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Tidal – High Fidelity Streaming Service

November 4, 2014


Joining Spotify last year was a game changer in my enjoyment of listening to music.  A huge catalog was available at my fingertips from any device (legally) for a mere $10 a month.  I mainly listen via my iPhone – so fidelity was less important than convenience.  Spotify is about as convenient as you can get.  My estimate is they have about 95% of the catalog I would ever want access too.

When I would listen on Spotify and if I really liked something I go out and buy the CD or the vinyl.  Spotify sounds fine on the iPhone at the gym or in the car, but it does not quite cut it at home for serious listening through “the system.”  I recently upgraded the home system with an Oppo 105D – that was a major DAC upgrade for me and Spotify sounded much better than through my old DAC – but not CD quality.

I was one of the first to lay my money down on Kickstarter last spring for one of Neil Young’s Pono players, but I ultimately balked – I could not see downloading HD tracks to a one-dimensional mobile device.  If I was going to listen to HD it was going to be at home via a computer, DAC and “the system.”  Plus could HD streaming be far away?

Well HD streaming is almost here with Tidal which calls itself “high fidelity streaming.”  It is not HD, but it is CD quality (vs. the 320 MP3 quality of Spotify).  Tidal costs $19.99 a month and uses the ALAC and FLAC lossless format at 1,411 kbps, 44.1kHz/16-bit. That is roughly four times the 320 kbps bit rate of most music streaming services like Spotify.  Tidal boasts 25 million songs and 75,000 music videos (I could care less about the videos).  That is comparable to Spotify (but my cursory experiment with Tidal is that I have been disappointed that it does not have many of the indie titles I have found on Spotify.

I have been taking advantage of the 7 -day free sample for the last several days. I was not able to get songs to load on my Mac via the Tidal app and so I had to use the web version.  I found the iPhone app via 4G it was less reliable than Spotify (break ups/pauses) – this seemed reasonable given how fat the stream is.  The better sound quality was undetectable via cheap earbuds or plugged via headphone jack to the car stereo.  My assumption  is you would want to download music to your device or dial back the streaming quality when mobile (which brings you back to Spotify quality) .

So is Tidal worth twice as much as Spotify?  I think it depends on your listening habits (do you have a large collection of music already, do you have a quality home stereo, do you listen mainly at home or mobile, etc.).  If you are listening to music mainly through inexpensive earbuds via your iPhone I would be hard pressed to see the value.  If you have a decent home stereo with a DAC I would say the improvement in sound quality is worth it.  Personally I am not sure if I would use Tidal enough at home to justify the cost as it does not beat out vinyl or CDs (I have a huge collection and I am never wanting something to listen to).  I am still trying to adjust to the notion of streaming vs. my fetish of possessing CDs and LPs (I never was fond of downloading due to sound quality more than object fetish – perhaps if I had that chapter in my history streaming would be more comfortable).

I did a serious ear test through my home system using Stanley Turnentine’s Salt Song (the titular song from the album of the same name on CTI from 1971).  I compared the Spotify, Tidal, a vintage vinyl LP and remastered CD (2011) versions of the song.  The Tidal version definitely sounded better than Spotify.  It was less harsh and had more detail than Spotify.  It compared favorably to the vinyl LP and the CD (both of which did sound slightly better than the Tidal stream).  Overall Tidal had a much more natural and organic sound than Spotify – similar to comparing a CD vs. a 320 MP3.  But the increased quality is subtly that would escape most undiscerning listeners.  For most listeners cost and convenience win – and Spotify has cost and convenience.

I did a final headphone test via my Grado SR80s via my iPhone. Tidal was again a richer experience than Spotify.  But I have to be honest – most of the time when I am listening to my iPhone it is not going to be in quite room with decent cans.

Final judgement?  Tidal does sound better.  I would likely need to dial down the quality when mobile to avoid interruptions.  My biggest concern is will the catalog be as good as Spotify?  I was disappointed when I tried to find the recent Toki Wright and Strugill Simpson albums (both were on Spotify, but not on Tidal).  Understandable, given they are on independent labels and this service is brand new.  But what about the new Led Zeppelin remasters? They appear available, but are grayed out on Tidal (yet available on Spotify).   I guess I am not willing to pull the trigger quite yet to pay double for a service like this. I might have a different opinion if I did not have such a huge LP and CD collection for quality listening at home.  I will check back with this and other HD/high fidelity services over the next few months to see of they make progress.


From → Audio, Music Reviews

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