Classics Online: For the Love of Classical Music

by Mark Blackmore | September 19, 2016

hat if you took Apple Music, trimmed it down to serve only classical music, made the program small enough to fit easily on all of your devices, and threw in a few Spotify visual cues? You'd have Classics Online available from Naxos. Oh, one more thing: Classics Online streams CD-quality and high-res files up to 24 bits/192kHz. Naxos began streaming musical content some years ago, making its catalogue available to libraries and universities. Classics Online is the consumer product, with over 80,000 albums available, including offerings from Harmonia Mundi, Sony Classical, BIS, Chandos, Naive, BBC Legends, LSO Live, PentaTone, Ondine, Signum, Hungaraton and other labels. The star of the show is the OraStream codec, which features "adaptive streaming." More than just a compression codec, OraStream will change its streaming quality based on the device and data strength. More on this in a bit.

Classics Online is available for desktop, tablets and phones and was a quick download. Pricing is $14.99 per month or $149.99 per year. The yearly subscription entitles you to a free high-res download per month, in addition to endless streaming from the curated list of titles, and it covers all of your devices. I liked the tablet app best, as it was quicker to search and play music with it than with the desktop version. The phone app was easy on my 61-year-old eyes, but a bit small for reading the liner notes. Free trials are available for seven days or for 28 days if you supply a credit card.

Once you've downloaded the program and have it running you'll see a home screen that shows featured recordings, best sellers, curated listings, etc. There are curated radio stations -- one by genre and the other by artist. The genre stations include chamber, orchestral, opera, film and TV, sacred choral and and secular choral. Artists having their own radio station include Marin Alsop, Martha Argerich, Joshua Bell, Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, Herbert von Karajan and Yo-Yo Ma. Each station has a 60-minute program that can be refreshed at the end of the session. Two other features are making playlists to listen to when you're offline. And you can buy your own copy of the music you hear for permanent storage on your device.

The real star of the show (besides all of the wonderful music) is the OraStream codec, which knows what kind of service you have available and downshifts if necessary to fit your device. For example, at home with WiFi and a good signal, I am always able to stream 16 bits/44.1kHz music plus 24 bits/96, 176 or 192kHz when available. But when I'm out on the road listening on my iPhone, Classics Online streams MP3 quality at 320 Kbps to keep me from burning up my data plan. If I stop at a shop with WiFi, I can get full quality again. This portability and adaptability are where Classics Online is unique. If I lived in a major city with 100mg download speeds, then high-res would be easy. But in rural Missouri, I'm blessed with 3mg DSL on a good day, so the ability to stream CD quality and above is a minor miracle. I would get an occasional buffering problem on the highest-resolution files, mainly at night when all the neighbors are online, but it was easy enough to switch back to CD quality to make it work. Many of the high-res files came with the ability to listen at CD quality instead, making the streaming files smaller for those busy network nights or for those subscribers with non-oversampling DACs. There's no indication about the provenance of these files, but I did choose high-res when available. My DAC reliably switched resolution for each file and indicated the correct bit length for the file.

Here's how the interface works. Select your album and a second window opens, showing the album cover again with forward, reverse, play, pause buttons available at the bottom of the window and a scroll bar to show elapsed time. At the top is a bright-yellow bar that indicates whether you're streaming or playing from cache and the bit/sample rate. Each version of the program was slightly different in how it accessed buttons for "like" "favorites" "add to playlist" but it was easy to figure out. One button that is a great feature for classical-music fans was "liner notes." Almost every album I listened to had full liner notes that popped up in a separate window, and many times the complete CD insert was available. As I mentioned, not the best for phone use, but the iPad and desktop versions were a joy to use. It may not replace gazing at vinyl covers, but it's a major step above the usual information given with regular streaming apps.

Search functions could produce different results with each use, which was a bit odd. Searching for "Mahler Symphony No. 4" brought back only two results, not very auspicious compared to Apple Music's 38 choices. Then I tried again and found six versions. Strange, but it did guide me to some interesting music I wasn't aware of -- a chamber version of Symphony No.4. As a retired band director, I was delighted to see the inclusion of "Wind Ensemble/Band Music" in the genre-search window and sampled many of our various military bands' fine recordings. Our military branches have the finest bands in the world, and you should know more about their recordings.

Since you're reading The Audio Beat, it's time to talk about the sound quality. If you are used to Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music, the full-resolution Classics Online streams are in another league, as you would expect from uncompressed instead of MP3 files. I particularly noticed the jump factor of large orchestral works. Timpani, bass drum and orchestral fortes leaped out of the speakers. I was able to sample both of Wilson Audio's recordings for wind ensemble, which feature a prominent bass drum. It was not as deep and powerful as with the physical CD, but it was mighty nonetheless.

As with all recordings, some are just better than others, and Classics Online isn't immune. In general, the highs were extended, tone and timbre were good, and the bass had excellent excitement. On occasion, a recording of large orchestral strings might sound compressed or a bit strained at the top of their crescendos. Without having duplicate copies in my possession, it's impossible to say whether this was due to the recording or the OraStream codec. But given the excellent sound on most choices, I'll guess it is recording specific and leave it at that. And I should mention that when I used Classics Online with my iPhone without WiFi, the 320 Kbps feed was of high quality and didn't impact my enjoyment.

With thousands of choices, it would impossible to do a survey of great titles, so I'll just name three albums I particularly enjoyed during my time with Classics Online. Frederick Hand's Odyssey [Panoramic Pan-05] is a lovely, close-miked collection of arrangements and originals. The guitar is warm and there is just a hint of hall reverb around the sound, but not enough to distract from the playing. His arrangement of "The Water is Wide" will soothe after a hectic day.

I mentioned the wind ensemble/band section, and I would recommend that you sample The President's Own Marine Band's Be Glad Then, America [Altissimo 75442204032]. Their playing of William Schumann's "New England Triptych" is just superb. It's their attention to detail and intonation that struck me. If your aural memory of band sound centers around Sousa marches played by the local high-school band, be prepared for a new outlook on band composition and layers/shades of tone colors you may not have experienced before.

Finally, I was happy to hear Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony's recording of Mahler Symphony No. 4 [SFS Media 821936-0004-2]. Originally recorded in DSD, this album is available in 16-bit/44kHz or 24-bit/96kHz PCM streams. In the third movement, "Ruhevoll, poco Adagio," the conductor takes such a deliberate tempo that it bothered me at first. But I revisited the recording to notice how much control over the orchestra he had and how he could stretch a phrase to emphasize the peaceful nature of the movement. Solti and Chailly recordings I own play this movement around twenty minutes in length, but Tilson Thomas stretches this out past 25 minutes. The strings and woodwinds do a great job of keeping the phrase line moving, even at that tempo. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have noticed these musical aspects of the performance if the audio quality wasn't as good as what Classics Online provides.

If you are a classical music lover and want a simple-to-use program that travels with you on your phone or tablet and does an excellent job in your home computer-audio system, Classics Online is a joy. Try it for the seven- or 28-day trial period and see if you don't agree.

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