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Tidal – A Reprise

January 27, 2018

It has been over three years since I gave Tidal a look/listen. I almost caught the bug last spring when I went to an Audio Society of Minnesota meeting. The focus of the meeting was Tidal, MQA and the equipment you need to get the full benefit of MQA. But it all looked expensive (a new DAC with MQA capability would need to be purchased), so I moved on.

I have had some extra time on my hands lately, so I have been listening to a lot of music. I was surfing some audiophile blogs and I saw an ad for the new Oppo Blu-ray (Oppo UDP-205) that has MQA integration. I wondered if my Oppo (BPD-105D) could handle it.

The quick answer is no. However, you can achieve a digital stream at “double CD” quality (96kHz/24-bit) assuming you have a DAC. Tidal’s 96kHz/24-bit quality is “close enough” to what MQA will deliver (I assume) for this listener. This post will not deal with true MQA.  If you have a MQA compatible DAC, I would be interested in your thoughts – give me a comment to this post. My main question: is full MQA better than 96kHz/24-bit?

At the end of this post I will explain how to hook up your DAC, without MQA capability, and what your options are with older Oppo Blu-ray players.

So how does it sound?

I don’t know if I can ever justify buying another CD. That is a big statement for me to make. My wife is my blog editor and when she sees that statement she will hold me to it. So, for now, the only music I am going to buy is vinyl. I might have to make an exception if the album is not on Tidal or available on wax.  96kHz/24-bit might be double CD quality technically, but it does not sound twice as good, but it does sound subtly better than a CD and significantly better that Spotify’s best resolution.  When I say “subtly better than a CD” that assumes you are listening via some decent audiophile equipment.

So that is an endorsement – it sounds great. Tidal “Masters” (even dialed back to 96kHz/24-bit) is a significant improvement from the last time I test drove Tidal.  Tidal Masters allegedly have the seal of approval of the original production team and is streamed at the highest resolution available (e.g. how the album was recorded if digital or digitally mastered if analog). I also did a test drive on my iPhone (an A/B with Spotify and Tidal HiFi – which is CD quality for all material – Masters or not).  Even with cheap earbuds, Tidal is noticeably better on the iPhone than Spotify. As best I know, better than CD quality is not an option on a smart phone. Tidal has a three month free trial – so try it yourself.  Let me know in the comments section what you think.

Despite my positivity about the sound of Tidal, I don’t have high hopes for Tidal. It sure looks like they are going to lose the streaming arms race. But I think there is enough of an audience for some HiFi streaming service to survive in the marketplace.  I assume one of the streaming winners (e.g. Spotify) will eventually provide that HiFi service. Between audiophiles, and what I will call the “Sonos crowd,” there should be enough customers .

So the future for discerning listeners is: HiFi streaming and vinyl. For those of you who feel you have to own digital files – wake up. If you want to own something (and I get that), go vinyl.

Aside from the better sound, Tidal does not have much going for it. Its user interface is ok, but not as good a Spotify (the number one streaming service by far). It is overpriced (roughly double Spotify’s $10 a month – or 8 times more than Spotify’s family account if you calculate by user). Most significantly, it is not a smooth running service – it stalls occasionally (even with a 150 meg download speed) both at home and mobile.

There are about 5000 albums designated as Masters on Tidal – a fraction of their catalog. In theory other releases are MQA at higher than CD resolution, but they are not documented as high resolution and don’t have the production team’s seal of approval. The Masters do sound better than their non-Master versions. On the Tidal desktop application Masters are designated by an “M.”

In conclusion, I will likely stick with Tidal after the trial period and I recommend anyone with a decent stereo and a DAC to try it.

How to use Tidal with a DAC that is Not MQA enabled:

The key here is setting up the Tidal application on your computer. I am using a Mac and I don’t know if the application for a PC is the same, but from my casual comparison it appears to be.

From Audiogon:

After you’ve connected to the DAC and confirmed the connection on your PC/Mac, go to Settings in the Tidal app and select Streaming. Select HIFI Master. Then scroll down to Sound Output and hover or click the 105 (or whatever your DAC is called) and click the little gear icon that appears. Select Use Exclusive Mode and Force Volume. Don’t click Passthrough MQA unless you have an MQA capable DAC.

Oppo Application

My Oppo (BPD1-105D) has an Tidal application on it. The application needs to be operated by the Oppo’s smartphone Media Control Application. Once you navigate to the Tidal Application within Media Control app, Tidal is pretty intuitive. One issue is that there is no clear designation of Masters vs. non-Masters like there is on the desktop app.

I have tried to compare the sound of the Oppo Tidal app vs the desktop app (run through that same Oppo’s DAC) and the Master from the desktop sounds noticeably better. So I assume the Oppo Tidal application is merely playing at CD quality (I googled this and it was not definitive, but it appears this is the case).

I am willing to compromise fidelity for convenience – sometimes. It is so nice to sit on the couch and remote play Tidal from my iPhone vs. getting up to play Tidal via my Mac. If I am seriously listening to a whole album and it is available as a Master, I make the effort to use the desktop app.

Summary

I am impressed by high resolution streaming.  I am not ready to make an additional investment in new equipment to take advantage of MQA.  I don’t have “golden ears,” but I can tell the difference between high resolution streaming and CDs and Spotify.  However, it is not blow away better.  I am willing to wait it out a few years to see where the dust settles (and the blog editor won’t let me).  Will MQA become a standard, will something better come along or will the whole high resolution audio concept collapse because there really is not a market?

Happy digital listening. As you can see, taking advantage of high resolution streaming is just enough of a hassle that you have to really want it. But if you are an audiophile, you are used to (and probably enjoy) hassles.

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4 Comments
  1. (Hopefully) related comment. Whatever happened to the player that Neil Young developed? Pono?Pogo? You seem to be an audio guy. Know much about that?

    • Pono was a flop and is now out of business. In my opinion it was a flop for several reasons. One – smartphones killed the iPod – no one wants an extra device – let alone an oddly shaped one. Two -downloading files is obsolete – streaming has won. Three – cost – why would you pay $20 for a album file when you can have access to millions of albums in high resolution albums for $20 a month. Four – high end audio needs a big boy set up not a portable device. Neil was right that MP3s suck and we needed a high resolution digital solution. He just came up with the wrong solution.

      • Doesn’t surprise me in the least. If I recall you would have had to (again) buy all your albums in a new format. That sounded doomed to me from the get-go. But then what do I know? I thought vinyl was dead. What next, the return of the Victrola? 🙂

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