Tidal: The Worst Music Service Online — Except for All the Others
Tidal officially re-launched in March 2015 after rapper-turned-businessman Jay Z bought a Scandinavian streaming service known as Wimp for $56 million. His vision was to carve a niche for Tidal as the alternative streaming music service, with a commitment to compensating artists fairly while offering high-quality audio streaming.
It seems like the kind of online music service we can all get behind. But since its launch, there seems to be nothing but bad news about Tidal.
Trouble started with a lavish, star-studded launch party that probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Jay Z opened his Rolodex and invited the biggest egos in the music industry to pimp his new service, promoting the fair royalties angle that guarantees that Tidal will get the artists paid.
Finally, you might think. Taylor Swift and Kanye West have something to bury the hatchet over.
But it was Ben Gibbard, frontman for Death Cab for Cutie, who later succinctly summed up the Tidal launch party with the quote heard ’round the music industry. In his words, the launch party was all about:
Millionaire artists telling us they gotta get paid certainly didn’t look good. But to be fair, most musicians who will benefit from Tidal’s royalties aren’t millionaires, and Jay Z’s commitment to fair artist compensation in the streaming digital domain is not only commendable — it’s necessary!
Tidal launched with the promise of 75 percent of its revenue going toward royalties — that’s far more than any other streaming service to date.
But it seems that’s not enough for Tidal to catch a break from its detractors, who have already spoken out against Jay Z’s plan. Critics say that since the royalties are paid to the label, not the artists, there are still no guarantees that artists will ever get a fair cut.
But again, I’m willing to cut ol’ Jay-Zed some slack… I’m no expert in intellectual property law, but as far as I know royalties are always paid to the owner. In other words, please, there’s only so much Tidal or Jay Z can do to help the underdog.
Tidal User Experience
Beauty and usability in a software interface is infinitely subjective. Stunningly artistic interfaces often suffer from over-design, but fortunately Tidal has gone for a minimalist design that behaves much the same way as Spotify. It’s not colorful and the high-contrast, black-and-white palette gets the job done elegantly but efficiently. Sadly, once you navigate to the “What’s New” section to see featured albums, what you find is the service’s biggest weakness. Tidal suffers from a form of musical nepotism brought on by its celebrity owner. The first thing you’ll notice about Tidal’s front door is a LOT of hip-hop, and specifically, a lot of Jay Z and friends. There are pandering efforts to balance the urban pop and hip-hop, but it doesn’t add much diversity. If the pre-made playlists are any indication, Tidal says, if you don’t like hip-hop, you must be into one of two things — country or metal.
I use online streaming music services for the discovery options. I like to use playlists, whether handmade or computer algorithm designed, but please, let them do one thing: introduce me to new sounds based what I like. One of the bright spots in Tidal’s musical discovery department is that it has a lot of handmade playlists created by Tidal editors, music journalists and artists. However, they can range from quite good to pretentious and self-promotional. A quite good playlist was made after the Mad Men playlist that coincided with the final episode of AMC’s classic TV show. It was a collection of classic songs played at key times throughout the show’s seven-year run.
But on the flip side, you have a lot of the pretentious playlists. For example, a playlist purportedly created by Charlie XCX is supposed to show fans what Charlie XCX herself kicks it to when she’s in a party mood. But the first track on the playlist? Her own song, “Break the Rules”. Do musicians really listen to their own songs when they’re in a party mood? I wonder if Steinbeck was known to sit down in the evening for another reading of Grapes of Wrath?
If you listen to Charlie XCX's playlist it just feels wrong, there are no roots and influences, nothing that gives me insight into her taste. It's just a bunch of pop music, equivalent to what she herself performs. This seems to be common among the "artist" created playlists, they seem to exist for some promotional purpose and not for giving us insights into the artist.
Many of Tidal’s artist-created playlists terribly self-promotional for the artist and their label, but worse than that…most of the genre or activity-based playlists are blatantly promotional for Jay Z himself, Beyoncé and their tight circle of artists in their genre.
Forget the Algorithm
Like most streaming music services, Tidal lets you order up on-the-fly radio stations based on a favorite song. But the difference is, they’re doing it horribly. Tidal will create a playlist featuring the artist whose song you selected, and maybe two more similar artists. Don’t expect much variety or music discovery when you let Tidal’s algorithm build a playlist for you. In fact, don’t even bother with that feature. Tidal’s activity playlists won’t redeem them, either. What is an activity playlist? Think of it this way – do you need background music for studying, partying with friends or going on a long drive? Activity playlists have got your back.
The trouble with Tidal’s version of these playlists is they always find a way to bring in hip-hop, even in playlists that are mostly populated with what I’d think of as the opposite of hip-hop, such as good-ol’ boys of the southern-fried rock genre. The drastic swing makes for a disjointed listening experience. I hate to seem like I’m in favor of segregation, but I doubt many people cross those two genres in their day-to-day listening. Perhaps it’s best to follow Google Play Music’s lead and have separate genre-based activity playlists.
Streaming Sound Quality
Lest we be accused of piling on Tidal, let’s look at one of the good things about the music service. For any lover of audio, sound quality is way more important than the quality of playlists. Here is a rundown of some of the most popular streaming services and exactly how much sound you’re getting for your monthly fee:
- Spotify — 320Kbps Ogg Vorbis
- Google Play — 320kbps MP3
- Rhapsody — 192Kbps (iOS) 320Kbps (Android 4.14 or better)
- Apple Music — 256Kbps AAC
As you can see, the gold standard seems to be the 320K MP3. This provides excellent sound quality for anyone listening over a mobile phone’s headphone jack using most standard headphones or earbuds. If this describes you, you’re in for solid sound quality from any online music streaming service. But, for those of us who don’t like inferior equipment to get in the way of our enjoyment of audio, we will definitely benefit from Tidal’s premium or Hi-Fi account. It leaves the competition in the dust with its 1.4Mbps bitrate using the lossless FLAC codec.
Most streaming services seemed to have settled on a $10 per-month fee. But for Tidal Hi-Fi, you’ll be asked to pay twice that amount – and yes, $20 bucks a month is rather steep. Before you take the plunge, it’s worth asking yourself…In 2002, were you prone to buying more than two CDs per month?
If so, Tidal Hi-Fi is an ethical bargain.
Tidal Hi-Fi Sound Impressions
When evaluating the quality of a digital recording, I look for its ability to convey subtle detail in a recording. That means most up-tempo or wall-of-sound music is out for the purposes of listening comparisons.
For hearing finer details in sound, I turn to pop-jazz – typically the kind that features a full-voiced female vocalist layered over minimal instrumentation. It wasn’t hard to find the Diana Krall album Quiet Nights on Google Play at 320Kbps for comparison to Tidal Hi-Fi in an informal side-by-side, just to see if I can hear a difference.
For purposes of the test, I used the following hardware:
- Phone: Galaxy S6
- DAC: Oppo HA-2
- Headphones: Koss ESP-950 Electrostatic headphones
- Amp: Koss ESP-950 Electrostatic Energizer
The decidedly non-portable Koss electrostat headphone with Oppo’s excellent HA-2 portable DAC may seem like an unlikely combination. But, I find the headphones are the most detailed available to me. They deliver a very clinical sound, while the HA-2 DAC will take any headphones and give them a touch of warmth. Listening to classic jazz numbers sung by Krall, with nothing but piano and drums in the background, provided the opportunity to isolate and follow individual instruments through a song. The results were remarkable.
The full tonality of Krall’s voice sounded great through both services. Admittedly, the difference between 320Kbps and 1.4Mbps isn’t difficult to notice, but it is difficult at first to discern that one is clearly better than the other. If I were just casually listening to both presentations, I’d probably conclude that they just sound… different. But when listening deeply, small but clear differences in resolution emerge. Case in point, a snare drum being worked by a slow-but-steady brush.
Through Google Play, I could vaguely tell there was an extra sound, like a faraway deep fryer with someone repeatedly dunking a basket of fries into hot oil. But soft and far away, the sound hummed beneath the voice and piano. It was barely noticeable, and despite trying to zoom in on it, I couldn’t tell what it was.
Using Tidal Hi-Fi, it was immediately obvious what I was hearing. The brush-drum sounded clear and articulate, despite being buried under layers of sound. I was suitably impressed! This was a breakthrough, having a huge library of CD-quality music available on an app. You can even download music to your phone’s local storage to take on the road where you might not have access to bandwidth.
The audio quality is truly very close to what you might hear if you had the CD recording of your selected music. In side-by-side testing, no matter what type of music you’re listening to, Tidal Hi-Fi provides a consistently superior sonic experience compared to any of the standard 320Kbps music services I tried. It even sounded better sounding than locally stored 320-bit MP3s.
Is Tidal Right For You?
There are many factors that influence a person’s choice of online music service. If the majority of your music listening is through Bluetooth speakers or headphones, or budget headphones plugged directly into your phone, you don’t need Tidal Hi-Fi. Honestly, there are few benefits to using Tidal if you’re not interested in the Hi-Fi subscription – unless you’re really into rap, hip-hop and modern pop music. If you prefer to make your own playlists, Tidal also won’t let you down. It has a deep library, and only occasionally typically in the most obscure selections, will you search for a song and find it’s not available. In this area, it’s at least comparable to all the other services, and creating your own playlists is quick and efficient through both app and web interfaces.
But the best reasons to use Tidal, aside from giving you the warm feeling of not pissing off Taylor Swift, are its best-in-class audio quality and the fact that it’s the best choice yet for compensating artists who create the music we listen to. If you’re like me, over the last couple of decades, you may have picked up some negative karma by downloading for free what cost someone else dearly.
Perhaps a Tidal subscription is a way we can allay some guilt — or not.
Tidal is a poorly executed music service in so many important ways. A streaming music service should be an ambassador to tunage that broadens your musical horizons. Every other music service seems to accomplish this simple feat, while somehow it eludes Tidal. Some of Tidal’s curated playlists are interesting, handmade by journalists, musicians and producers. But far too many of them are blatantly self-promotional. Apple Music has recently opened a clinic on the curated playlist game, and it makes Tidal’s effort seem silly by comparison. But Tidal has one huge advantage, and it happens to be the most important advantage of all…sound quality.
In late 2015, we’re in the midst of a digital golden age of mile-high bandwidth and dirt-cheap storage. So, why are we burdened with content quality that can’t even compete with the digital technology of the early 1980s? Why the Dumbing Down of Audio?
Studios and property owners of music are guilty of letting a criminally inferior shadow of the product they’ve produced grow into the ad-hoc standard to accommodate a destructive distribution method. What if art galleries destroyed all their original paintings, only to replace them with re-rendered 8-bit graphic version of every classic painting you’ve ever heard of?
It would be the crime of the century to turn Michelangelo into Super Mario!
But when you think about it, that’s exactly what we’re letting streaming music services do to the great classics in sound. So to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s observation on democracy, you could say Tidal is the worst music service available — except for all the others.
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Recent Forum Posts:
With cheap amps, and really great low cost small speakers out there today, I think audio explorers would be wise to direct their attention to multi channel digital presentations. I'm talking about a channel for every performer in the musical cast. With such, we might have a very vivid musical experience. Today's surround sound experience has only touched the surface.
I don't know about Qobuz, but TIDAL is an artist owned coalition, which is important to me: music is dying to the rape by the labels and large corporations, so maybe services like this are a way back to music being profitable and attractive to artists. Without them, we have nothing to listen to.