In late July last year, I went to Primephonic’s download store to pick a couple of high-resolution titles to review in my monthly column. Since it began sales in 2015, the Netherlands-based enterprise had been a reliable source of musically worthwhile HD files. The catalog was rich in content, with a large portion of it available in a 24-bit PCM or DSD format. I was surprised to find the store shuttered and contacted the Primephonic publicist who informed me that downloads had been “paused” while an improved streaming platform was introduced. The new iteration of Primephonic’s streaming service—accessible with iOS and Android apps as well as via a web browser—launched in mid-September of 2018 and it’s now definite that downloads will not be returning. That information I have from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, CEO Thomas Steffens, hired last year to oversee the development of the company’s streaming service. A genial but no-nonsense Dutchman, Steffens explained that that the flight from downloads to streaming occurred much more quickly than expected and that maintaining both streaming and downloads wasn’t feasible.
In its present state, the Primephonic streaming platform has a great deal to recommend it, though a few details are improvable. Let’s break it down and award some grades.
As of this writing, Primephonic provides access to roughly a million tracks, making it the largest classical-only streaming service on earth. Thomas Steffens stated that about 1000 labels are currently represented—and around 100 he knows about aren’t, for various reasons. There’s the occasional holdout that declines to hand their material over to any streaming service, the highest profile example being Hyperion, which continues to operate its own download store. Some small labels are not represented by an “aggregator,” and Steffens hopes to bring them into the fold in the near future. In some instances, only a few of a label’s recordings have been taken on, for example, Reference Recordings and Telarc. The bulk of the latter’s substantial catalog is MIA—the Erich Kunzel recordings are there, but not much else.
Major works—and some not-so-major ones—are offered in multiple versions, an embarrassment of riches. There are dozens of alternatives for Handel’s Messiah or the Mozart Requiem. You can be deceived: there are allegedly 56 versions of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor but when the actual list is inspected, some performances are there twice and individual movements are sometimes counted as the complete Sonata. A truly epochal recording is not likely to be missing. The Callas/Di Stefano/Gobbi 1953 Tosca is there; so is Arthur Rubinstein’s Chopin, Pierre Boulez’s Le Sacre du printemps with the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Juilliard Quartet’s 1965 set of the six Bartók string quartets. On the Home page is a row of 13 new releases. A serious collector who takes a glance at these titles whenever he or she visits isn’t going to miss much of importance.
Navigability/User experience: B
Primephonic has clearly put considerable effort into maximizing the functionality of the platform, assuring that one can actually find what he or she is looking for, while keeping the process as simple as possible. Arriving at the Primephonic Home page, there are only two other organizational screens you can maneuver to, “Browse” and “My Music.” Across the top of the Browse page are images of the 20 most “famous” composers and you can click on one to begin a search. Alternatively, you can call up a list of all the composers in the catalog and arrange them alphabetically or by popularity or birth date. If you don’t need prompting, there’s a search box into which you can enter not just composers but also ensembles and individual artists. It’s not possible to search by label. Once a composer’s holdings have been captured, the list can be parsed in various ways. How does searching by composer work out? Generally, pretty well. But it’s not perfect and if you think something should be there, you need to be persistent. For example, the Bartók set couldn’t be located by starting with the composer’s list of works—but was found in a long inventory of Bartók “Albums” and, most readily, under “Juilliard String Quartet”.
Other points of entry into Primephonic’s holdings include “Browse by Period”—eight eras from Medieval to 21st century—and “Browse by Genre.” The latter delineates some obvious categories (Orchestral, Chamber, Stage Works, etc.) and one oddly assembled subgroup called “Experimental Classical.” This is meant to warn the unsuspecting, I guess, of more challenging music, so such once-upon-a-time avant-gardists as Cage, Stockhausen, Ligeti, and Xenakis are sequestered here, as are a number of (mostly European) living composers—Kaija Sarriaho, Max Richter, Brian Ferneyhough. But what are Duke Ellington, Ernest Chausson, and—most bizarrely‚ Hubert Parry (a conventional English composer who died in 1918)—doing here? You got me.
Education/Audience development: B+
The above is well-and-good if your primary interest is classical music and you already know the lay of the land. But what if you come to Primephonic specifically looking to expand your horizons? Ideal for this constituency—and, honestly, also classical mavens who have some holes in their experience and collections—are a series of Playlists accessed from the Home page. These are expertly curated programs with names like Hidden Gems or Choral Focus; listeners who want to immerse themselves in a specific composer’s music will find Composer Playlists. Featured Playlists give a classical neophyte “somewhere to start.” There are Instrumental Playlists (should you develop an obsession with the bassoon), National Playlists (if you’re feeling in a French, Spanish, or Ukrainian mood), and Ensemble Playlists (selections for unaccompanied instruments up to Octets). These programs are comprised mostly of single movements, but if you like what you hear, you can always investigate the complete work.
More often than not, classical downloads sold on sites such as HDtracks and eClassical include the liners notes from the corresponding silver disc; Primephonic streaming does not. Thomas Steffens pointed out that especially with older recordings, copyright restrictions may preclude their being transmitted digitally—but that shouldn’t be an issue with recent releases. Beyond the current non-availability of notes is Primephonic’s lack of consistency in providing a recording’s basic identifying information. I listened to an excellent performance of Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition played by the Concertgebouw Orchestra but nowhere did it say who was conducting. Only by enlarging the thumbnail image of the album cover could I learn that Mariss Jansons was on the podium. The date assigned to older recordings is usually misleading, representing when a reissue was released, rather than the date of the original recording.
Flagging selections you’d like to return to couldn’t be easier. Once you’ve navigated to an album page, the user is presented with “Add album to favorites” and “Add album to playlist” buttons. Clicking links access to the files on the My Music page. Creating playlists is exceptionally straightforward. I wanted to put together an Olivier Messiaen “sampler” for the car. (By the time you are reading this, the capacity for offline listening will be operational.) I went through the many Messiaen albums, selecting individual tracks I liked and saved them to a “Messiaen Favorites” playlist. Once done, I clicked over to the My Music page and ordered the tracks to my liking.
I’m not necessarily talking about sound quality here—some recordings are good and some aren’t, independent of format, bit-depth, and sampling rate. Primephonic offers streaming at two quality levels, Premium (320kbps MP3) and Platinum (up to 24-bit FLAC). It’s that up to that will annoy some audiophiles. Most new recordings, of course, are 24-bit encodings, but Primephonic is not infrequently provided with only a 16-bit version for distribution. The problem is that Primephonic doesn’t identify the 24-bit recordings the way, say, Tidal does with an “M” symbol, to indicate that the file in question is MQA-encoded. My guess is that Primephonic really doesn’t know how many of their files are 24-bit and how many are “CD quality”—that is, 16-bit. Steffens told me that 40% of Primephonic subscribers purchase the Platinum level service. Doesn’t he think that at least some of those sound-oriented listeners will want to know when they’re listening to a true high-resolution file?
Primephonic’s product is priced attractively. A Premium level subscription is $7.99 monthly or $79.99 per year while Platinum streaming is $14.99 per month or $149.99 on a yearly basis. That’s less expensive than either Tidal or Quboz. Of course, Tidal and Quboz offer many millions of non-classical tracks in addition to classical ones, but if your consumption of those genres isn’t much, Primephonic looks like a very good deal.
Despite the quibbles above, my conclusion is that for classical music, Primephonic’s content and streaming functionality are second to none. This is a service designed and maintained by people that know and care a lot about this vast and varied genre. When I survey my own collection—thousands of LPs and silver discs, and a NAS full of files—I note that much of what I painstakingly “curated” for myself is available from Primephonic with a couple of clicks, and it’s available at a quite reasonable cost. This is still a work in progress, but the progress has been considerable. Thomas Steffens told me that the Primephonic team has a strategizing session once a month to prioritize their efforts to continue improving their product. I think they’ll get it right.