First Listen: Tidal Hi-Fi Music Streaming Service

A few months ago, we reported that Tidal High Fidelity music streaming was going to be launched in the US. It’s now up and running, and we had a chance to check it out. It’s the first full-resolution music streaming service available to US consumers. (Deezer is also full resolution, but only available for Sonos users.) Blah, blah, yet another music streaming service. Is it really that much better than Beats, Spotify, Slacker, or Pandora? Is it worth the $19.99 monthly fee? After some intensive listening, I say without hesitation, enthusiastically “YES” on all accounts.

Tidal has launched with a claimed 25 million tracks available to stream or download, all in CD-quality 16-bit/44.1k, lossless FLAC files, or for Apple users, lossless ALAC files. I didn’t count them all, but so far I’m impressed with the depth of their library. In addition to music, there are over 75,000 music videos available in high def. They have contracts with Sony, Universal, Warner, and more, along with indie labels. In addition, they have platforms for PC and Mac users, and mobile Android and iOS apps. Contracts are in the works with numerous manufacturers (at least 34) to include Tidal in their hardware systems too.

Since streaming this much data can come at a cost, Tidal has an option to download lossless files to listen offline, and you can also downgrade from HiFi to lower resolution streams to conserve data. You can choose the resolution of the downloads too, along with where to store it, and authorize up to three devices per account. They make it easy to see what’s downloaded and even easier to edit your downloaded playlist. Currently, there is a free 7-day trial subscription being offered, but it should be noted that downloads are not available during the trial period. It’s easy to understand why. Did we mention that Tidal is free from commercials? Ad-free, high-quality music. What’s not to like?

Choosing what to listen to is almost overwhelming. You can simply pick an artist and listen to their repertoire, or pick a genre and let Tidal’s music editors choose for you. There are also editorial sections with artist interviews, album spotlights, music news, and more. The user interface will be familiar to both users of Spotify and iTunes.

I started out with a tough one. See how much Philip Glass they have. Well, a lot more than Pandora. How much Peter Gabriel? Quite a bit, but some only available as album downloads, not streaming. For a while, I just let their Classical playlist roll. I was impressed not just with the variety, or quality of performances (Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, Joshua Bell, etc.) but of course, with the fidelity.

Then it hit me. There was so much of my favorite music that I don’t listen to very often because it sounds so awful as a compressed file. I rediscovered Renaissance and Pat Metheny. Found albums I had worked on from years ago. Lost hours reconnecting with Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And then, I searched for Yes.

Close To The Edge has been one of my favorite albums, ever since it first came out. But an MP3 file, even at 320kbps, loses the depth, the sparkle, the detail. But hearing the opening guitar notes of “And You and I” brought back that incredible sound, the fidelity, and the reason I love this recording. I was hooked. This song starts with clearly struck guitar notes with high harmonics. Tidal conveyed that sense of space and clarity flawlessly. Tidal makes it easy to switch resolution, and switching to Standard (AAC+ 96) or High (AAC 320) and back to HiFi (FLAC 1411) really shows off how good streaming can sound. In this case, it sounds fabulous.

There is a current resurgence in Hi-Res Audio, and as an audio writer and recording engineer, I couldn’t be happier. However, the general public might not see a benefit in something better than CD quality—they were told for decades that CD-quality was the gold standard, and with good reason. If Tidal can break people of the MP3 habit and just restore music back to CD quality, which is pretty darn good, it’s an amazing service, and perhaps a gateway to even higher resolution. With Tidal, you don’t just get good quality; you get great quality with a music service that has a deep lexicon of tracks available for a variety of musical tastes. There’s really no excuse for low-fidelity, low-quality streaming. None.

"We are delighted that TIDAL has launched and that music lovers can now appreciate music the way it is meant to sound," said TIDAL CEO Andy Chen. "But the music is just one part of the service. The expert editorial educates, entertains and enriches the music experience while the music videos complement the music perfectly. We are sure that TIDAL will quickly become the music streaming service of choice for all who appreciate high quality at every level."

kevon27's picture

Why are people calling CD's or Music with at 16/44.1 Hi-Res when this audio technology can only allow frequencies up to 22khz???

What would you call DVD-A, or Blu-ray audio...
Wait, so now mp3's should be standard def quality and no longer called crap definition quality..

funambulistic's picture

Read the article again with a bit more care. Not once did the author equate 15/44.1 to Hi-Res, but did refer to the streaming services as "HiFi". This quote sums up the article nicely: "If Tidal can break people of the MP3 habit and just restore music back to CD quality, which is pretty darn good, it’s an amazing service, and perhaps a gateway to even higher resolution."

Rob Sabin's picture
Great to see this glowing write-up on Tidal's sound quality from someone with real ears. To begin, I'm very bullish on hi-res audio, defined as better than CD quality. You need only listen to good high res files on a reasonably good system (notice, I didn't even say "high end system") to know how discernibly improved hi res can be than even CDs, much less everyday digital streams. But the primary mechanism right now to access hi res music is still relatively expensive download purchases. Fine for us enthusiast geekazoids, but for everyday consumers, downloads are going away while streaming is up, up, up. You can't blame them -- especially with services like Spotify, you get pretty much complete access to just about every piece of music you could possibly want, so who cares if it sounds like crap? Saving sound quality, or more to the point, bringing it back for a new generation of listeners after the train crash that was MP3, will not be done without high quality streams like Tidal's. And it's only a matter of time before CD-quality streams give way to better-than-CD quality. The fact that Tidal's developers worked as hard as they did to make the service user-friendly and engaging is comforting. This is a big day for people who care about sound.

niico's picture

Firstly, Spotify extreme quality is actually pretty impressive. It most certainly doesn't sound like crap. Have you even tried Spotify extreme? (only available when you pay a monthly subscription).

High quality MP3 can get very good and very hard to distinguish from CD (going back to using LAME for my own rips back in the day).

(I am using a $7000 high fi setup - ARCAM / Monitor Audio Silver 9 - and on iPhone Shure Red SE535 earphones).

Again - without double blind studies you can't trust 'real ears' or your own perception. ONLY when you don't know what you're listening to - can you make accurate calls about what sounds 'better' / 'higher fi' / 'more enjoyable' - without having a compromised opinion.

If you have never done this you will be surprised what *actually* improves the sound, what is snake oil, and what is marginal.

niico's picture

As with most audio - this is full of snake oil crap.

Frequences, Khz, bitrate - it's all totally irrelevant.

Does it sound better - or rather - is it higher fidelity - i.e. closer to the source material.

There needs to be a double blind study done to see if people can hear the difference between these 'high res' formats and, say, Spotify.

There could also be frequency analysis (taking into account human perception and hearing ability).

Of course - no one is doing this.

You absolutely cannot trust your perception of what sounds good when you know what *should* sound better. If you do that we're back to $200 gold plated digital cables.

No article on Tidal is worth anything without double blind listening studies. The app and curation is peripheral. Sound quality just isn't being rigorously tested by ANYONE at present.

Deafening's picture

Double blind studies are junk. They are made by people and people couldn't tell you anything accurately if you paid them. The numbers are the only thing that means anything.

Just like the forensics is the only thing that means anything, no matter what a witness says. 32 bit is better than 24 bit, 384khz is better than 192 kHz, 320kpbs is better than 128kbps, etc. Do you have to have no weak links in the source to sound path, yes. Those are all facts.

Now, are they necessary or can they be heard, probably not at this time. However, your ears are connected to your brain and if your brain knows from source to sound you have done everything to remove any losses whatsoever, it will sound better by definition, by hi-definition. ;-p