Tidal Music review
Tidal has changed since we first reviewed it seven months ago.
It used to be a plucky new underdog from the makers of WiMP in Sweden, a Spotify-like streaming service with a unique focus on CD-quality music.
It was a shining beacon of opportunity for music lovers who coveted sound quality over everything else; a chance to combine the convenience and mobility of Spotify with the fidelity and prestige of a CD collection.
But while Spotify remains to this day a plucky upstart from Sweden, albeit a rather popular one these days, Tidal has since been acquired by little-known rap star "Jay Z" (ahem) for 56 million American dollars.
Tidal is consequently now the first major music service to be owned by artists themselves, and claims to pay higher royalties to artists and songwriters.
Whether it actually does that or not is unproven, and certainly the controversial American relaunch earlier in 2015 – during which Jay Z dished out shares in the service live on stage not to young, up-and-coming musicians but to some of the wealthiest artists on the planet including wife Beyoncé, Coldplay and Madonna – is seen by some as a curious way of achieving its stated aim.
But whatever your opinion on that, Tidal as a CD-quality alternative to Spotify and a high-quality rival to Deezer Elite remains a compelling proposition and one thoroughly worthy of your consideration.
How much does Tidal cost?
When it launched at the back-end of 2014, Tidal cost £19.99/$19.99 for the CD quality service, but seven months on, the service now operates a two-tier system.
Tidal Premium now matches Spotify’s Premium price of 9.99 per month and offers music at the same bitrate – 320kbps. That’s lossy but still not too shabby.
However, to get the "lossless high fidelity" sound Tidal hangs its hat on, you’ll need to shell out twice as much – 19.99 a month for a "Tidal HiFi" membership.
How Tidal works
On the surface, Tidal looks just like Spotify. It’s got an excellent Chrome-based web player and a desktop player for PCs as well as decent iOS and Android apps.
It offers comprehensive playlist functionality, sharing of music as well as offline listening. And the library is off to a good start, now with well over 25 million tracks. We regularly noticed holes in Tidal’s library when we first reviewed it but these days things are looking a lot more healthy.
Where Tidal really differs from its other rivals is that instead of only serving up compressed music formats like MP3 and OGG – as do Spotify, Google Play Music and most of the others – Tidal offers music at CD quality.
It streams music in the form of 16bit, 44.1kHz FLAC files with a bitrate of 1411kbps. And I can tell you now, it’s brilliant.
Tidal is more than just a FLAC streaming service though. It’s been designed from the ground up to be the ultimate music resource for fans of hi-fidelity music, offering playlists and recommendations curated by experienced music journalists, not to mention 75,000 music videos.
For the uninitiated, FLAC is the format of choice for many people who want to listen to music files without having to put up with lossy formats like MP3.
When you compress a music track into an MP3, you have to shave off a lot of detail in order to achieve that miniature file size. Other formats like OGG (as used by Spotify) do a highly commendable job of limiting that shaving mostly to parts of the audio that might be considered ‘inaudible’.
The truth is that all compression formats are a compromise, a victory for convenience over sound quality.
FLAC tracks are also compressed but in a totally different way. They’re a lot more like a zipped file, so when they’re played back, they can be decompressed to their original glory without any loss of fidelity.
Thus, while a CD track might take up anywhere between 60 and 100MB, a FLAC file will be more like 30 to 50MB. MP3s encoded at the maximum bitrate of 320kbps are typically only about 5-10MB in size, and there’s no way to get back the information you threw away during compression. That’s why MP3 is described as a lossy format while FLAC is not.
The upshot of this is that FLAC is the perfect format for delivering CD-quality music down an internet pipe.
There are several other music services that offer FLAC such as Deezer and Qobuz, but it’s still a fairly niche area of growth.
Tidal Music Library
Tidal went live in the UK back in October 2014 with 25 million tracks in its library and that was a good start. Back then, I used my CD collection and Spotify account to guide my search for all the music I would consider ‘mine’ and most of what I searched for was available. But also it wasn’t hard to find some omissions – these days though, the Tidal catalogue is far more complete for all types of music.
For example, one of my favourite bands, Wolf Parade, was completely absent at launch but is now fully available. The Strokes were also missing last year but now all their albums are accounted for.
That said, folk-rock superband Bright Eyes is only represented by two albums instead of the full roster and there are plenty other examples of bands and labels that are yet to sign up. This is a work in progress though and Spotify suffered the same painstaking sign-up process back in the day.
The good news is that the ‘Your Music’ feature that Spotify added a year ago was part of the Tidal service from day one. Big relief.
It works in exactly the same way, allowing you to go through all your favourite bands and ‘star’ any album you’d like to add to your own personal music library. Once you’ve done this, they’re all waiting for you in your ‘My Music’ area.
It’s the digital equivalent of a a CD collection, only the discs are stored in the cloud instead of racks on your wall.
Remember to star the bands themselves at the same time, though, because unlike Spotify, Tidal won’t automatically add the tracks from those albums to ‘My Tracks’ and the artist isn’t auto added to ‘My Artists’ either.
The headlines are that most music I searched for – even obscure stuff – was ready and waiting for me.
Using Tidal Music
The fear with a brand new music service like this is that it starts off looking quite basic and feature-light.
However, Tidal impressed from the first second we fired it up and while it hasn’t changed much since then, it remains a fully functioned, highly usable service. The Chrome-based web player is visually very similar to Spotify, with a homescreen that offers links to curated playlists and recommended hi-fi albums as well as top 20 charts. It looks great and there’s no learning curve – it works exactly how you’d expect it to.
A simple click on the sidebar will take you to your ‘My Music’ area where you’ll find all your stuff. And browsing music is very easy.
You can’t search by genre, which might have been a great way to win over some Spotify subscribers, but there is a ‘Genres’ button you can click on in the sidebar which will take you to curated areas with playlists and recommended albums. A decent compromise.
Search generally isn’t terribly smart – misspell an album or artist name even by one character or one piece of punctuation, and you’ll be left with zero results. A bit of optimisation here wouldn’t hurt, but as long as you’re careful you won’t have any problems with it.
And if you’re a fan of the ‘radio’ function on Google Play Music or Spotify, you’ll find an identical service ready and waiting in Tidal. You can select Artist radio or individual track radio, and it’s a great way to discover new music.
In the settings, you can connect Tidal to Facebook which will allow you to share music with your friends. You can also extract a URL if you want to link someone to any album, playlist or track.
But the social features are nowhere near as mature as the ones in Spotify – it’ll take a lot of work to catch up in that regard. But judging by the amount of care and attention that’s gone into Tidal pre-launch, I would expect that side of things to be developed quite quickly.
In settings you can also change your streaming settings, so if you want to save bandwidth you can drop down a notch to 320kbps AAC or, if you’ve gone insane, all the way down to 96kbps AAC+.
It’s important to have these settings, as I anticipate plenty of people using the FLAC service at home while opting for 320 AAC when they’re out and about. Those files are big, after all…
As you might expect, streaming FLAC files from the Tidal HiFi service is a lot more bandwidth intensive than streaming the Premium option at 320kbps. Typical albums weigh in at around 400MB, so you’re either going to need to download when you’re on wi-fi or make sure you have an unlimited data plan for on-the-move listening. Either that or opt for the reduced-quality AAC versions.
Quickly downloading an album before you leave for work in the morning is a lot harder with FLAC – you’ll be waiting a while, depending on your connection speed.
I found that even when listening on a PC in the web player, tracks did not start instantly when selected. It takes at least a few seconds to buffer up and begin playing when you skip through tracks etc. But when listening to an album or playlist, the next song is buffered ahead of time so you won’t get any annoying gaps in Dark Side of the Moon unless you have bandwidth issues.
This is nothing to do with Tidal’s server performance though, it’ll be down to your own connection and how fast it can suck those FLAC files through the tubes.
As for the 75,000 HD music videos… I would call it a work in progress. A lot of the videos I specifically looked for were absent. I’m a big Queen fan and love a lot of the Queen videos, but there are none in Tidal. The system uses Flash as the video format, and I did notice some quality issues on a lot of the videos, but most of them looked at least 720p – there’s no way to tell for sure.
It’s certainly a great feature to have, though, and something the other services might like to copy, I would suggest.
As for sound quality, what can I say? It’s brilliant.
As you would expect from a FLAC service, sound quality is a lot better than Spotify and the other music streaming services. Hi-fi enthusiasts don’t need to be convinced about the benefits of FLAC over MP3 or OGG.
But what about your everyday Spotify subscriber? Well the good news is that there’s a free trial for Tidal so you can decide for yourself if you think it’s worth it.
But certainly, you’ll only get the very best out of Tidal if you have some decent audio gear and a willing pair of ears. This could be the perfect excuse to buy that pair of headphones you’ve been eyeing up.
I primarily tested at home with a PC plugged into a separate DAC and headphone amp. Into this was plugged a pair of Oppo PM-1 headphones and with this setup I would defy anyone to tell me Tidal doesn’t sound absolutely incredible.
But what about laptops, mobile devices and headphones that don’t cost £1000? I tested with a Samsung Galaxy Note 3, an iPod touch 5th Gen, iPad 2 and several laptops with a variety of headphones and speakers at different price points. Results were great but each device imprints its own noticeable sound signature on the output.
The Galaxy Note 3’s DAC, for instance, is like many Android devices, known for being quite feeble.
Android and iOS as operating systems aren’t exactly the best for handling high resolution audio, either.
And that ultimately means that FLAC will never sound quite as good through an average mobile device’s headphone jack as it does from a device with more competent audio hardware.
But even so, it’s still a noticeable step up from a 320kbps Spotify stream on whatever device you listen on.
However, if you don’t even know which quality setting your Spotify app is set to (320 is not the default!), and if you’re happily using your Apple EarPods to listen to music every day, it’s unlikely that Tidal is for you and that’s fine.
When we first tested Tidal, there was no desktop app so computer-bound users had to use the web-player. These days, there is a desktop player but it’s nowhere near as refined as that of Spotify. And a quick look on the Tidal website reveals it’s been hidden away – Tidal wants you to use the web player only. And frankly, that’s probably a good idea – it’s a lot better.
It’s got plenty of functionality, and will even allow you to import your Spotify playlists into Tidal pretty easily, but it’s clearly in need of some development. It doesn’t look great at higher resolutions and so the web player offers a better experience.
On the whole, both the Android and iOS apps were very good. There’s not much difference between them, frankly, but I found that the Android one seemed a bit more slick and responsive.
The syncing of playlists and albums for offline listening could be improved. You select ‘Offline’ to download, the button being exactly the same as the Spotify one, but you have to go into your sidebar, select ‘Offline Content’ and then swipe to your download queue in order to see whether something has finished downloading or not. I found this really quite annoying.
It’s worse on iOS. Because, on Android, the downloading files show up in your Action Bar in the same way as any other downloading file. But on iOS, there’s just no way to see what’s downloaded and what’s not.
One very cool feature that the Tidal has that Spotify doesn’t, is audio-search. It’s like having Shazam built directly into the app – press the button and it’ll listen to any song you can hear in your environment, identify it and allow you to save it to your own Tidal library.
Tidal is the CD quality music streaming service hi-fi people have been waiting for.
For a brand new service, the level of detail that’s been put in and the number of different ways to explore new music is simply fantastic. If it didn’t cost double the price of a standard subscription, I would say it’s well worth anyone switch over immediately.
Whether your ears care about the increase in fidelity, whether you have the headphones and playback devices to make the best of it, and whether the extra cash is worth it, only you can tell. But with a one-week trial for everyone, there’s simply no reason not to at least give it a try.
Sound quality is the obvious attraction here and provided you listen using the right equipment, you’ll easily notice the difference compared to lower-quality formats.
The service is compatible with Sonos and other players such as Marantz receivers and if you’re an iPhone or iPad owner you’ll be able to stream over AirPlay without any loss of quality.
Honestly, the fact that Jay Z now owns Tidal and has dished out shares to all his rich chums in the industry hasn’t made us any more fond of the service. But we can get over that.
It’s clear the desktop player needs plenty of work and the catalogue could do with some fleshing out but these are works in progress and not major issues that should dissuade you from getting involved.
The price is obviously the main turn-off for Tidal. There’s absolutely no reason to opt for the Tidal Premium option over a Spotify Premium one, given that they’re the same price despite Spotify’s clear superiority. No, the only reason to go with Tidal is for the £20 HiFi streaming and on that score, only you know how much you value sound quality.
We really love Tidal. And while seeing Jay Z and his mates at the helm is almost as hard as watching Joffrey Lannister terrorise the citizens of King’s Landing, it’s really no reason to not give it a shot. The sound quality is truly excellent and the apps are largely very easy to use.
The price is clearly the barrier to entry but we reckon if you’re a fan of sound quality, the free trial might be enough to persuade you that it’s worth the cost.