Ever since MP3s became popular in the late 1990s, musicians, audio professionals and audiophiles have been complaining about them. That’s because MP3 reduces sound quality by discarding most of the data in a digital audio recording. The grumbles have grown louder with the rising popularity of Internet music streaming, which uses MP3 or similar technologies to reduce the required Internet bandwidth. But a new service called Tidal promises to deliver the convenience of streaming with the sound quality of CDs.
Instead of discarding data, Tidal uses FLAC lossless compression. Thus, the audio is exactly the same as you get from a CD, down to the last digital bit. Like most other streaming services, such as Spotify and Pandora, Tidal is available through apps that run on Macs, PCs, iOS devices (iPhone, iPad) and Android devices, as well as through web browsers. It’s being incorporated into many new audio products, like streaming boxes, digital preamps and wireless audio systems, including Sonos.
Tidal requires a lot more Internet bandwidth than typical streaming services-roughly 700 kilobits per second, far more data than the 32 to 256 kbps most streaming services deliver. At home, that’s no problem as long as there’s no monthly data limit on your Internet service. If you’re doing a lot of streaming through a cell network, though, Tidal will push you past your data limit much faster.
As you might expect, you pay for Tidal’s extra sound quality: $20 per month, compared to $9.99 per month for the premium version of Spotify. And there’s no free version of Tidal, as there is with Spotify and Pandora.
Is Tidal worth double the price? To find out, I set up an audio system with two laptop PCs. One ran the Tidal app; the other ran the Spotify app with the premium version of Spotify, which uses Ogg Vorbis data compression (like MP3 but newer and more efficient) with a data rate of 320 kbps. I ran a digital connection from the computers to a Musical Fidelity V90-DAC digital-to-analog converter, which was connected to a Krell Illusion II preamp, a Classé Audio CA-2300 amplifier and Revel Performa3 F206 speakers-a system that retails for about $18,000.
Who’s on the Bill?
Before I gave Tidal a serious listen, I wanted to find out how its catalog compares to Spotify’s. Tidal says it offers more than 25 million tunes and more than 75,000 music videos. I noticed right away that the jazz offerings were pretty good. Random searches for some of my favorite artists brought up lots of classic albums as well as dozens I haven’t heard.
Many prominent jazz labels have refused to offer their music via streaming services, which is why you won’t find great discs like the Mark Turner Quartet’s Lathe of Heaven (ECM) and the Steve Lehman Octet’s Mise en Abîme (Pi) on either service. However, when I started searching to see how many titles each service had from a few random artists, Spotify got the advantage. Both offered 10 Fred Hersch albums, but Spotify offered a whopping 79 Freddie Hubbard albums versus 18 on Tidal, and 42 Jackie McLean albums versus 22 on Tidal. I think it’s fair to say both services offer plenty for most jazz fans to listen to, but you won’t find everything you want.
The Cutting Session
To hear whether or not Tidal offers a significant advantage, I played a wide variety of jazz recordings from both services. Obviously I had to stick with albums that both services carry, and make sure I was getting the same release on both services. I also had to readjust the relative playback levels for each different album. Spotify typically played about 2 decibels louder than Tidal, but the difference wasn’t consistent.
On recordings with complex instrumentation, such as “Root Groove” from The Essential Wynton Marsalis, Tidal offered a subtle advantage. For example, I could hear a little more “splat” in Wynton’s trumpet; through Spotify, it sounded as if there were a piece of thin fabric stretched over the trumpet’s bell. On Art Blakey’s classic version of “Moanin'” from 1958, I heard more detail in the snare drum, and the cymbal hits seemed to decay more smoothly and naturally.
On relatively lower-quality recordings, such as the 1961 Village Vanguard take of “Impressions” on A John Coltrane Retrospective: The Impulse! Years, I couldn’t hear any difference between Tidal and Spotify. I got the same result with many recordings using simpler instrumentation, such as Hersch’s Songs Without Words.
Tidal does offer better sound quality, but based on my experience, the improvement is subtle enough that only audiophiles with high-quality sound systems or headphones will appreciate it. Regardless, it seems we’ll be hearing a lot more from Tidal: Just two days before I wrote this, Jay Z announced he’s purchasing the parent company.