The music-streaming service Tidal has had its ups and downs since a cadre of artists ranging from Alicia Keys to Madonna, Jack White, and Deadmau5 headed up by Jay-Z acquired Tidal in early 2015. One thing that hasn’t changed: The depth and quality of the service’s library, particularly in terms of its high-resolution offerings.. Let’s hope Tidal’s new majority shareholder, Square, keeps it that way.
The price of the service has changed, but mostly for the better. You’ll get CD-quality streams for $9.99/month. New users can get a 30-day free trial. A Tidal HiFi Plus plan supports streaming at rates up to 9,216Kbps for $19.99/month, and Tidal pays up to 10 percent of that subscription cost directly to each subscriber’s most-streamed artist. That’s a rarity in an industry that reaps rich rewards from musicians while paying them a pittance. Tidal has two family plans that give up to six individuals living at the same address independent accounts for $14.99 per month (Tidal HiFi) or $29.99 per month (Tidal HiFi Plus).
High-school and college students can get Tidal HiFi at the discounted rate of $4.99/month and HiFi Plus for $9.99/month. The service offers a military discount to active-duty service members and veterans: $5.99/month for the HiFi plan and $11.99/month for HiFi Plus costs $11.99/month. You’ll need to confirm your student status with SheerID to be eligible for any of those discounts. Finally, Tidal now offers a free streaming tier that gives access to its entire library, but limits stream quality to a very low 160Kbps.
Tidal has adopted the MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) format for its high-resolution streaming, a lossy solution that promises to deliver high-quality, lossless-level sound in a much smaller file size. You’ll find a lot of people on the internet who want to convince you that MQA is the worst thing to ever happen to music, but the fact remains that it sounds great to my ears and to a lot of other people.
Let’s dispense with the reasons people are so dead set against it. MQA is a proprietary format whose investors (which include major label Warner Music) are looking for a royalty payment when streamers like Tidal use the format or manufacturers make their gear compatible. Did the people who originally built the internet dream of an online utopia where information could be free and that we’d all use open standards? They sure did, but that’s not how things have shaken out.
Here’s where I set my audiophile credentials on fire. As someone who’s attended hundreds of recording sessions as a producer, A&R executive, publisher, and manager, I consider the very act of recording sound to be destructive. What you get on tape or disc is never what you heard in the room. Once you start overdubbing, bouncing, and mixing, the results are never what anyone heard in his or her head during the recording process.
Some music sounds best through a cheap transistor radio and other sounds best through the most expensive hi-fi setup you could imagine. Neither result much resembles the sound the musicians made during the session.
How music makes you feel is what matters, and MQA sounds great. There’s a real sense that its decoding system was devised by engineers who actually listen to music, and the result is tracks with depth and detail that never fails to impress.
Some audio manufacturers–including Bluesound, iFi, and Mark Levinson–have embraced MQA and made their streaming compatible with the format. Many others–including Naim and Sonos–support Tidal without adopting MQA. The fact that companies with such sterling reputations in the audiophile community have embraced Tidal should tell you something about how the service sounds to their ears.
Is MQA truly lossless? No. It’s an effective delivery system for music that usually sounds just as impressive (and sometimes better or slightly worse) as the true lossless files streamed by other services. If the hype annoys you, there are other options, but it’s a mistake to dismiss MQA without listening for yourself.
Tidal also offers surround-sound tracks encoded with Dolby Atmos and Sony 360 Reality Audio, provided your hardware supports it. Tidal’s OS app doesn’t support Dolby Atmos, so you can’t listen to those Dolby Atmos tracks with headphones, but you can stream Tidal’s Dolby Atmos tracks to your TV using an Apple TV 4K.
It’s worth listening for yourself once you realize the other advantages that Tidal brings to the streaming experience. That Tidal is a passion project for the people who work there is very much on display in the way the service chooses to share music with its customers.
My favorite feature from Tidal is its “Because You Listened To” feature, that recommends other albums based on your recent listening habits. After playing Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush (in CD quality because Neil doesn’t like MQA, either), Tidal recommended Young’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and Freedom, plus albums by Jackson Browne, Stephen Stills, Paul Simon, The Band, and the Velvet Underground.
Other music services now serve up random titles by the same artist with no concern for quality or cultural relevance. Not only does Tidal makes the connection with other artists you might enjoy, but the titles it recommends are the ones that have the most musical or cultural connection to the one that inspired the recommendation. There’s a strong sense that actual humans are at the helm, or at least heavily tweaking whatever recommendation algorithm is behind the curtain.
Another consistent strength at Tidal is a sense that the service is connected to what’s going on in contemporary music. There’s a particular strength in hip hop. Of course, hip hop is currently the most popular genre of music in the United States and it’s not hard to program a site based on what’s hot right now. It’s that second and third tier of recommendations that show the service’s knowledge and love for the genre, with impeccable taste in both catalog albums and less-famous up-and-coming artists.
Tidal’s playlist game is also impeccable. Not only are the current hits lists programmed with a sense of musical flow, they consistently add creatively themed playlists that no algorithm could ever generate. A current favorite of mine is the 100-song Retroactive playlist that somehow includes Keith Richards, folk legend Karen Dalton, Frank Zappa, Son House, The Lemonheads, Yoko Ono, Aerosmith, Pavement, David Bowie, The Clean, Leo Nocentelli, Oasis, Ray Charles, R.E.M., Nancy Sinatra, Slint, PJ Harvey, and Black Sabbath in a 7-hour set that’s like spending a weekend with your most knowledgeable music-collector friend.
Search is fast and reliable. Each artist’s page tags every title with a release year and separates them into Albums, Live albums, and Compilations. If Tidal contributors have used the artist on a playlist those are highlighted as are the Tidal in-house playlists that feature the artist. Because those playlists are so consistently good, they make for another excellent way to discover other music related to your search.
One single feature separates Tidal from every one of its competitors. They’ve taken the additional metadata that labels and rights holders have started to add to the tracks they upload and built out a powerful credits function.
Not only will clicking on the Credits button on an album’s page potentially give you information about the musicians, producer, engineer, songwriters, and label, but those names are also clickable and take you to a page that lists other projects those individuals have worked on.
Listening to Teenage Fanclub’s “Songs from Northern Britain,” a credits click reveals that the producer was the late, great David Bianco. Clicking on David’s name takes you to a page that includes songs he produced or engineered for Primal Scream, Tom Petty, the Posies, Blues Traveler, and Black Lab.
You should probably think of this as a beta feature, because the availability of metadata from the labels is still wildly inconsistent, but it’s a fact that Tidal is light-years ahead of the competition by implementing this feature and, once the industry comes around to its value, has the potential to make streaming music a much better experience for everyone in years to come.
Lyrics and Roon integration
Tidal includes a button on a song’s playback page to bring up the lyrics, which are provided by Musixmatch. Other music services use a larger font for their lyric function which makes them better for karaoke-style singalongs. Tidal’s typeface is just the right size for following along by yourself.
Tidal is one of the only two music streaming services that integrate with Roon, the subscription software that aims to offer the kind of metadata-rich listening and recommendation system that none of the current streaming companies can begin to offer. Roon is designed for the most serious music fans and requires both a serious financial and time commitment to make itself worth a user’s while. It speaks to the quality of Tidal’s HiFi Plus streaming that Roon has chosen to support the service in its app.
Desktop app and browser streaming
Tidal’s desktop app uses the same dark theme as its iOS and Android apps. The layout is clear and easy to read. Streaming is flawless on a modern Mac because Tidal has been optimized for Apple Silicon.
The browser version looks almost identical to the app, but navigation isn’t nearly as smooth as from within the app. This is definitely one time to consider installing another app on your computer.
Ultimately, what you’re really looking for from your music streaming service is the best possible listening experience. Tidal serves up a product designed and maintained by a crew who have both a passion for music and the good taste to present the best examples in every genre.
If you’re interested in the Hi-Res streaming version, you’ll need to ignore all the noise (both pro and con) and listen for yourself to the MQA-encoded tracts Tidal serves up. There’s a good chance that you’ll like what you hear.
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