or Firefox (what I use) are supported. The playback on Safari is simply dreadful with distortion and artefacts. The radio service (a potentially nice music exploration tool) is not available on the web player as such. There are some curated playlists that serve the same function but may not provide the same experience as the radio feature on the app. There is no app for MacOS at this time.

An unfortunate phenomena can occur when multitasking. If I do nothing and just listen to the music then playback sounds very consistent and I have little to no hangups; however, if I begin accessing other tabs, browsers or even moving within the Primephonic site itself there can be little breaks in the music playback as you scroll around or click elsewhere. They are very brief but can disrupt the musical engagement. It’s by no means a deal breaker for me but it is a flaw. Not sure if a dedicated app for MacOS would eliminate this. I haven’t tried using Chrome as a browser to see if it exists there.

The app and the web player do not tell you what bit rate is streaming. The service throttles up or down depending upon your connection level. I guess they would rather have you listen to a lower bit rate stream than not listen at all to a higher res stream that your connection cant support. If that bothers you then so be it, it makes no nevermind to me. (I do wish to make a somewhat off topic, although related, comment here: I remember reading an online review of this service that gave it an “audio” rating of “D”, which alarmed me when I first saw it, until I read further. The “D” rating was based simply on the fact that the service didn’t display the bit rate and how are audiophiles to know if they are listening to quality music if they cant see a bit rate? I dont have synesthesia so I cant see music… makes me wonder how I can tell if music sounds good?)

So those are the only real cons about the service that I have come across on a regular basis. The pros of Primephonic outweigh these in my opinion. It is simply a better option for streaming high quality classical music than any of the other more popular services I have come across. Now for some pros of the service.

Music Quality and Selection

The music quality can be very good. If the same exact album is available on both Primephonic and Tidal MQA… Primephonic sounds better to my ear. This has been a consistent experience across a few albums that are on both services. If Primephonic has a well produced, high resolution recording it will sound as such. Primephonic has a lot of classical music, some that were obviously recorded many decades ago, thus the typical caveats about recording quality and mastering apply.

The Primephonic library is large; however, there is a gap with the lack of the Hyperion catalogue. Regardless, I still find it to be excellent. I experimented by looking up various online recommendations, some from main stream outlets, some more esoteric. It was very rare that I could not find the exact recording that was being referenced. It wasn’t 100% successful in having everything I looked for but it was shockingly complete and carries a large breadth of recording options.

Here is an example: searched for Camille Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No 1 on both Primephonic and Tidal. At the time of search Tidal had 37 results, Primephonic 113. Tidal appears more likely to have classical compilation albums of questionable provenance in its suggestions whereas Primephonic is more likely to have original recordings. At least this is the trend I discerned from a small sample size.

Ive also come across a fair number of recordings that are available in both a remaster and original. It is an interesting exercise to listen to both and see just what the remaster has accomplished.

Searches can be based on composer, performer (individual, quartet, symphony…) as well as specific pieces of music: the things you would hope to be able to search for within a classical music service. The search engine is much more intuitive to classical music nomenclature than other streaming apps Ive tried. Moreover, it is likely to get you closer to what you are looking for if you cant quite remember the complete name of a certain composition. It’s better at guessing what you want. The search engine spits out suggestions as you type, if what you want pops up quickly you can just click and be done instead of typing out a complete query. Search results can be organized based on most popular, most recent, oldest and alphabetically.

Given that classical albums can often contain pieces from separate compositions the search engine will also localize to the singular piece you are looking for from an album. For instance, say you want Beethoven Symphony No 3. Very few albums contain just that symphony, but Primephonic will present just that recording in its listings, no need to open up the larger album and find the wanted listing amongst the others, it’s a nice convenience. You can also save these “partial” albums as ‘recordings”. Later playback will also allow you to click on through to the full album that featured that recording if you wish.

As there should be, there is seamless integration between mobile devices and web player for favourites. Saving a favourite on one device crosses over with no issue. You can favourite single tracks, larger recordings as explained above and albums. You can create playlists and there is a history list of recently played tracks. Radio tracks that you come across on the app can also be saved to your favourites. Anything you can play you can save as a favourite.

Odds and Ends

The user interface for both the app and the web based platform is perfectly acceptable. Its clean, easy to use and easy to navigate. There is the typical arrangement of content similar to other streaming apps: new releases, curated playlist of various types as well as some podcasts (which I haven’t listened to so quality of content is unknown). There doesn’t appear to be any video related content that I can find. The curated playlists are plentiful and range from fairly broad to more specific findings such as daily rarities. There is a lot to explore if one is interested. The “browse” feature is nicely done and is easy to navigate, containing varied options to wander through.

A nice feature available on some recording is the presence of a booklet/liner notes. Clicking on this option brings up a pdf file. These range from relatively straight forward affairs to surprisingly detailed musical historian level creations.

The app will allow you to download for offline streaming. CarPlay is not supported at this time.

There are two subscription options based on max streaming rate: 320kbps vs 24bit FLAC. $10 vs $15 per month respectively with yearly subscription options that offer a bit of savings when compared to the additive monthly option . The only difference between the two options is max streaming rate. I am on the 24bit plan and can’t comment on the 320kbps streaming quality.

Primephonic offers an artist support model using pay per second rather than “click count”. This is a much more classical artist friendly support plan.

Customer service is helpful and seem to care about your experience. They are Europe based so NAm based folks may have to wait till the next day to get a response.

Summary
There are other options for dedicated classical music streaming but this is the one I chose for an initial trial and have stuck with it as it met my expectations. If you like classical music or just simply want to explore it more then Primephonic is a strong streaming option for you to consider. It boasts potentially excellent sound quality and a large library to choose from with an easy to use interface. It is a classical music candy store.

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I hope the service develops to the point where I want to pay for it. Price isn’t bad, but you do give some drawbacks.

One thing I notice on TIDAL is that it does not have an easy to use display of it’s multiple copies - especially if some are remasters, re-releases, or originals. However if viewed through ROON, the information is there and well presented. Maybe I’m just not using Tidal features correctly.

How does Primephonic handle this? You mentioned 113 results for the Saint-Saens.

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If I searched for a particular composition and then looked through the results I would come across the same thumbnailed album cover back to back, one following the other on the list. Clicking on one of the albums and looking for the release dates at the bottom of its page will tell you if it’s an original or remaster.

From what I recall, all the albums I have seen have a release date at the bottom of its page. A remastered album seems to always have 2 dates (original release and remaster). Liner notes, if available will also tell you.

I agree that Tidal doesn’t do a good job of this, I dont think its a setting thing, could be wrong.

For someone like me who doesnt yet have an extensive library of classical music, this is great. Ive only really gotten into classical over the last couple of years so there is a lot that I am still ignorant of.

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This is an excellent post. Chocked full of information and detail. Thanks.

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As someone who is slowly starting to broaden my horizons into more classical music, this is interesting to me. Have you had a chance to compare it to the Classical selection in Qobuz? As a classical neophyte I find Qobuz’s offerings to be more than enough but someone with more experience in the genre such as yourself will probably have more insight.

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This is a great review, @perogie - thank you so much.

Two thoughts spring to mind immediately from reading it. The first has to do with the web player. I’m surprised there isn’t a dedicated app for Primephonic on computers and that we’re restricted to using a web player through an internet browser. Does this compromise the sound quality? (This isn’t a question for you, just me wondering about these things out loud.) We’re used to the idea of desktop computers’ hardware not being optimized for audio; can the same thing be said for software, like Chrome or Firefox? And do different browsers provide better sound quality? After all, some browsers load faster than others, or are more stable than others. The last thing I need is audio nervosa over browser choice!

The second thought: I’ve posted this in the classical music thread, I think, but given that Primephonic seems to have such a decent, comprehensive number of recordings (beyond Hyperion, alas), it might be excellent for comparing different recordings or performances of the same piece of music so that you identify a favourite and then build a great collection. I find my copy of The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music 2010: The Key Classical Recordings on CD, DVD and SACD to be invaluable even though it’s a decade old at this point. (There’s also the condensed, companion volume The Penguin Guide to the 1000 Finest Classical Recordings: The Must-Have CDs and DVDs, which I’ve not read yet).

Thank you again @perogie for your thoughtful and tremendously helpful review.

[edit for typos]

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Unfortunately I cant access Qobuz in Canada so Im unable to directly comment. I do remember some online postings stating that Qobuz’s classical offering were likely more abundant than Tidal, but that is third hand information and not something I have verified. Its certainly possible Qobuz has an extensive classical library.

For someone just looking to see if they like classical, any of the big name streamers should have an adequate enough library to be a good starting point, there’s no need to jump right in to a more dedicated streaming service.

Yes, Primephonic lets you more easily move beyond just finding a piece of music to finding “the” piece of music that will stick with you forever as a favourite. The variations between how pieces are interpreted and performed can be quite stunning. Some where eye opening, some I try to forget.

I know it was more of a general thought question regarding sound quality via a web player but I cannot complain about the way firefox handles the streams. I used Tidal in both its native app and through Audirvana and the sound quality was consistently better with the the web player from Primephonic. Closer with MQA over non MQA but still not as good as what the web player could play. Havent tried Chrome yet but will at some point to see if it’s less glitchy with the music hang up issue. Have not tried direct comparisons between Primephonic streams and downloaded flacs.

Somewhat off topic: My experience with MQA has been one of decreasing satisfaction with it as a “high res” option. When I first got into high res audio I subbed to Tidal as it was the only high res streamer available. I initially did some A/B testing and I couldnt tell the difference between it and flacs that I had of the same album so I was happy. A few months later I found myself leaning more towards the flacs over Tidal MQA but couldn’t tell why. Forward a few more months after that and I started to be able to pick out the differences.