Working in the field of Audio alongside musicians, audio quality and fidelity is of utmost importance, especially when dealing with lossy-codecs and streaming services. Recently, I’ve been talking to several people about Spotify, it’s settings and overall audio quality. What I found was in general, there was a lack of knowledge in the fact that Spotify does a couple of things to try and make your listening experience better, and more enjoyable – which may not always be the best option for sound quality. So I decided to write this quick little guide. I will go through a few settings without being technical – that is, no numbers, plain english, but if you want to skip the boring bits, here’s the summary:

  1. ALWAYS use the VERY HIGH setting for Music Quality – both Download and Streaming
  2. If you want to hear all tracks at similar levels, under Music Quality, switch Normalize Volume to On, and set its option Quiet.  This is the least invasive setting.  The only side effect is you’ll need to turn up your speaker volume a little more than normal.
  3. If you want to hear the tracks with full, complete and unchanged dynamics as they were originally intended, switch Normalize Volume to Off

Subscribe for Premium Options:

Firstly, I highly recommend that you subscribe to Spotify.  Not only does this mean that money will flow to the artists, but it also allows you to unlock the Music Quality and Normalize Volume options, as well as the ability to download and cache your music for later. This is obviously advantageous when going offline (eg flight or out of reception area) and you still need access to your music.

Settings:

You should go to your settings page by clicking on the gear icon from your Spotify Homepage (in the top right hand corner). There are two options we need to look at.  Firstly is the Music Quality option.  This sets the amount of data Spotify will use, and this directly relates to the quality. When you change this to Very High, the song will be pretty much transparent to the original audio file. If you don’t have premium, setting this to High will still be quite reasonable. What difference will it make? The easiest and most general way to describe that there will be a clarity and smoothness in the higher frequencies.

If you do download, make sure you have set the download option to Very High. This will cache the same data rate as the streaming option, giving you the best quality.

The second, and possible the most important setting in Spotify relates to how it plays back different tracks’ loudness. Normalize Volume is this setting. Spotify does this on the fly, and will transparently alter the volume of the track it is playing, to try and match it to the track’s loudness before, and after – giving you a great experience without having to continually turn the music up and down.  For the most part, this will work pretty well. Again however, there are times where this can completely destroy a piece of audio.

The problem here is that when we listen to music that has a massive dynamic range, Spotify can’t deal with it very well and can actually create distortion that isn’t present in the original audio. A typical example of this is found when listening to Classical music. Spotify, in its standard settings for Volume Normalization (On and Normal) will actually turn up, and dynamically limit some music.

Normalize Volume Level Spotify’s Explanation My Explanation Sound Impact Potential
Loud Handy for when you’re in a noisy environment (I’m guessing they are saying in a car, or on a bus) Spotify will apply heavy dynamic control to some tracks, with a Very High chance of distortion on loud passages in highly dynamic material VERY, VERY HIGH
Normal This is the default setting. A Moderate amount of dynamic control still takes place. A relatively high chance of distortion on loud passages HIGH
Quiet This is best for when you’re in a quieter environment. Very little chance of dynamic control and therefore distortion LOW

You can check out all the latest developments, and read the Spotify support page here

One last thing with regard to Audio Quality. If you want the best quality, you are usually better off taking a line out of your device (through the headphone jack), rather than using the convenience of Bluetooth.  Bluetooth audio is based a different set of codecs, and your phone will transcode the supplied data stream from Spotify, and reduce this data even more. Some newer codecs a much more capable and transparent, but it still involves another set of data-reduction algorithms – which results in the photocopy of a photocopy scenario.

*Yes, I know I have used “z” for “s”, however – as Spotify is non-localised, Normalize has a “z” in the software.