TIDAL Music Streaming Service Review
So lossless streaming- the wave of the future?
What is TIDAL?In case you’ve been living in a cave for the last five years, streaming services are serious business. We struggle to do a podcast without mentioning Netflix and the concept of having material ready to go at the touch of a button is a compelling one. They are also tremendously influential. Netflix managed to make a collection of programs and films that lurked firmly at the schlock end of the program dial and turn them into a revenue generating business. Having done so, they have moved from purveyors of B-movies to generators of quality content.
Music streaming services aren’t quite as influential. They don’t generate the same content as the TV contemporaries but they are a massive part of how we consume music, find new artists and albums and share our tastes with others. I have been using Spotify as a subscriber since 2009 and the costs of subscription are secondary to the vast amount of music I have bought as a result of discovering it on there.
One aspect that these services have in common is that they are convenience rather than absolute quality options. I don’t say this in a derogatory sense- I find Netflix more than watchable and Spotify is more than up to the task of headphone and earphone work and finding new music- but I have tended towards physical media for absolute quality (and because, as I have remarked before, I have an unhealthy love of vinyl). Into this gap steps TIDAL.
TIDAL is a music on demand service that aims to offer the same convenience as rival services but then deliver CD quality at the same time. This is a radically different proposition- in theory you need never buy a physical copy of an album ever again. Can TIDAL make good on this promise and be the quality and the convenience option at the same time?
How does it work?At its heart, TIDAL is a music on demand service that like Spotify and Qobuz allows you to select tracks on an individual rather than an ‘artist radio’ or ‘you may also like’ basis. The library is a claimed 25 million tracks although like all of these figures I have no idea whether this includes repeats of the same track on different albums or the like. The service is available via the Chrome browser, desktop and Apple and Android embedded apps- more of which later.
The key aspect of TIDAL is that when you select the track in question, you get a full fat 16/44.1kHz CD equivalent sent from a remote server. Having consulted with TIDAL as to what this actually is in terms of format and exactly how close to CD it actually is, TIDAL has confirmed that the transmission format is ALAC (or AAC if you request the compressed version) and that there is usually a degree of pre compression on many of the masters received- although nothing that doesn’t allow for the original file to be reconstructed in its entirety.
There was a degree of ambiguity to how TIDAL described these lossless files in some of the launch material- the phrase ‘high res’ crept in from time to time and I’ve always taken this to mean material that was better than CD quality rather than CD quality itself but nonetheless, this is a step from every service on the market save for French service Qobuz. Where Qobuz operates as both marketplace and streaming service and feels rather disjointed as a result, TIDAL is a streaming service only and feels better organised than Qobuz. It also has more pedigree. TIDAL has been operating as a streaming service in Scandinavia for some years as WIMP which augers well for its long term survival.
How much does TIDAL cost?TIDAL offers a single cost program rather than the graduated cost of Spotify. For £20 a month you get the ability to use the service on a computer and mobile devices and interestingly there doesn’t appear to be an auto cutout on the software that prevents a mobile device and a computer using the same login. Songs, albums and playlists can be stored offline and you have the choice of streaming at a quality equivalent to Spotify as well as lossless. At first this might seem counter intuitive- why pay for lossless quality and then not use it?- but it makes the service much faster on mobile devices and runs less of a chance of monstering your mobile data allowance.
£20 is more than any of the compressed services and in a world where music is largely viewed as a free commodity, it might seem on the high side. There are some alternative positions to take on this however. As TIDAL negates the need to buy the physical CD or download, for anyone still buying music, it should represent a comfortable saving. There is also a statement of intent from TIDAL themselves that 75% of the £20 you pay each month is artist royalties. As the number of stadium gods bombing around the earth in Learjets is a very small percentage of the total number of performers and most lead rather less lavish lives, this is something I find fairly heartening.
Does it offer anything additional to Streaming?The development team and management at TIDAL has a clear aim to try and make the site a resource that you’ll use to find out more about artists and musicians as well as listen to them. The vast majority of albums have some useful notes and information on them and there is a strong theme of new release and exploratory playlists and recommended material as well as simple lists of what’s new. Does it work? Well mostly. The notes are generally excellent and a good read but the recommended material is less effective than the Pitchfork plugin on Spotify which justifies its astounding levels of pretension by generating a lot of material to try- even after you remove the slightly obsessive interest in death metal. The recommended artist link for each artist is also a little limited at three artists a pop- it generally only has space to link the artists you’d probably have worked out for yourself.
The other big push that TIDAL has made is with music videos and I confess I enjoyed this more than I thought I might. There is a fairly wide choice and re-watching ZZ Top’s effort for Gimme all your lovin- an effort that confirmed the heterosexuality (or otherwise) of an entire cadre of young boys in the 1980’s and is probably single handedly responsible for third wave feminism- was a lovely piece of nostalgia. The audio track that runs with the videos seems to be the lossless one so it is an entertaining way of passing an hour while your wife watches The Newsroom.
Any downsides to TIDAL?If we leave the costs to one side for now- they will be returned to- TIDAL really only has three significant issues. The first is that it does demand a decent internet line. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone but the performance on a 39meg line I have at home is perfectly good but attempts to use my parent’s sub 3 meg line were too slow to be pleasurable and even though the service seems to effectively buffer albums, it precludes bouncing about from track to track which is part of the joy of streaming services. TIDAL claims that 2 meg and upwards will work but this doesn’t take into account the time it takes to get going on a slower line.
The next is that 25 million tracks or not, TIDAL is more limited that Spotify which served as my main benchmark. A-B comparisons of tracks between the two services revealed a number of albums not present on TIDAL and I have yet to find something that TIDAL has that Spotify doesn’t. This is far from the end of the world but if you are a playlist sort of person, you may find that you can’t port a like for like version across from Spotify to TIDAL.
The third is potentially the most irksome. At the moment, the iPad ap doesn’t seem to be especially fast or stable for me. It is much slower to start streaming and can be laggy and unwilling to change from one screen to another. I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt and ascribe this to my relatively elderly iPad3 but a test on a rather more up to date iPad Air did not yield much in the way of an improvement. This is potentially hugely important because AirPlay represents a key way of getting TIDAL onto a number of audio systems and if the interface isn’t up to snuff, this is going to be a problem. Aps update all the time though so this need not be a fixed state of affairs and the Android ap by contrast is rather good so it seems to be within TIDAL’s ability to sort it out.
The key aspect of TIDAL is that when you select the track in question, you get a full fat 16/44.1kHz CD equivalent sent from a remote server.
How has it been tested?TIDAL’s desktop software has been installed on my T530 ThinkPad which has also been used to test the Chrome Browser version. This has allowed testing via the headphone output into various devices including the Noble Kaiser K10, Audiofly AF140 and Focal Spirit One S. It has also been sent via USB to a Chord Hugo for both headphone testing and to be sent to a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amp.
The app software was then installed on an iPad 3 (and briefly Air to check some of the complaints above) and a Google Nexus 5 phone. This was for both mobile testing with the same headphones and earphones listed above but additionally in the case of the iPad to allow for an Arcam airDAC to be sent the signal that could be run into the digital input of a Naim ND5XS to permit A-B testing of the TIDAL signal against material previously ripped to Western Digital NAS drive.
How does TIDAL Sound?In a word- as good as your partnering electronics. This is a slightly anticlimactic thing to say but an important one. With Chord’s accomplished Hugo attached to the ThinkPad via USB and the fabulous Lydia Ainsworth’s Right from Real playing, TIDAL is the same as the download I paid £7.99 (or 40% of a monthly TIDAL sub) for last month replayed via Foobar. Not close, the same. Literally the only thing that can be said for the rip is that ASIO connection is possible but the TIDAL desktop software is able to select an outboard USB DAC independent of the PC so email notifications and the like will come out of the computer speakers and not via your HiFi.
As long USB cables are seen by my son as something to bite, I switched to using the iPad app via AirPlay into the digital input of the Naim streamer and did some more comparisons. Once again, after some extended back to back tests, I would not bet money on me consistently telling the TIDAL stream from ripped FLAC- even though there is technically zero compression on the bulk of my ripped files. At no stage have I felt compelled to switch back to the stored library because it sounds better (although I have because the Naim iPad app is everything that the TIDAL one isn’t). Using the iPad and Arcam as a transparent AirPlay bridge, my home system sounds as good as it always does and it is entirely easy to forget what is supplying the music and just enjoy it.
This enjoyment is still largely at the behest of the mastering. TIDAL extends to sounding like the purchased item in that a poorly mastered album isn’t going to sound any different here but they isn’t the service’s fault. The best way to look at it is that with all of that space cleared of CDs and hard drives, you can start to amass your record collection for problem albums…
Is TIDAL a viable alternative to buying albums?
After some deliberation, yes… with caveats. There are some holes in the catalogue but these are not too serious and can of course be filled over time. The iPad app isn’t perfect but again, this is hardly something set in stone. The actual stream is completely competitive with the purchased equivalent and the benefits are audible to a surprising degree even with earphones plugged into your mobile. I’m not even completely sure that the ‘you don’t own it’ argument is too problematic either. I feel no great pride of ownership for the mass of files on my NAS drive and simply changing the location from under my stairs to somewhere in Scandinavia doesn’t really bother me.
The nature of convenience is more of an issue though. Without an internet line, TIDAL is restricted to what you select to run offline- which because the storage has to occur on the device you logged in on, is likely to be limited. It also lacks the omnipresence of Spotify. As a user of that service for five years, I have watched it bludgeon its way into the public conscience with ever more effortless cross platform integration. Many products now connect directly to it and I’ve learned in the planning for the next podcast that Spotify playlists will work inside the Amazon Fire TV games. What it gives away in quality it covers in sheer availability. The TIDAL team are bullish about the future and has the groundwork in place to start working with other brands but crucially, there isn’t the same cross platform integration yet.
It is entirely easy to forget what is supplying the music and just enjoy it
- Sounds excellent
- Genuinely good artist information
- Good desktop ap
- Poor iPad ap
- Content more limited than compressed rivals
- Comparatively expensive
TIDAL Music Streaming Service ReviewFirst, we need to return to money. For the group of people that have decided music is a free commodity, TIDAL is unlikely to win you back to paying for music. Equally, if you still buy audio- be it via CD, lossless downloads or even iTunes, you might want to chalk up what you spent on music last year and see if it was more or less than £240. Minor library quibbles aside, TIDAL is likely to have virtually all of it with a whole world of music left to discover. This music is available at the touch of a button and it sounds excellent. The joy of listening to the new Pink Floyd album on the morning of release in ‘proper’ quality without going anywhere was a joy only slightly tempered by the discover that The Endless River is a collection of worthy but dull offcuts.
There are quibbles; the iPad app isn’t currently good enough, it needs to present more material for you to link through from artist to artist- a process that has cost me a fortune over the years on Spotify but has helped me discover dozens of great albums and it realistically needs a ‘Connect’ version to better integrate with streaming equipment. I am acutely aware that to make use of the excellent decoding my streamer possesses, I have to basically patch the signal to it but all of this is secondary to the fact that my music library just got a 25 million track shot in the arm. TIDAL isn’t perfect but it is truly great and if you have the means to make use of it, I urge you to do so.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.99
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