Ease Of Use
If you have a good listening environment and care about the quality of the music you're listening to, Tidal offers a refreshing experience. It misses some key features (like the gapless playback) that are on the product roadmap for the coming months.
Tidal is a hi-fi music streaming service launched a few months ago in US and UK by Aspiro, a Swedish company already known in Europe for Wimp (a similar music service).
After the US and UK launch, the service recently added 5 European countries (Ireland, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg and now South Africa, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Singapore and Denmark) and offers unlimited access to over 25 million tracks in FLAC (on all platforms apart from iOS, where ALAC Apple Lossless is used), and available to stream in 44.1 kHz / 16 bit (1411kbps).
Tidal is the first hi-fi music streaming service available in the US. In Europe, the only competitor is the France-based Qobuz, that covers 9 countries (stay tuned for a review).
I’m an avid user of streaming services, but having been raised on vinyls and CDs I can’t help but notice the limitations of the mp3 codec, especially when listening to certain kinds of music on quality speakers. This is why Tidal’s launch put a big smile on my face. Nowadays most people have plenty of bandwidth and, let’s be honest, it’s time to move on from the good old Mp3s.
A first look
I had a chance to test Tidal over the past three months on both desktop and mobile platforms (Mac, iPad and a Nexus 4). I’ve mostly used the desktop application, even though it’s possible to run a browser version (I’ve used it on Chrome).
The desktop application has a clean and no-frills look, with gray and black tones. Not particularly attractive but it does the job. I would like a bigger font size though. The browser and the mobile interfaces are surprisingly different – sleeker and somehow more modern looking.
The desktop app
The top part of the interface shows one of Tidal’s peculiarities: its curated editorial recommendations, album presentations, playlists, features and interviews by experienced music journalists.
I appreciate this move. I find that streaming music services should always guide the listeners through the millions of tracks of their catalog. Algorithms are fine, but human curation is something they can’t replace yet. Well done, Tidal.
Can you hear the difference?
Well, yes. You’ll definitely notice the difference with other standard streaming music services.
Having basically stopped using CDs (due to the convenience factor), listening to well-recorded jazz, classical music, rock or electronica albums on Tidal is refreshing. When listening using the HiFi option (Tidal provides three options: ‘HiFi’ – FLAC 1411, ‘High’ – AAC 320 and ‘Standard’ – AAC 96) the frequencies and the stereo image are simply more faithful and tight. Cymbals, acoustic instruments, synthetic patterns, reverbs, they all benefit from the high-quality treatment.
Again, you’ll need a decent listening environment to appreciate these differences (no audiophile here, thank you very much, but two good near-field speakers and headphones are all I need). If you’re not sure about your equipment, Tidal provides a useful test here.
Performance and gaps to fill
In terms of performance though, the first month was quite problematic: drop-outs and disconnections affected the service, to the point I was wondering if Tidal was really ready for prime time. Thankfully things got much better in the past few weeks. The dreadful HiFi playback problem message (see below) still shows up here and there, but I don’t experience significant issues anymore.
Coming from Spotify, what I really miss on Tidal is the gapless listening feature. So here we have a great sounding streaming music service that, unfortunately, makes listening to any gapless album (think Dark Side, symphonies, concept albums, etc.) a quite unpleasant experience. I’m sure this is high on Tidal’s priority list, and hopefully we’ll see it implemented in the next release (after all, it took a long time even for Spotify engineers to add such feature).
Another feature you may miss is the social integration. At the moment, Tidal doesn’t offer a way to follow your friends and/or see what they’re listening to. Not a big deal for me, but for social media addicts it could be a deal breaker.
The catalog seems to be quite comprehensive. It’s always hard to compare different streaming services from this point of view (things change quickly), but I’ve been able to find most of the artists I looked for (both major and indie, new and old). Among the albums I couldn’t find, I should mention some from the Erased Tapes label (i.e. A Winged Victory For The Sullen). One odd issue I’ve experienced is missing tracks from certain classical music albums.
Also, the search feature needs some fine-tuning. It’s quite temperamental, and sometimes getting the results you would expect can be a bit tricky (
for example, in the last few days the artist category doesn’t come up anymore in the search results pop-up).
That said, let’s keep in mind that this is the 1.0 version of the service. I’m sure these catalog-related issues will be addressed soon.
Last but not least, on the mobile app you’ll find the expected offline playback feature. Given you’ll be dealing with huge lossless files this is definitely a handy feature.
A subscription to Tidal costs $19,99 / month (£19.99) against the usual $9,99 of Spotify & co.
Is it worth it? If you have a good listening environment and care about the quality of the music you’re listening to, then yes. Right now, it’s the closest thing to the CD experience, and your only lossless streaming option if you’re in the US.
As for home audio integrations, Tidal has agreements with the following providers:
Amarra, Anthem, Airable by Tune In Media, Astell & Kern, Audeze, Audiovector, AudioQuest, Auralic, Aurender, Bel Canto, Bluesound & NAD, Dan D’Agostino, Definitive Technology, Denon, DTS Play-Fi, Dynaudio, Electrocompaniet, Harman Omni, HiFiAkademie, ickStream, JH Audio, Linn, McIntosh, Meridian, Mirage, MartinLogan, Musaic Paradigm, Polk, Pro-ject, PS Audio, Raumfeld, Simple Audio, Sonos, Steinway Lyngdorf, Wadia, Wren Sound Systems with more to come.
If you’re listening to music on your laptop or through cheap speakers/headphones, just keep using your current music streaming service. Tidal is not for you.
If you can’t make up your mind, the 7-day trial should help.
Tidal will be available in several new markets this quarter (Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, France, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Switzerland, Slovenia, Sweden and Turkey), bringing the total number of active countries to 30.
As I was writing this article, Project Panther Bidco Ltd (a company controlled by Jay-Z), announced it had offered to buy Aspiro for 464 million Swedish crowns ($56 million) in cash. Aspiro’s board of directors has decided to unanimously recommend all shareholders of Aspiro to accept the offer, so I assume Jay-Z will be soon the new Tidal’s owner.
It’s too early to predict what this will mean for Tidal’s future, but it’s a clear sign that 2015 could be an exciting year not only for Tidal, but for the entire streaming music business.