Hands On: Does Amazon Music HD Make the Grade?

The more I listened to hi-res music with Amazon’s newly upgraded streaming service, Amazon Music HD, the more I could hear the voice of Michael Palin’s Cardinal Ximénez from the infamous Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch about The Spanish Inquisition, albeit with one verbal twist: “Nobody expects Amazon Music HD!”

Until now, I have to admit I’d never really accessed the standard Amazon Music service with any regularity. I’m sure it comes as no surprise that, as much as I visit brick-and-mortar record stores whenever and wherever I can, I also continue to buy a lot of physical product through Amazon. Many has been the time where midnight on a Friday rolls around with an email notifying me I can begin streaming (or downloading) whatever new album (or five) I’ve purchased in physical format via Amazon Prime. Rarely have I bothered following through — I mean, why bother, when I have numerous top-shelf hi-res music streaming services at my fingertips? — but it’s since become a whole new world.

The reason for this sea change is that the online retail giant is now trumpeting Amazon Music HD. Here, Amazon offers two tiers of hi-res: 1) High Definition (HD), which claims to have over 50 million lossless audio tracks at 16-bit/44.1kHz; and 2) Ultra HD, with “millions” of lossless songs up to 24/192. To access it all, Amazon Music Unlimited offers a full 90-day free trial listening period to both current Amazon Music subscribers and newbies alike — and that alone should be incentive enough to sign up, if you haven’t already. Following the trial, renewal offers vary. The Individual Plan HD runs $12.99 a month or $129 a year, while the Family Plan HD (which can accommodate up to six members) goes for $19.99 a month or $199 a year.

“Listen to any song, anywhere,” boasts the Amazon Music Unlimited tagline, so I took ’em up on that pledge immediately after commencing my 90-day HD starter window. I was indeed able to access “any” song via my HP laptop, the app on my iPhone XS, and through my Roku, all with relative ease.

I already have scores of albums in my Amazon Music library, so the More Albums You May Like zone — which takes its cues from the parent site’s recommendations engine — was filled with albums I found I liked very much. Ditto with what appeared under Related Playlists and Related Stations, most of which related to what I found myself listening to and sampling. Navigation was fairly intuitive, which was refreshing.

Naturally, I took the suggestion about following the Best of Ultra HD playlist immediately. There were many great choices here, including the all-out gallop of Miranda Lambert’s “Locomotive” (in 24/48), which charged ahead like the lady and Aerosmith were sipping spiked sweet tea together on her back porch. The impact of the vocal echo, harmonica blasts, and the killer slide solo were all intact, and quite palpable. (Remind me to never get on her bad side.) Meanwhile, The Weeknd Feat. Daft Punk’s “Starboy” (24/44.1) was atmospheric to the core, with his super sleek, smooth ’n’ soulful lyrical flow set to a backing track that amounted to nothing less than an electronic master class. (One word: “Ah.”)

Next, I shifted gears and cued up Van Morrison’s seminal 1968 offering, Astral Weeks (24/48). So many haunting, moving choices here, but the final track, “Slim Slow Slider,” has always been a particular favorite. I loved how John Payne’s counter soprano saxophone line wafted from the right channel into the left, playing off Van the Man’s otherworldly vocal delivery. Even the notable string buzz at 2:50 sent a chill down my spine.

Recently, I caught a rerun of Saturday Night Live hosted by comedian Chris Rock from November 2014, which featured the late Prince as the musical guest. The uninterrupted 8-minute medley performance by The Purple One and his then-backing band 3rdeyegirl was beyond electrifying. Would Amazon HD have each song from said medley in HD? Must be a sign o’ the times, because they sure did, so I created a Prince SNL playlist to give them all a proper spin.

“Clouds” (24/44.1), from 2014’s Art Official Age, is a true funk de force, with Prince’s occasional falsetto lead vocals keenly doubled with a millisecond delay. Next, Prince & 3rdeyegirl’s “Plectrumelectrum” (24/44.1) title track head-banged and crunched in all the right ways, backed with some mean but crisp cymbal rides. Both tracks are bittersweet reminders of who, and what, we lost too soon.

My free 90 days will have long passed by the time y’all read this column, but rest assured — being a lifelong Individualist like Todd Rundgren means I’ve already locked in my monthly billed Individual Plan HD. After all, I’ve got some prime Amazon HD listening ahead of me, and no amount of fear, surprise, or nice red uniforms will stop me from doing so.

mtrot's picture

Well, I have a love/hate relationship with Amazon HD Music, having signed up at their start and now completed my three month trial. I love the breadth of their library, but I hate the way the streaming quality will drop in the middle of a track to SD(Standard Definition), which is what Amazon calls its low bit rate streaming quality. These streaming quality drops are widespread among users and much discussed in various forums. The other big problem for many users is Amazon's failure to provide for exclusive mode streaming, which other services do provide. This means that the streaming is being controlled by Windows, if you, like I, are using a Windows laptop.

brenro's picture

They need more hardware partners but given the might of Amazon that shouldn't be too long a wait.

John Sully's picture

I have it and use it with my Denon AVR which supports it directly. The sound is great and the price is right. Virtually everything I pull up to listen to in at least CD quality and much of it is in HD quality, mostly 24/96.

Apropos your Q&A regarding gapless playback a couple of days ago, I went and streamed the new mix of Abbey Road in 24/96 and gapless is indeed supported via the HEOS system. By the way, it sounded great!

boulderskies's picture

i'm a 66 year old guy with 66 year old ears. are they golden? i dunno. but i know good sound when i hear it. to my ears,amazon music HD is okay, meaning its clear and solid but by no means revealing or revelatory or any of the other fancy words reviewers use (why is there never a bad product by the way?).

my ears are used to the paid versions of pandora plus and spotify, both 320bps. they are identical to amazon HD, sometimes superior, depending on the song. if i didnt have them, i'd probably join amazon HD.

my environment: marantz sr7012, b&w speakers, iphone. all listening via HEOS.

CoolToys's picture

My friend at Dolby Labs and I have discussions about "music quality" regularly. We are in almost daily conversations now trying to fine tune the "realism" of the audio tracks for Fan2Stage. Being cursed with the rare gift if very acute hearing, I am a headache to some and a friend to others. I complain about the road noise in my Jeep often. Why can't they fix that whistling freedom top?

When it comes to portable or even multi room music, I look at audio very very differently. First I have to ask "what is great music". I bet your answer changes with your mood and location. It should, that is why we have music in the first place. Music should inspire us and elevate our moods. That can happen though one little dash speaker in a pinto. Anyone who thinks XM is "CD quality" is buying really bad bootleg CD's, but I still listen to XM about 30% of the time I am in the Jeep.

When I am in the Jeep, I want fast paced fun music to drown out the road noise. Aerosmiths "Walk this way" or either version of Marvin Gayes hit song work fine. I confess, I prefer the now absent from radio "Blurred Lines" version. When at home I have a ReQuest F3 and multi room audio via A-bus.

Lets face it, I am not trying to hear every note of Chopin if I am running it all over my house and in the garage or while doing 85MPH or rack crawling in the CruToys JLU. Music played this way sets the tone. Disneyland used to have this down to a science. Everywhere you went in the park, the music set the tone, pace and your mood. Not so today but I digress.

Some days a 1950's LP, scratchy and recorded in a square room is the "best music". Other days it is the Monster DVD version of 3 Doors Down. Sometimes I listen to a movie like O Brother just to hear the harmony.

When I really want to hear great music and appreciate everything going on, I either sit in my studio with my big monitors, a great set of headphones (I have Ety's and AT) or go into the 5.1 screening room. No, I haven't upgraded to ATMOS yet, but a friend of mine is a grammy judge and he has. Sometimes though I admit I am impressed with the quality of the sound when playing Dirt4 on my PS4 with my Plantronics (Atmos) headsets.

The big question is even for audiophiles, how often do we listen with our HD ears on? How much music is really that much better when in the right environment in HD? 90% of the time I listen to jazz, country or classic rock by simply saying "Alexa, play new country in the everywhere group" and it works great.

Environment(s) Dual Denon AVR's, Atlantic THX Select and THX Ultra speakers, MacPro with Mackie Monitors (Please Dolby bring back the SLS 8R), Etymotic in ear monitors, Shure in ear monitors, AT headphones, A-Bus and cheap ceiling speakers everywhere else.