More Audiophile iPad Play! Streaming Concerts
You probably already know about services like MOG, Rdio, and Spotify, which can bring huge libraries of music to your iPad for a relatively small monthly fee. But you may already be paying a monthly fee to a service that has plenty of streaming music available. You just haven't thought of it in those terms yet. I'm talking about Netflix streaming content. Bear with me on this because I think it is worth it.
For $7.99 a month, Netflix offers a big selection of streaming movies and TV shows. A less obvious bit of content that I hadn't thought of until recently is their fairly robust catalog of live musical performances. There is some really great stuff to be seen here: searching "concert" gives a large result full of all kinds of music. You get highly recognizable artists - Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Muddy Waters, Duke Ellington, Deep Purple, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond, Bill Evans Trio. You also get plenty of slightly lesser known but no less interesting performers---Bukka White, Carlinhos Brown, Montserrat Caballe, Steeleye Span, Roosevelt Sykes, Chieli Minucci. I don't have an exact number but there must be at least several hundred titles to choose from, with the average length being at least an hour. That's quite a bit of music to be heard (and seen). Some choices have more than just concert footage; you'll find some interviews, biographies, and general documentary type stuff as well. But the majority of it will have plenty of music.
Sound quality varies from one selection to the next---a live jazz performance from the 1950 is obviously going to sound different than a modern arena rock concert. And no, it isn't lossless audio. Netflix has not returned my emails about what bitrate and compression algorithms they use. Even with that info, it would be difficult to compare to something like an mp3 bitrate because Netflix streams contain both video and audio. Still, I find that most concert footage has decent enough sound, and I'd guess it is roughly equivalent to 192k mp3.That obviously won't replace your reference recordings but it is good enough to be enjoyable---as good or better than Pandora or Last.fm for example. It would be foolish to write off a massive treasure chest of amazing performances simply because they aren't of ideal quality. If I happened upon a vast collection of concert footage on VHS I'd certainly do my best to hunt down a VCR to enjoy them, despite knowing that they aren't necessarily perfect quality. The same concept applies here.
There is one trick I've found to locating the best content more easily. The Netflix app only allows for general searching, and offers similar suggestions from there. So starting with Herbie Hancock, Netflix suggests Jaco Pastorius, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Kim Waters. Or start with Pearl Jam and Netflix suggests U2, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones. This is great for jumping around but it tends to primarily give you mainstream artists. Instead, point your browser to the Netflix website and log in. It will try to refer you to the Netflix app, but ignore that and go to the main website. From there, click on "Genres" and choose "Music". Now we see things broken down into categories like Urban & Dance, World Music, Rock & Pop, Latin Music, etc. Each one of those breaks down into even more sub-genres. This is where you can really explore and find some great stuff that may have otherwise flown under your radar. Click on the title you want and it automatically launches the Netflix app for playback. Browsing sometimes runs a little slow on the iPad so this part may be easier to do on a real computer. From there just add the titles to your queue for later viewing.
I'll say it again---the iPad is an awesome tool with a wide variety of potential uses. Yet it is up to the user to get the most out of it. Buying it simply for browsing the internet and sending email seems like kind of a waste---why not use a Nook Tablet or Kindle Fire since they cost less than half the price? The true value of the iPad lies in the multitude of things it can do that no other tablet can. In terms of audiophile uses, Apple's device is still well ahead of the competition, and with new apps coming out all the time it may stay that way for a while. We can lament the newly released model not having things like SPDIF output or native FLAC support, or we can use our own workarounds to accomplish those things cheaply and easily. With a little knowledge and a small investment in accessories and apps, the iPad absolutely deserves a place in the audiophile arsenal.
[Editor's Note: Thanks John! Just wanted to say that I watched "Classic Albums: Steely Dan: Aja" on Netflix a couple of days ago and you're right, Netflix is a lovely and compelling way to access an alternative and rich music experience.]