Listening to classical music is a bit different from listening to modern pop music. The music is built differently - most recordings aren’t performed by their composers, and there’s rarely one definitive recording of a piece. Multiple works are often released on the same album. Track titles are very long, including a work’s catalogue number, its movement number, possibly its speed and even its fan-given nickname. Most streaming services aren’t built to accommodate this. A few are, and the best one is Idagio.
Why not Spotify?
Spotify and its major competitors are built for modern popular music, which is centred on songs and albums (not movements), usually has just one “original” version of any given song, and is often chopped up into playlists or put on random shuffle. Songs are usually the same general length, and the relatively low file quality of streaming services isn’t noticeable to most people.
Most classical works have been recorded many times by different artists, often on different instruments, with radically different results. There’s no single canonical recording of a work, so it makes sense for a work to have its own page where you can try out multiple recordings.
“Comparison shopping” on mainstream streamers is an awkward process that involves switching back and forth between albums and search results. And centuries of classical music in multiple genres are mostly lumped together into one genre. It’s not easy to browse through, say, new recordings of baroque organ music.
While many people still can’t tell the difference between low and high-quality streaming, it's most noticeable in orchestral works, where compression can crush or muddy the wide range of sound. Spotify only offers up to 320 kbps, which is still below CD quality.
There’s also the issue of the giant library of non-classical music. The search function on most streaming services is built to work with modern music, and it doesn’t play very well with classical.
Search “Goldberg Variations” on Apple Music, and you’ll get more results for an obscure techno band than for the famous Bach composition. Spotify’s top song result for Mozart is a new rap by Qveen Herby. If you’re a big classical fan, you’ll benefit from a streaming service that’s not also full of every other genre. Luckily, there are three.
The three standouts in classical streaming are Primephonic, Naxos Music Library and Idagio. All three offer high-quality streaming, sorting music by work, and an easy to use mobile app. And searching for music on these apps won’t turn up a million rock songs.
Naxos Music Library is an outlier. Its web player and mobile app feel old-fashioned, there’s no desktop app, you can’t download the music, and the service costs more than the competition ($30 per month and up).
But it has a sizable library of other NPR-ish music, including jazz, world, folk, and modern instrumental. You can try it for free for 15 minutes (and for another 15 minutes in an incognito window).
Primephonic ($11 per month for 320 kbps streaming, $21 per month for lossless) has the best collection of “mood” playlists - in particular, it has a productivity playlist that Idagio lacks.
Its featured music tab is slick and includes playlists curated by classical performers. It has a good, modern-feeling mobile app and web interface. But other than that, it feels like a slightly worse version of Idagio.
There’s no desktop app, only mobile and web apps. And while you can look at all the versions of a work, playing one after the other is still a little awkward. You can try it for two weeks without a credit card.
Idagio costs about $14 per month, which includes lossless streaming. (You can also stream at 320 or 192 kbps to save data.) You can try it for 30 days, but you have to give it your credit card info, so if you don’t want to get charged, remember to cancel.
Idagio has the slickest mobile app, and it’s the only service with a desktop ap. The desktop version feels like a stripped-down Spotify, but it has all the basic features.
The excellent “Discover” tab includes new music, exclusive recordings, and suggestions sorted by period, instrument, and genre (chamber and opera and “sacred vocal, etc.”). There are also featured performers and conductors, and playlists by critics and other experts.
On desktop and mobile, you can build playlists or a personal collection. There are no social features, no contacts or friend feed, which honestly is a relief. There are no podcasts. Things feel a little cleaner and minimalist, though coming over from Spotify, they might also feel sparse.
Idagio is great for browsing all the versions of a given work. In addition to specific albums, recordings, artists, and composers, Idagio also includes “works” in their search results.
So, for example, you can select Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies and listen to every version of it, ordered by release date or by popularity. You can filter results by performer or by instrument. It’s a great use of the additional data types that apply to classical music. It’s also a great way to discover unusual versions of a piece.
There are a few embarrassing limitations. On my Mac, I couldn’t get my media keys, the dedicated play/pause buttons on the keyboard, to control Idagio, even after I closed all my other media apps. Hopefully that will get fixed soon. And the iOS app doesn’t have shuffle or repeat functions.
Is it worth it?
If you sometimes listen to classical, but mostly to modern music, then it’s not worth doubling the amount you pay for streaming. Spotify, Amazon, and Apple Music still have most classical music, and probably all you’ll ever need, and you can muddle around with their search and their interface. Spotify and Apple have some good classical music playlists, you’ll be fine.
But if you listen to classical music every day, and you can name more than a handful of composers or pieces, 14 bucks a month isn’t that much for all that Idagio offers.
You’ll probably want to hang onto your Spotify too, but that’s just a total of $28 a month for more music than you could ever hear in one lifetime.