TIDAL–recently acquired by rapper/entrepreneur Jay-Z–is one of two uncompressed streaming music services available in the US. Instead of serving up tracks compressed using so-called “lossy codecs” MP3, AAC or Ogg Vorbis like Spotify, Beats Music or Rdio, uncompressed services stream full CD-quality music for higher fidelity.
Deezer’s Elite service beat TIDAL to the uncompressed punch by just weeks last fall, and I reviewed it in November. I recently took TIDAL for a spin and can share my impressions of its sound quality.
TIDAL received much more press and many more reviews than Deezer Elite when it debuted. That’s almost entirely due to the fact that TIDAL is not tied to any particular hardware. Deezer Elite, on the other hand, is only available on Sonos wireless audio systems. TIDAL is available on Sonos too, so I tested it using the same Sonos Connect, Yamaha Aventage A–1000 receiver and Polk RT600i tower speakers I used to review Deezer Elite. Taking advantage of TIDAL’s multi-platform advantage, I also tried out TIDAL on my MacBook Pro and iPad.
On the internet arguments over sound quality can be as partisan as politics, with many tech reviewers, in particular, deriding audiophiles who claim to hear better sound from lossless music, vinyl, or high-resolution digital audio. Let me say up front that while lossy compressed music from MP3s and AACs files can be very good, uncompressed CD-quality music ranges from being a touch better to significantly superior. This difference can be subtle, but it isn’t always. It’s important to have decent stereo equipment or headphones. Listening over laptop speakers or through cheap earbuds seriously limit the ability to experience uncompressed music.
Comparing TIDAL and Deezer Elite
Listening to multiple tracks on both TIDAL and Deezer Elite though my Sonos system I heard no identifiable difference. For all practical purposes they sound identical. Provided that both services started with the same CD or digital file provided by the label, that is what one should expect. I could imagine that one might find some tracks or albums that do sound different, perhaps due to slightly different master sources, but I doubt that this would be due to any generalized gap between Deezer and TIDAL.
TIDAL on a Receiver and Speakers
On the same system I then compared TIDAL to Spotify tracks and MP3 and AAC encoded tracks in my own music library. Like Deezer Elite, I found that TIDAL consistently sounded better than the lossy compressed tracks, with the differences ranging from subtle to quite noticeable. In general, TIDAL provided a more spacious, three-dimensional soundstage, whereas Spotify sounded as if my speakers were closer together. The lossy versions could get a bit grainy at the high end, on instruments like the cymbals.
TIDAL on MacBook and USB Audio Interface
I moved to listening to TIDAL on my MacBook Pro Retina (1st generation) using the web player on Chrome, the only browser that supports uncompressed streaming. First I used a PreSonus AudioBox 22VSL USB audio interface. This device is intended for both audio recording and listening, and supports high resolution audio up to 24 bits at 192 KHz (CD audio is 16 bits at 44.1 KHz). My headphones were a pair of Sony MDR–7506, a standard in radio and music production that provide pretty neutral reproduction, with good isolation from outside noise.
With this combination TIDAL sounded quite good indeed. I’ve really been enjoying the album “Mehliana: Taming the Dragon” from jazz pianist Brad Mehldau and percussionist/composer Mark Guiliana. It seamlessly blends contemporary electronic sounds with a jazz approach in a recording that I think has more dynamic richness than similar mashed-up efforts like Flying Lotus’ also-brilliant “You’re Dead.”
Listening to the track “Hungry Ghost” on TIDAL it sounded very lively, with tight but strong low bass and smooth treble. Moving to Spotify the soundstage condensed–like I’d experienced listening over speakers–and that tell-tale graininess and shimmeriness turned up with the often-hectic cymbals. Over headphones the difference in the treble, in particular, was more obvious than with speakers.
I also checked out Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” which reveled a very distinct placement of instruments in space when streamed from TIDAL. Spotify sounded quite nice on this track, with the high end remaining quite clean–a little more so than with “Hungry Ghost.” The soundstage once again collapsed a little, but subtly.
TIDAL with a MacBook’s Built-in Audio
While TIDAL is attractive to music lovers and audiophiles who are willing to shell out $100 to $1000 for an upgraded USB audio interface, it’s not unlikely that many other listeners (including, occasionally, audiophiles) will listen using their computer’s built-in headphone jack. So I tried this route as well.
Listening to TIDAL using my Sony headphones connected directly to the MacBook Pro’s headphone jack the sound took a noticeable step down right away. On “Kid Charlemagne” it sounded as if the whole soundstage took a shift to the left, and the high end got grainier. Towards the end of the track when all the instruments and players are going full tilt things get less distinct; more “wall of sound” than the typical Steely Dan precision.
Switching to Spotify over the MacBook Pro’s headphone jack it was difficult to hear much of a difference compared to TIDAL. Only when the background singers come in at the end could I perceive even less precision than with the uncompressed version. But, truth be told, I had to listen intensively to pick that up. It’s not the sort of thing I’d notice under most listening.
Listening to “Hungry Ghost” it sounded as if the MacBook’s headphone port shaved off some of the high end–things were not nearly as clear as with the AudioBox. Moving the Spotify this effect was a bit more pronounced. Not as minor a difference as with the Steely Dan track, but still quite subtle.
TIDAL on iPad
Finally, I tried out TIDAL on my Retina iPad (1st generation), using my Sonys plugged into its headphone jack. I used this combination because I don’t own an external audio interface that easily connects to the iPad, and because even more people are likely to use their mobile devices’ built-in headphone jack than an external interface. The TIDAL app can stream in lower bitrate lossy quality for use in bandwidth-constricted mobile environments, so I made sure it was delivering full CD quality.
The iPad’s sound was markedly superior to the MacBook Pro, which reflects my overall experience with Apple iOS devices; their audio reproduction is generally better than the built-in audio on nearly any computer. The soundstage opened up again on both tracks, and there was no weird shift to the left. The high end was also clearer, though not as clear as the AudioBox. Bass, in particular, had less authority than the AudioBox, coming off as a bit more tubby and sloppy, yet still better than the MacBook’s built-in audio.
Switching to Spotify I heard pretty much the same shift in quality that I heard with the AudioBox, though the difference between TIDAL and Spotify was somewhere in
between the AudioBox and the MacBook’s built-in.
Conclusion: TIDAL Delivers What It Promises
On the whole TIDAL delivers what it promises: CD-quality streaming audio. Like Deezer Elite it sounds better compared to lossy compressed streams from other services like Spotify, or digital tracks from iTunes or Amazon. I have no problems recommending TIDAL if you have audio equipment that will reveal and take advantage of the bump in quality. That caveat, however, is pivotal.
Who Will Benefit from TIDAL
At $19.95 a month, for someone who will do most of his listening on a laptop through its tinny built-in speakers or built-in headphone jack I’m not sure TIDAL is worth the extra cost compared to other services. Although I didn’t have a Bluetooth speaker on hand to test it, my past experience with Bluetooth speakers is that most don’t even extract all the quality available with Spotify or Rdio, making TIDAL even more superfluous.
Someone who will do most of her listening with a higher end mobile device and good quality headphones may in fact benefit from TIDAL. That said, if that were my primary listening set up I’m not entirely sure I’d enjoy enough of a difference to make the extra $8 to $10 a month worth it.
I think the person who listens at home over speakers with a good quality digital audio system has perhaps the best chance of fully enjoying TIDAL’s bump in fidelity. Yet, like all things audio, this experience is subjective. If you’re someone who enjoys listening to Spotify and finds no fault with it, I’m not here to convince you to switch.
Instead I would encourage anyone considering TIDAL (or any subscription streaming service) to at least do a free trial, or even subscribe for just a month. In the end, it’s up to you whether the added bits are worth what can add up to an additional $120 a year.
All I can say is that I hear a difference with TIDAL that represents an improvement over lossy services like Spotify, Rdio and Rhapsody. For my money, and for listening with equipment that takes advantage of that extra fidelity, that price difference would be worth it. Your mileage may vary.
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