Tidal has been riding an encouraging wave of momentum since its celebrity-studded re-launch in March 2015. And in 2017 it became the first service to offer hi-res audio streaming, thanks to its adoption of MQA technology.
These hi-res (typically 24-bit/96kHz) tracks, which it calls ‘Tidal Masters’, initially numbered in the tens of thousands but now make up a catalogue of over million, all available to subscribers of its £20 per month HiFi (CD-quality) package at no additional charge.
But Tidal is now far from the only hi-res player in the music streaming game, with both Qobuz and now Amazon offering better-than-CD streams, the latter at a significantly lower price. So is Tidal still number one?
Hi-res and CD-quality streams aren’t actually the be-all and end-all of Tidal’s offering, with the 60-million-track catalogue also available to stream in 320kbps to subscribers of its Apple- and Spotify-rivalling £10 per month Premium tier.
Tidal’s availability is on the rise too. As well as being accessible via its PC and Mac desktop apps, web player (HiFi subscribers will need Chrome for lossless sound) and Android and iOS mobile apps, Tidal has recently expanded into Apple and Android TV apps, and Apple CarPlay.
Tidal apps also form part of several networked hi-fi products’ offerings too, from Sonos, Bluesound and Denon Heos kit, to Linn, McIntosh, Naim and Cyrus. Google Chromecast is supported as well.
Initially, Tidal HiFi members wanting to take advantage of Masters were limited to the desktop app or a Bluesound Node 2 streamer (which can connect directly to Tidal Masters via the Bluesound app, negating the need for a PC or laptop), but those Masters are now available via both Android and iOS, as well as being supported natively by a number of those aforementioned hi-fi components.
There are a few complications, however. Listening through a computer, via its 3.5mm headphone output, or through a connected (non-MQA-enabled) DAC gives the Tidal desktop app the reins over MQA’s core decoding, which has a limited output of 24-bit/96kHz. In other words, even if you’re streaming a 192kHz file, it will only be unpackaged to 96kHz.
Similarly, the iOS and Android apps can only complete the first ‘unfold’ of MQA file decoding, outputting streams at a maximum of 24-bit/96kHz. The only way to entirely unpackage an MQA file for playback, and therefore give you a more accurate representation of the file based on your system characteristics, is by pairing your Apple or Android device with an MQA-compatible DAC, taking the decoding process away from the software (Tidal app).
The benefit of owning kit with built-in MQA decoders, such as the Audirvana Plus 3 computer software or Meridian’s Explorer DAC 2, is that all decoding is done by the hardware (bypassing the app in this respect altogether), which can unpackage the entire MQA file for playback in its original resolution.
EASE OF USE
They are also helpful to identify a Masters file’s resolution. The Meridian Explorer 2, for example, lights up to show whether a track has a sampling rate of 88kHz or 96kHz, or 176kHz or 192kHz. Without it, the resolution remains a mystery. We highlighted this when we first reviewed Tidal Masters but, unfortunately, it remains an issue.
We also noted that Masters music can be hard to find, and that’s still the case. Only a minority of tracks (around 450 albums-worth) are easily discoverable in the Tidal desktop app, found in the ‘Home’ tab under the ‘Master Quality Audio Albums’.
The other million-odd Masters (such as Fleetwood Mac’s remastered Tusk) are buried within Tidal’s 60m+ database of tracks, and there’s no way to specifically search for them.
However, Tidal has built on its discovery feature with 30 Masters-specifics playlists such as ‘Tidal Masters: New Arrivals’ and ‘Tidal Masters: Essentials’, as well as some genre-specific (‘Tidal Masters: Motown’) and artist-specific (‘Tidal Masters: The Smiths’) options.
Those Masters playlists are a welcome addition, although we’d still like to see a larger dedicated section, categorised by genre or era – much like the rest of Tidal’s catalogue.
But Masters aside, the service’s layout is exemplary and has actually been tidied up and streamlined in recent months. The desktop app’s large number of tabs has been reduced to match the smartphone app, with the majority of content now grouped under the catch-all ‘Home’ tab.
At the top is a big and bold selection of featured content, while below that you’ll find playlists created for you, based on your listening habits. ‘Recently Played’ allows you to quickly hop back into an album or playlist, while ‘Suggested New Tracks’ and ‘Suggested New Albums’ guides you to the latest new releases that Tidal’s algorithms believe will be up your street.
Tidal appears to have taken a leaf out of Spotify’s book by prioritising the discovery of new music tailored to your tastes, and it does so effectively. Just a couple of weeks of listening and favouriting is enough to start getting worthwhile recommendations.
Below these personalised sections in the Home tab, you’ll find sections dedicated to the most popular playlists and albums on the service, as well as mood-based playlists, podcasts, radio stations and the Tidal Rising section, which helps promote new talent.
Away from ‘Home’ the two main tabs are ‘Explore’, which duplicates many of the discovery elements of ‘Home’ and seems rather redundant, and ‘Videos’, which hosts music videos. The final tab is ‘My Collection’, which groups all of your favourited music and custom playlists and also houses your downloads.
Whether you’re listening to 320kbps, CD-quality or hi-res streams, Tidal sounds great compared to its rivals. We’d wholeheartedly recommend signing up for Tidal HiFi if you can.
While the 320kbps streams just pip their Spotify and Deezer equivalents with a slightly richer, fuller-bodied sound, tracks streamed in lossless offer much more detail, a better sense of space and a tighter handle on timing than their 320kbps counterparts.
In America’s Sister Golden Hair, the catchy guitar chords are fuller and ring truer with more twang. Harmonies sound like they’re being sung with greater enthusiasm, and the bells underneath are less hollow-sounding.
Masters tracks increase the level of insight again, prizing open the soundstage and giving the bare acoustic strumming in Christopher Stapleton’s A Simple Song greater freedom of movement. It digs up more inflections in the accompanying vocals, too.
Play the Masters version of Dear Life by Beck and the piano-led rhythm is executed more precisely than the CD-quality version. And that organisation and punctuality put Tidal’s Masters just ahead of the hi-res streams offered by rivals Qobuz and Amazon Music HD, which lack a little sonic cohesion in comparison.
Amazon Music HD does counter with an occasionally more open and detailed delivery, but it’s the Tidal Masters that are most musical.
While Tidal’s £10 per month tier is arguably just as appealing as similar offerings from the likes of Spotify and Apple Music, its top HiFi tier is what makes it stand out from the crowd.
Where Masters were once a niche sub-section of the service’s offering, the catalogue is now much bigger and much easier to take advantage of, thanks to broader device support. Of course, we won’t be happy until every track is available in Masters quality on every device, but there’s no doubt Tidal is already ahead of the pack here.
The arrival of Amazon Music HD will no doubt have Team Tidal looking over its shoulder, and you wouldn’t bet against Bezos’s crew catching up at some point, but if you’re in the market for superior music streams right now, Tidal is the service we’d most heartily recommend.
Ease of use 5
Author: WHAT HI-FI?
Date: January 14, 2019