How Can I Get the Best Sound Quality When Streaming Tidal?

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Q I just signed up for Tidal music streaming and want to make sure I am getting the best sound quality from that service. My laptop is connected to my router with an Ethernet cable and then to my Onkyo pre/pro via an HDMI cable. I have the Tidal app’s settings set to HiFi.

My question is, as music streams from Tidal, does it pass through the laptop’s sound card first and then to the HDMI cable, or straight from the HDMI cable to the Onkyo pre/pro? I don’t know what sound card is equipped with the computer, and want to make sure that if streamed music does pass through, that the card isn’t detracting from the sound quality. —Andre Spits / Atlanta,GA

A Your laptop’s sound card very well might detract from sound quality if it takes the CD-quality digital audio signal streamed from Tidal and converts it to analog. That’s because the digital-to-analog converters built into most laptops aren’t necessarily designed for hi-fi. If you use a digital connection interface such as HDMI, optical, USB, or Ethernet, however, the audio data will bypass the DACs in the computer’s sound card and be routed to your receiver for decoding. So, basically, you’re on the right track.

If you’re serious getting the best sound from Tidal, however, an alternative you might want to consider is using an external USB DAC in place of your current direct HDMI connection to the receiver. I’m not knocking the quality of the DACs built into your Onkyo pre-pro, but rather your choice of the jitter-prone HDMI connection. Good USB DACs such as the Meridian Explorer2 provide asynchronous data transfer. This allows the DAC to control the clock rate at which data is converted to audio—an important factor in eliminating timing errors that degrade sound quality.