In the past decade, MP3s and iTunes effectively standardized audio quality — a win for some, a loss for others. For the audiophiles who lament the denigration of their high and low frequencies, take heart — a plethora of new high-res music players by Sony, Astell & Kern and Pono, along with a new breed of subscription services that offer higher-fidelity music, are all making 2015 the year of streaming hi-fi sound. Tidal, a new lossless streaming service, launched in the US, Canadian, and UK markets in 2014 (and has operated under the name WiMP in Denmark, Germany, Norway, Poland, and Sweden) is something like Spotify with better-quality audio. And, you may have heard, Jay Z’s S. Carter Enterprises recently announced it is buying a majority stake in the Swedish parent company, Aspiro, which virtually guarantees that the hi-fi service will expand in the States.
Tidal gives you unlimited streaming of its catalog of more than 25 million tracks and high-def videos. The service works on Android and iOS devices (including portable high-res players) as well as Macs and PCs, and a growing number of multi-room wireless speaker systems by Sonos, Meridian, Harman Omni, Denon and Dynaudio (as well as those that run on the DTS Play-Fi streaming standard). As on other streaming services, you have the option to download music to a laptop, smartphone, or tablet — up to 3 devices — for offline listening. You can make and share playlists and save your favorite music. The primary difference is the price. Spotify’s Premium service (not to mention that of Beats Music, Google Play Music and others), is $9.99 per month, whereas Tidal costs $19.99 per month. And there’s a reason for the higher price. Tidal’s tracks are 44.1 kHz/16-bit lossless audio files that are three to four times the bit rate of any of its subscription-based streaming competitors. (Lossless audio’s bit rate is 1,411 kbps, versus a “lossy” iTunes AAC 256kbps file and Spotify’s “Extreme” quality at 320kbps.)
The sound on Tidal tracks is fuller, with more accurate spatial representation than on iTunes and Spotify.
For a track to stream at a bit rate of 256kbps or 320kbps, it has to be reduced by shaving away frequencies at the top and bottom end, as well as information before and after the louder elements in the music. You end up not hearing subtle separations in sound, full bass, accurate spatial representation, and even some instruments, like snare drums, high hats, castanets, or the strumming of guitars (at the very least, they can sound muffled and metallic). Lossless, on the other hand, still compresses the file when it’s streaming, but unpacks it to its original CD quality when it gets to your player (like a .zip file), with no loss in sound quality. The proof is in the pudding, as I have discovered over the course of the past three months testing Tidal without the aid of a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) or other audio enhancement on a variety of headphones — the Shure SRH 1540, Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay A6, the KEF M500, and the RHA MA 750i earbuds — connected to an iPhone 6 Plus, an iPad Air 2, a MacBook Air, a Samsung Note Edge, and a Microsoft Surface Pro 3. I also listened to the service wirelessly via AirPlay on a Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 speaker and via Bluetooth on a Bang & Olufsen A2 speaker. The Tidal service also connected seamlessly with the infotainment systems on recent test drives with a Chevrolet Tahoe and a Corvette Z06 with MyLink capability, showing album art and allowing for control via the same dashboard buttons that work with iTunes.
The Brass Tacks of Hi-Fi
The difference between Tidal and Spotify Extreme tracks and iTunes tracks — even those “Mastered for iTunes” — is a bit more subtle. On several tracks, I heard it right away — more sound separation, detail, and warmth on the lossless tracks when compared with versions on other services. On the new Punch Brothers album, Phosphorescent Blues, I heard the distinct plucking and strumming of Chris Thile’s mandolin on several tracks, such as “My Oh My,” with fuller and richer vocals and balanced harmonies, versus the iTunes version, which sounded muffled. (I was shocked to hear how buried the individual string counterpoint was.) On some older Harry Nilsson songs I thought I knew quite well — “Life Line” from The Point — I heard an organ I’d barely noticed on iTunes. The upgrade in sound quality is especially noticeable on tracks that really benefit from the added sonic information, everything from the late conductor Claudio Abbado’s take on Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra to Bach’s Partitas, where Glenn Gould’s annoying-yet-reassuring humming remained properly in the background, rather than blended in equally with the piano.
Overall, the sound on Tidal tracks is fuller, with more accurate spatial representation than on the iTunes and Spotify tracks I tried. The experience is so much more enjoyable that I’ve stopped buying songs on iTunes altogether, except when something isn’t available on Tidal (such as parts of Bernard Haitink’s complete Bruckner symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra — and Taylor Swift). And instead of listening to the iTunes versions of songs I already own, I’m just streaming them over Tidal instead — the difference to my ears is that prominent.
The Tidal experience has awakened me to all the sound I’ve been missing over the past decade. And that’s worth $20 a month to me, especially when I think about the thousands of dollars I’ve dropped on inferior quality iTunes tracks.
Granted, sound quality was improved even further by using a stellar pair of Shure SRH 1540 headphones, but even those didn’t make the iTunes or Spotify Extreme tracks sound better than the Tidal ones. And I still heard a difference in less pricey headphones such as the KEF M500, the Bang & Olufsen H6 and a RHA 750i earbud with just an iPhone 6 Plus. Even playing Tidal wirelessly via AirPlay on a Cambridge Audio Minx Air 200 and a Bang & Olufsen A2 yielded richer, more detailed and better sound overall — the differences might be more subtle here, but overall the music pops more even on these smaller speakers. I haven’t had a chance to try the service with a dedicated digital-to-audio converter (DAC) or an audiophile home system, but if my experience on garden-variety audio devices is any indication, a dedicated audiophile system will provide even more dramatic results.
Like a favorite local independent record store, Tidal also has an editorially curated home page, with articles and weekly staff playlists featuring the best new music or music around a theme (local Portland bands, or the year 1995, for example). Yes, you can find Maroon 5, U2, and any other mainstream artists here, but the acts that are highlighted are more likely to be Panda Bear, Sleater-Kinney and the New York Philharmonic. Whether this esoteric indie focus will remain once Tidal’s new owners begin to make their mark remains to be seen, but it’s certainly one of the service’s unique and appealing components at the moment.
A Touch of CacophonyOf course, as with many a new product, Tidal isn’t perfect. Search is not always useful, particularly for classical music, where I got a mere 22 albums when searching under Purcell, one of England’s greatest composers. This is typical of many services, which still haven’t figured out how to make search cater to the various tastes of classical music fans, who are as interested in a conductor, orchestra or composer as they are in soloists, performance dates and specific pieces. And lastly, I had some difficulty getting the music to stream via Bluetooth and AirPlay to an AirPlay and Bluetooth speaker while using the desktop app on a Mac (fiddling with the Sound Output in the User Options area under Settings fixed this). That said, the Chrome web player worked flawlessly on a PC and a Mac, so I recommend using one for a seamless laptop experience if you’re planning on listening with an internet connection (the desktop version is only good if you’re planning on downloading tracks to your laptop). Also, there’s the issue of the offline lossless FLAC (or ALAC, on iOS) files taking up way more space than standard MP3s and iTunes tracks. This is unavoidable with higher-quality music, so make sure you have a lot of onboard memory, or load up on a big SD card.
All in all, though, the Tidal experience has awakened me to all the sound I’ve been missing over the past decade. And that’s worth $20 a month to me, especially when I think about the thousands of dollars I’ve dropped on inferior quality iTunes tracks. Yes, there are services like HD Tracks and Pono that offer music in even higher resolution — 24-bit/192kHz, which is officially “high-res” — but many studies say that the human ear can’t hear any differences beyond the lossless CD quality that Tidal provides. The HD Tracks demo I heard at CES recently sounded fantastic, but I can’t “rent” that online store’s tunes. HD Tracks, Pono, and other high-res music services are for purchase only, so I’d have to replace my entire collection for about $20 an album (and even there, only a small fraction of Pono’s tracks are actually high-res; the majority are still CD quality). With the exception of Deezer Elite, which is only available to Sonos owners, Tidal is the only lossless streaming service that works across many platforms, from your plain old iPhone to your laptop to your high-end component system. And if you don’t like it, you can just cancel your subscription, just as you can with Spotify (or just try it out for free for seven days). Tidal is a real-world solution that doesn’t require any new equipment and will improve your listening experience now. My prediction is if Jay Z’s involvement can get more artists, labels, and consumers involved with Tidal, then it’s only a matter of time before rival services will have to catch up, resolution-wise.