Groove Music and OneDrive – Experiments in Lossless Audio

This is going to be an article that is only of interest to a very obscure subset of music listeners…and you should only read on if you meet the following criteria:

  1. Your music collection is in some form of Lossless Codec – FLAC, WMA-Lossless, ALAC.
  2. You want to stream lossless audio from your OneDrive account to your phone – and you don’t care about data consumption – OR you want lossless at home and want to stream the same collection of music to a mobile device using the same set of playlists.
  3. You might own some 24-bit music – such as albums bought at HDTracks.
  4. You actually think there is a difference between a high-quality mp3 and lossless or HD Audio. (Dear Commenters – I don’t want to wade into this debate, even if it is for the placebo effect – just let us audio snobs be happy playing with our toys.)
  5. If pushed, you are willing to batch convert your FLAC files to WMA-Lossless or whatever format necessary to achieve your audio happiness dreams.

With the launch of Windows 10 and Groove Music I had some hope that there might finally be a music streaming option that allowed me to do the following:

  1. Stream my own lossless music collection from the cloud to any player I want (i.e. through OneDrive).
  2. Use my XBOX One to do home music playback in 24-bit audio.
  3. Have the same playlists on my home PC, iPhone (or any mobile device), and the XBOX One.

Since Windows Media Center has been depreciated (and has become buggy as heck), I have switched our home music setup to use iTunes and the Apple TV 3.  I discuss that here in an earlier article where I test if OneDrive would work with Apple Lossless Audio.

Before converting my entire FLAC collection to WMA-Lossless I decided to do some testing first.  I uploaded the following Albums to OneDrive (via Windows 10).  None of the albums have any kind of DRM or Copy Protection in their files that would interfere with playback.

 

Table

Let’s be clear here: I have never ever made any claims to possess good taste in music.

All of these albums play fine in the Groove Desktop application.  I do want to note here that the upload times for OneDrive do seem to have improved (albeit anecdotally) since my last test.  And it is important to mention that – as one reader commented in a previous article – Windows 10 natively supports FLAC.  YEA!  Microsoft has also claimed that Groove would stream WMA Lossless and that it would play back the file just like it is in your cloud drive. (Click Here for the page that I clipped the following caption from. Note: on my PC the link would not work with Chrome, but would on the new Windows 10 Edge browser.)

Bitrateclaim

The image above is from Microsoft’s website.

To ensure that the files had plenty of time to be recognized and found on whatever systems they needed – I waited until the albums showed up in both the Groove web app and the iPhone app.  That is where the first disappointment happened.  Sorry Shakira, neither the web app nor the iPhone app can even SEE a FLAC file album.  Again, MSFT never explicitly claimed that the Groove Web App nor the iPhone app would support FLAC.  However, I was hoping that the inclusion of FLAC in Windows 10 would signal the desire to allow that file format to permeate the rest of the Windows ecosystem.  The fact that the web application does not include FLAC support is a sign that ecosystem wide FLAC support may have been wishful thinking on my part.

I then used the web app to play songs from the three WMA-Lossless albums.

Bad news there, the 24-bit albums would not play –at all – either of them – and the web app generates the following error:

GrooveError

D-OH!

The 16-bit lossless (Def Leppard’s Hysteria) played just fine in the Groove Web app.  I cannot vouch for the quality (especially given my desktop’s speakers) – but it played.

Next I tried the iPhone app.  My original plan for this article was to test to see if the music was truly being streamed in lossless audio.  I was planning to use this method (CLICK LINK HERE) to determine if the file was being down-sampled.  However my experiment ended up testing something much more basic.  Does the Groove mobile app play lossless music AT ALL?

Again, like the web application the Groove iPhone app would not open a 24bit 88mhz song (WMA Lossless) and did not recognize FLAC files.

It did open and begin to play standard 16bit 44mhz files in WMA Lossless.  My first test was with the song “Hysteria” from the Def Leppard album.  The song is 40.8MB on the disc.  It played half of the song and then mysteriously restarted.  It would not play the entire song – even a second listen.  Since I had already reset my cellular data counter, I checked it and the phone had downloaded over cellular a total of 9.6MB.

To make sure that it wasn’t a corrupted file, I tried another song: “Don’t Shoot Shotgun”  – 31.8MB on Disc.  Again it hiccupped and repeated before the song was over.  Twice.

I’d say the Groove app only poured only one-third of a cup of sugar on me…get it?  C’mon!  I love puns!!

I then turned on Wifi to see if it would work better with a faster data connection.  The problem of not playing an entire song persisted.

At this point discovering if Groove is providing lossless streaming was moot.  It wouldn’t stream an entire song to my mobile device.

That being said there is a potential confounding variable here.  Maybe it’s my iPhone.  If anyone else has experimented with Lossless WMA on the iPhone or Android apps – PLEASE leave a helpful comment below.

To be thorough, I tried one more thing.  I went to my basement movie room, where my XBOX One lives and tried the Groove Music app.  It did not see the FLAC Shakira album – but I am hoping that will change with the November Update, when the XBONE gets Windows 10.  It did however, play all of the WMA Lossless files in their entirety and it sounded good!  I do not have the technical wherewithal to test whether I was getting the full 24-bit HD Audio experience, nor did I do any side by side comparisons with other sources (such as an HTPC or Apple TV in the same room)– but it sounded good.

At this point, I feel that the Groove music system is improving, but still has some hurdles to overcome.  Honestly, I don’t care much whether a music locker service streams to my mobile device in lossless audio.  Cars and my gym headphones are not ideal listening environments and so the quality improvement would be unnoticeable (it may be anyway) – not to mention that 24bit albums are a HUGE amount of data to stream to a phone.  At home however, it would be nice to know that I am getting the best audio experience that my equipment can deliver, and in good faith I do believe that the Xbox One is now capable of streaming 24bit HD audio to a home sound system.  Ideally, I would like to have one set of playlists on a single service that would sync between my home lossless audio and my mobile experience.

Apple’s iCloud/iTunes Match does this fairly well with some limits.  Through iTunes match it delivers to my mobile device lossy audio versions from my music collection.  However, at home (where the audio quality arguably matters more), it can stream lossless from the PC to the Apple TV3.  That lossless audio, however, is limited to and down sampled to 16bit playback.

A few more random thoughts and responses:

Why not use TIDAL?

Simple – no Apple TV or XBOX app and I don’t want to Airplay to my Apple TV – it seems to introduce too many connections and variables for me to believe I’m getting top quality sound.  Plus, what about the 24-bit audio in my collection?  An Apple TV or XBOX app would probably have me look to Tidal as the simplest solution.

Dude, you put a lot of thought into this – and you probably can’t hear the difference over using Spotify or any other music service.

Yup, but like I said – even if it is the placebo effect, it makes me happy to think that I am getting the best music experience I can.  When I do side by side testing with my friends using an MP3 and a 24bit – 88khz versions of the same song on my best stereo equipment most of them can guess correctly which is which.  That being said, here is a well-researched article that savagely and completely dismantles arguments for HD Audio (LINK).  My argument for lossless and HD Audio is not really that it sounds better, but that it – maybe through marketing or placebo effect – it makes me happier to have cool toys and cool audio files.

What Next?

I’m going to wait for two developments that I hope will move one of the two ecosystems (Apple or Groove) closer to my dream goal of one-streaming-setup-to-rule them all.

Development One – in November the new Xbox One update will occur and may add FLAC support since it is based in Windows 10.  (Its getting a DVR – which I am eager to test!).  Maybe in that time the Groove mobile app will get fixes to allow more reliable playback for lossless audio (WMA or FLAC).  Windows 10 would also allow for Tidal to easily build an app for the Xbox One.

Development Two – Apple TV 4 will be announced in September.  Maybe it will support 24bit audio?  Reportedly they are working on a TV solution for cord cutters and the development language is supposedly going to allow for more open app development (so Tidal could develop an app for the ATV too.)

As I learn more on this topic I will update this post.

Advertisements
10 comments
  1. Victor Ortiz said:

    I’ve been using WMA lossless streamed from OneDrive with Groove (formerly Xbox Music) for quite awhile on Windows and Windows Phone. I decided to try an iPhone and I ended up running into the same issues you had with WMA lossless. I even ran into issues trying to download WMA lossless files from within Groove. This along with other issues convinced me to stay with my current Windows phone.

  2. Jules said:

    Great article. I have all my files in ALAC and it would obviously not upload to one drive.I really can’t be bothered converting them all to another format just to upload to one drive. Maybe PLEX can accomplish streaming ALAC to any device.

    • Anonymous said:

      Why wouldn’t you upload your ALAC files to OneDrive? ALAC in OneDrive works just fine and is supported in all Groove clients. I converted all my WMA Lossless to ALAC when I switched to an iPhone.

      • I am glad that OneDrive and ALAC seems to be working for you. My testing in March of last year of ALAC with Groove Desktop and browser applications did not go well. The Groove and OneDrive Music FAQ also states in the troubleshooting section: (https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/kb/3080138):
        “If your music files are M4A, such as iTunes AAC Lossless files, they won’t play on Groove. However, standard non-Lossless iTunes purchases will play on all devices.”

        Are you referring specifically to the iPhone app? I wonder if that has received an update that has solved the ALAC problem.

      • Victor Ortiz said:

        I think you need to give this another try. It does indeed work well with both Groove on iPhone and Groove on PC (Windows 10). I think that the FAQ you referenced must now be out of date. I have been using ALAC files in Groove on both iPhone and PC since the beginning of this year without issue.

  3. Peter said:

    Thanks for this interesting article! Tried out FLAC on OneDrive and Groove as well, and it still does not work. ALAC-files do work pretty well. But I don’t want to convert all my FLAC-files into ALAC and reupload them again, so I will wait until MS will change that policy. I read somwhere else, that this could happen next year…

    • Victor Ortiz said:

      The issue with FLAC isn’t related to “policy” but rather OneDrive. OneDrive’s indexer doesn’t currently support FLAC. If you view the files in OneDrive you can see that FLAC files aren’t recognized as audio files. OneDrive also has issues with multi-disc ALAC files. The work-around for ALAC files is to number all the tracks sequentially (e.g. 1 – 20), rather that (e.g. Disc 1: 1 – 10; Disc 2: 1- 10).

      The way I handle this is I have them properly tagged with Disc 1, 2, etc, but then I create a copy of the album and rename it in both the folder and metadata, and make the track numbers sequential. That way, I can see when the issue is fixed, and when it does work correctly, I just get rid of the album folder that has the multi-disc hack.

      Regarding WMA support on the iPhone, the issue is that iOS doesn’t support WMA. The way the Groove service works around this, is that it will encode your WMA files on the fly to MP3 so that they will play on the iPhone. This is an iPhone limitation. This is why I switched to ALAC format from WMA Lossless. Converting everything was dead simple. I use Easy CD Audio Converter, and I converted my entire collection (100’s of albums) without any trouble. I spent way more time just downloading my entire collection (165GB) from OneDrive.

      Regardless of the issues (one major (FLAC) and one minor (multi-disc)), Groove is the only provider that allows you to stream your music losslessly. All the other services, re-encode your music to lossy formats.

  4. Wade said:

    Thanks for the article, my library is ALAC so I’m excited to do some testing. A major issue for people who like concerts and contiguous albums is the lack of gapless playback support, on the iPhone app anyway. Not sure if the windows desktop app offers that.

    • Victor Ortiz said:

      The Windows Groove clients do support gapless playback. Downloading the files within Groove on the iPhone helps minimize the playback gap. I do hope that they are able to add gapless playback to the iPhone client sooner rather than later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: