Audio Files: Darn That Stream

We now have three high-res streaming services—but choosing the right one is confusing

Streaming Audio Service
Qobuz’s desktop app

For most music fans, the ability to stream practically any tune you want in seconds through the Internet is a dream come true. Audiophiles have been less enthusiastic, because most of the major music streaming services use data compression (such as MP3 or AAC) to reduce the Internet bandwidth and disk storage space needed to supply your music stream. This compression discards most of the data in a digital music file, keeping only what’s absolutely necessary. The results usually sound good; still, this is a compromise most audiophiles refuse to make.

But thanks to streaming services that deliver sound in CD quality—or even better—no longer must anyone sacrifice audio fidelity for the convenience of streaming. Tidal, the company famously purchased by rapper Jay-Z, has largely had the market to itself since it launched its CD-quality streaming service in 2014; its only competitor has been Deezer, which hasn’t made much impact in the U.S. But with the entry of the French streaming service Qobuz (pronounced “ko-buzz”) into the U.S. market earlier this year, and the launch of Amazon Music HD in September, high-quality streaming just got more interesting—and, thanks to the considerable differences between the services, more confusing.

Played Twice

The big difference between Tidal, Qobuz, and Amazon Music HD for audiophiles is the core technologies behind them.

Tidal started as a CD-quality service, using lossless compression to stream music at the same resolution as a CD. However, it can now achieve higher resolution through a technology called MQA, which “folds” the extra audio data from better-than-CD-quality recordings into parts of the data stream that normally go unused. Tidal’s Mac and PC apps let you stream MQA—branded as “Tidal Masters”— in resolutions up to 24-bit/96-kilohertz (compared to 16-bit/44.1-kilohertz for CD) with no additional hardware, and even higher resolutions with the use of an MQA-compatible outboard digital-to-analog converter, or DAC. MQA is also said to correct timing errors introduced in the original recording process.

Qobuz and Amazon rely on a simpler scheme: streaming high-resolution audio in up to 24-bit/192-kilohertz resolution using lossless compression. The downside is that a Qobuz or Amazon high-res stream chews up two to three-and-a-half times as much data as a Tidal MQA stream, which itself demands about five times the bandwidth of the highest-quality Spotify streams. Thus, high-resolution streaming isn’t practical for mobile use, as you’d likely burn through your monthly data limit in a few hours. Fortunately, all these services can be set for lower data rates when streaming through your phone.

Using a set of high-end HiFiMan HE1000v2 headphones powered by an AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC/headphone amp, I couldn’t identify a significant difference in sound quality between Tidal and Qobuz once I matched the listening levels to within about half a decibel. Both generally sounded better than Spotify at its best audio setting, though the difference was subtle; for me it was easiest to hear in cymbals and hi-hats. Recordings streamed through Spotify sometimes had the crude sound of cheap cymbals, whereas through Qobuz and Tidal, the cymbals had a smoother, more realistic sizzle. Because Amazon Music HD uses the same technology as Qobuz, the results are about the same.

Advertisement

 

Tidal Streaming Audio Service
Tidal’s desktop app

The Set Lists

To see if any service has a clear advantage in catalog, I selected three artists at random and checked each service to see how many of that artist’s albums they had, not counting multiple releases of the same album. Wynton Kelly had 14 albums on Spotify, 12 on Tidal, 11 on Qobuz, and 13 on Amazon. For Mary Halvorson, the numbers were 18, 14, 12, and 12, and for Art Pepper, they were 37, 37, 46, and more than 50. There doesn’t seem to be a clear winner. (When doing an artist search on these services, remember to select “See All” or “Show All,” as—just for example—the Mary Halvorson Trio, Quintet, etc. are listed as separate artists from Mary Halvorson.)

It’s also hard to tell if any of these services has a real advantage when it comes to jazz albums in high-res. As of this writing, Tidal offered no direct way to find all of its MQA titles in one place through its apps, but I did find an online list maintained by an outside group. Of the approximately 19,000 albums on the latest iteration of that list, a significant portion were jazz titles; more than 40 John Coltrane albums alone are available in Tidal Masters versions. Resolution on Qobuz varies with the album, but I found plenty of jazz titles in 24/96. Amazon claims to offer more than 50 million songs in CD resolution, and “millions” in high-res.

A notable component of Tidal and Qobuz is their editorial content: essays on artists and musical styles, feature articles, news, etc. If you like JazzTimes, you may be interested to know that this magazine’s former editor Evan Haga is now Tidal’s jazz curator and editor of its online magazine, Tidal Read, which leans more toward long-read critical examinations and interviews; Qobuz’s articles tend to be shorter and more news-oriented. Also, Tidal stands alone in offering a list of personnel, composition, and production credits for every track in its catalog, at least in theory—sometimes the credits section, accessed via the ellipsis button toward the right of the screen, has incomplete information or no information at all, but the fact that it’s part of the standard infrastructure bodes well for those who bemoan the loss of liner notes in the streaming era.

Tidal Hi-Fi (the high-quality version) costs $19.99 per month, double the price of Tidal’s standard service or the premium version of Spotify. Qobuz changed its price structure in early November; it dropped its lower-quality tier and charges $14.99 per month for CD-quality and high-res service, although if you pay on an annual basis you get two months free. Amazon Music HD costs $14.99 per month, but only $12.99 per month for Prime members.

I think audiophiles using high-quality speakers and/or headphones are wise to invest an extra $120 or so per year in a high-quality streaming service; many of them happily pay far more for a single audio cable. When it comes to choosing between these services, though, all I can say is that they’re all good, and you’ll probably find things in all three that delight you and disappoint you.

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.