Mastodon Spotify, Tidal & Qobuz: A Comparison & Review. Part One - The Wagnerian

Spotify, Tidal & Qobuz: A Comparison & Review. Part One

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday 31 August 2018 | 5:50:00 am

We have been looking at Spotify alternative, streaming services. Those that stream, but in "CD quality - or above.  As the Wagnerian has an international readership, and not all services are available internationally we thought this might just include Tidal. However, we recently discovered that Qobuz will be launching in the USA in October (it is already available in Europe of course and has been for many years) and will continue to expand from there. It thus seemed a good time to compare both. Due to its size, we have broken the review into two sections: part one will provide an overview of lossy and lossless streaming and why Spotify dominates the lossy marketplace. Part two will provide a more detailed review of each service.

Why Spotify? Why Not Spotify? And what's an MP3 anyway?

Music streaming has become, for many, the new norm in how they listen to music. While there are many different providers offering this service - Apple, Amazon Music Unlimited, Google Music, etc -  Spotify remains king. And, there are very good reasons for this. Spotify offers both a free, ad-supported membership and a relatively cheap paid version. It is also fantastic for sharing music among people on social media and sites such as this one. Of course, you can do the same with the other services, but where Spotify has the edge is that anyone can listen to these albums or playlists -  as long as they can tolerate the occasional advert, - for free. Indeed, for this reason, it is unlikely we here at the Wagnerian, will stop using Spotify anytime soon. And of course, this makes it fantastic for music discovery. In my youth - and indeed a lot later - you found out about a new CD from friends, a newspaper or a magazine. You then, unless the aforementioned friend had a copy -  went to a local music store, asked the bored-looking person behind the counter if you could listen to it and off you would go to a booth or freestanding headphones and listen.  It was all a bit of a hassle really (Do people still do it? Are there places where, an alternative version of me, is bobbing their head and looking an idiot to this generations version of the "Clash's Sandinista!"?). Worse, these were rarely the best conditions to listen. However, Spotify ended all of that and gave us more. Want to listen to something occasionally but really don't want to buy it? Spotify is there. Want to take all of the Goodall Ring, out with you for a weekend (Given Goodall's pacing, we suggest a long weekend) but don't want to rip the CDs yourself? Spotify has you covered. And better, if you have the paid membership - £9.99 a month - and not only can you stream the tracks but download them to your phone or whatever and listen to them without being connected to the internet - as you can with most services already mentioned.

However, despite the plus points, Spotify suffers from one thing that makes it less than ideal - especially for those like us that enjoy classical music: the lossy audio codec known as MP3. It would be easy at this stage to assume the reader understands what this means and the impact it might have on the music they listen to, but many conversations have taught me this should never be assumed. So let us briefly, very briefly, define what we mean. The knowledgeable reader can simply skip the rest of this paragraph. An MP3 of the great Herbert von Karajan conducting the equally great Wiener Philharmoniker and the great and legendary Jessye Norman performing the "Liebestod" from Tristan will not sound the same as the same track on the CD or record (the cumbersomely titled "Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture; Siegfried-Idyll; Tristan und Isolde" ) from which it came. The reason is simple, MP3 (like Apple's AAC) is a lossy encoder. In the very simplest of terms - using some imagination  and half-truths for ease of explanation -  what this MP3  codec does is "look" at the original audio track and in order to make it smaller (originally due to the expense and difficulties involved in computer storage and internet bandwidth)  "removes" the bits of the recording it "thinks" are not that important. Not sections of the recording or instruments, of course, but bits of the "data" "it considers" "less important" (Audiophiles and programmers? Put your emails away now, its simply a useful analogy. Anyway, didn't I suggest skipping this part? Go! Shuh!)  What that means for the listener is the recording will not sound as good when played as an MP3 as it does as a CD (or Flac or other none lossy codec, but more of that later). How much "worse" will depend on the bitrate per second (kbps)" that the user, "told" the encoder to encode it. Again, in the simplest of terms, the higher the kbps the less information MP3 encoder (or  Apple's AAC) will remove. The best, for MP3 being 320 Kbps (although other factors also need to be taken into account, but that is for another discussion. As too is AACs kbps comparison).

Again, the lossless copy will not sound as good as the original recording. Often sounding more "compressed" or with less dynamic range. With certain music, this might not be that important - if we were being a little "snobby" about it - but with classical music, this is much more important. Just listen to Wagner, Mahler or Bruckner on MP3 - even if ripped using the best MP3 encoder at 320Kbps - and its difficult to not notice the difference. Although, that will depend on the capability of your audio equipment (or the attached DAC) - and speakers or headphones especially. There are of course those that claim that they cannot tell the difference, and that is indeed possible. I shall not argue.  But if you can tell the difference, then this is where Tidal and Qobuz come in. And indeed, in the case of Qobuz, even if you can't tell the difference, the service may be of interest to you still - perhaps.

Lossy and Lossless? What's all that then? And what makes Tidal and Qobuz different?

When you "rip" a CD (I.E. copy it to your computer) you can make files of two very different types: Lossy or Lossless. Lossy files include MP3 and Apple's AAC. As we have seen this means removing part of the data to make the file smaller - hence "lossy". As we have also seen this is what happens within Spotify, Apple, Google Music, etc. However, you can also rip your CD using a lossless codec - such as Flac. What happens now is you get a bigger file but it copies the CD exactly. No data is lost. Hence "lossless". Your copy should be identical to the sound of the CD you copied it from.  The most popular lossless codec is Flac. And this is what both Tidal and Qobuz use.  Both services stream - and allow you to copy to your local computer or phone - in Flac at 16-Bit/44.1 kHz (don't worry about this for a minute. All you need to know for now, if this is new to you, is this should be the same as a CD). Both services also offer higher encoding, which, should a good source be available, give even better sound,  but we will get to this shortly.

With that, we conclude part one. In part two a detailed look at both services and why, or not, you should consider them. But, before you go, listen below, to the record in the picture at the start of this article. Reminds me of being young, in my bedroom and trying to listen to Lohengrin on the radio, on Long Wave. Makes those MP3s sound quite impressive really.