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

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 31 August 2018 | 11:25:00 am

Tidal

Tidal is, or at least was a Norwegian company. Launching in 2014, it is one of the newest of the streaming services and yet one of the fastest growing and better-known. There are three reasons for this: it quickly expanded to include 52 countries, including the US, which has helped spread its brand quickly. It is one of only a small few services to offer not only a lossy streaming service but also lossless, CD-quality. It also offers a CD quality plus, but more on that shortly. Finally, in 2015 it was sold to a company led by Jay-Z, but including other artists on its board, who gave their full, and powerful, media presence to promote it.

Like Spotify, it has a web player (which allows you to log in and play tracks or albums in your web browser), but it also has its own set of "apps" for Windows, Mac, and Android. Sadly there is no separate Linux program, which means that its top-tier audio cannot be played on Linux machines (To Linux users: it seems the program will also not run in WINE. Perhaps due to the use of MQA?). This top tier is often thought to be streaming at 96 kHz / 24 bit. Although, as it uses MQA this may not be entirely accurate. Indeed, the fact that it uses MQA, maybe the reason that you cannot listen to its top-tier audio stream in a web browser. MQA needs MQA's own technology to decode it, and that is only present in the Tidal apps and certain audio equipment at present.

There are two membership types:

Tidal Premium.

Streaming at 320 kbps (Either MP3 or AAC - it is difficult to confirm which codec is used and may differ between platforms). This is Tidal's "lossy" streaming service. Comparable to Spotify.  This is priced at 9.99 a month.

Tidal HIFI

This is Tidal's "lossless" streaming format and comes in two "flavours" which the user chooses and can swap between at will:

First there are  Flac files at 16 bit 44.1 kHz - basically CD quality. In its app, and elsewhere, tidal names this service "HiFi Lossless" 

It also offers higher quality streams and downloads which it calls "Masters". Again, it seems that there is some confusion around these, with the assumption - not easily clarified by Tidal -  these are Flac files encoded at 96 kHz / 24 bit. But this is not necessarily correct as they use the MQA processing (See here for a discussion of MQA) MQA is actually lossy. As Tidal state on their website in their QA: "Tidal has partnered with MQA to deliver an authenticated and unbroken version (typically 96 kHz / 24 bit), ". Confusing isn't it? But then, the entire industry seems confused about MQA. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that it should be significantly above 16 bit 44.1 kHz, but not a consistent 96 kHz / 24 bit. It should also be noted that the MQA software is reencoding and "enhancing" the track and indeed without this, the audio would be distorted. Clear as mud, isn't it? This service is priced at 19.99 a month.

App:

On logging in the app is very similar to Spotify's (see image below) and anyone coming from Spotify will feel comfortable. However, having tested it on Windows (i5, 8 gig Ram) and Android (S9 Plus), I would say that it is more stable and responsive then Spotify's window or android apps. However, it does not have many of the social media/community aspects that Spotify does. No list of what your friends are playing on the right-hand side of the app, for example.

The service has over 48.5 million tracks and 175,000 music videos - although these videos are mainly Pop, Rap, Rock, R&B and Metal. There is little here for classical music or jazz lovers. Luckily, it does hold a significant classical music catalogue, and while nowhere near as extensive as Spotify's you will normally find what you are looking for. At least, as long as the Tidal's search engine can track them down, which often needs more than one try and the use of some imagination.

It quickly becomes apparent that Tidal is aiming its sights at the American "youth" market, with great emphasis on Rap, Pop and modern R&B.

Click on any category and you will be met with a similar layout (see image below). Starting at the top this will be: Curated Playlists, New Tracks, New Albums, An artist of the week, two record labels which in the classical section do not seem to change (DG and ECM) and finally a set of "guest playlists" although this last section is not to be found in the classical section.




Music Discovery.

The best streaming services offer some ways of helping you discover music that you might not otherwise. Spotify does this, not brilliantly, but other users playlists can turn up the odd gem. Sadly in the classical music section, Tidal does nothing of any use - apart, perhaps, for the odd thing to be found the ECM or DG listings or "classic recordings". And of course, "New Releases". The "curated" classical music playlists are generally the usual nonsense put together by someone whose experience of classical music is "Mozart for your baby" and "Classical Music to help you study/sleep" (delete as appropriate). Even the lest moderately experienced classical music "fan" will find little new or interesting here. Unless you are keen to discover - and I am not making this up -  "Classical Meets Pop"

Meta Tagging

If you are not aware, all of your music contains "hidden" information known as metadata. This information typically lists: 

Song title
Band or artist's name
Album name that the song originates from
Type of music (genre)
Album track number
Year the song was released

Different programs tend to read this data slightly differently, and different record companies fill this data differently and for various reasons, some programs struggle with classical music meta tags. Sometimes this can be funny. Sometimes it can make looking for CDs difficult. It may have been rectified now but it was once extremely difficult to find all of the Goodall or Haitink Ring cycle for this reason in Spotify. But I don't think I have ever seen a service deal with this as badly as Tidal.  And this is important. To help with search and even playback, a program must be able to read this metadata correctly - sometimes trying to interpret what the record label is trying to say. Sadly, Tidal fails at this repeatedly in its classical music section. For some reason, it especially cannot cope with multi-disc classic music sets. 

Take the example below of the recent live Janowski Walkure on Pentatone. 

It starts by playing midway through act two! Hinweg! Hinweg! Flieh die Entweihte! It then moves on to the act one "prelude"! And off it goes once again on its magical mystery tour, where it stops, nobody knows. It's clear that it is, for some reason, putting all of those tracks labelled as track one and playing them together - in any order. And so on. Thankfully, it does not do this all the time and on most CDs, but you come across it enough to both worrisome and annoying. For example, see below what it does to the excellent Michael Gielen Edition Vol. 6 / Mahler making his entire Mahler cycle unlistenable. I came across this nearly two months ago and reported to Tidal but as you can see nothing has been done.








Sound quality.

Excellent. there is little else to say. CD quality sounds like a CD and very similar to those that I might burn myself at home.  HiFi Plus is a little better if not as impressive as I thought it might be given these are supposed to be studio masters. Don't get me wrong, they are good, but there is a slight tendency to exaggerate the mids and highs more than one might expect.  One assumes this is something to do with the encoder that Tidal uses - the CD  files also complement mids and highs but not to the same degree. But overall very good. Listen to something on here then listen to the same thing on Spotify and it sounds like someone has thrown a blanket over the speakers - and Spotify is one of the better lossless services.

And that concludes our tour of Tidal. Next up is Qobuz and finally a summary,  my thoughts and recommendations.