Jay Z and his famous buddies made a splash this week at the relaunch of Tidal, the high-definition music streaming service backed by artists for their people. It promises to bring you all the music you expect with sound quality that can surpass the rest. So how does it hold up? We've been hands (ears?) on to find out.
Let's back up for a sec and tell you a little about Tidal first:
Tidal was a tiny Norwegian streaming service that basically no-one had heard of, until Jay-Z bought it (and parent company Aspiro) in January. The service is meant to offer a premium streaming experience, with 25 million high-definition tracks offered in lossless format. Lossless is a high-definition music format that streams music at CD quality rather than the crappy music you’ve been streaming through Spotify.
One feature that also hasn't been talked about much is the vast library of music videos and behind the scenes content available on Tidal. If you're the sort of person who loves the music DVD and Blu-ray section of your local JB Hi-Fi, Tidal is probably for you.
Tidal has a basic music discovery service that surfaces new artists and playlists, and lets you create basic playlists that can also by synced offline. Although if you're going to do that, make sure you have ample space on your phone: lossless audio isn't punishes your disk space.
Right now Tidal has a web player "optimised for Chrome", as well as an Android and iOS app you can use. First things first: the web app sucks. Bring on the desktop app ASAP. The one thing Spotify got right about it's fairly obnoxious web player is that you can go to Spotify.com, log in and voila: you're in the player. That's how it should work.
When you go to Tidal.com and log in it just brings up a dumb settings page with no way to get to the web player. To get to it, you have to go back to the main page, open the menu on the right-hand side of the page and click, Open Web Player. Logins don't seem to be persistent between the front door and the web player, so you have to log in again before you can start listening to the music you're paying a comparative assload for.
That's the other catch with Tidal: it’s expensive. You’ll pay $23.99 per month for the lossless tier in Australia. There’s also a $11.99 tier if you’re not a fan of lossless audio, but why would you jump ship to Tidal when you already have Spotify/Rdio/Google Play Music All Access/Pandora/iTunes Radio/etc, etc.
So, it's expensive and is kind of annoying to use. At least the music sounds good, right? Sort of.
Tidal's big draw card is lossless music. Lossless basically just refers to CD quality music. Sound that streams at between 400 kbit/s and 1,411 kbit/s. By comparison, Spotify's "Extreme" stream/sync quality gives you sound at "around 320kbit/s". Think of the difference in visual terms and you find that Spotify is standard definition and Tidal's lossless Hi-Fi service is 4K.
I've spent the last day or so listening to Tidal using some bonkers headphones. First I used Gizmodo's choice for 2014 Headphones Of The Year, the Bose QC25, to stream sweet, sweet Tidal tunes, and found the difference in quality to be noticeable, but not like a change from night and day by comparison.
Then I donned the $1400 Audeze LCD-2 headphones to continue testing, and found the quality gap between Spotify's 320kbit/s, iTunes' 240kbit/s and Tidal's 1411kbit/s to be even more apparent, but I still had to concentrate to tell the difference.
For my control, I compared the new Madeon album on Tidal to the same album I purchased from the iTunes Store, and it might be my ears but I can't tell a huge difference. Sound on Tidal is certainly more full and makes you feel like you're sitting in the recording studio hearing the music be mixed, but unless you're a hardcore audiophile who wants to be in that scenario, you're not going to care.
Should You Buy It?
In the end, it depends on how much you like your music. If you're a hardcore audiophile who cringes at the sound offered by iTunes, Google Play or Spotify, coughing up $23.99 per month for a single service probably won't be such a bad thing. If you're someone who already subscribes to one of the aforementioned service and listens to music on crappy EarPods you keep putting through the washing machine, it's probably not aimed at you.
I would argue that nobody really cares about audio the same way people care about video. High-definition video is easier to spot thanks to high-resolution screens everywhere, whereas sound is something most just take for granted. As long as it doesn't slip into the 96kbit/s zone, nobody really cares.
I guess in the end the big draw card of Tidal is that it's something you can subscribe to in order to allay your conscience. Musicians aren't making squat from services like Spotify (according to the likes of Taylor Swift anyway), so by paying more for a streaming service owned by artists for their fans, you're making sure the money goes to the right place, right? At least that's what we assume. Maybe it's just for Jay Z to buy more yachts with.