Tidal has been riding an encouraging wave of momentum since its celebrity-studded re-launch in March 2015. In 2017 it became the first service to offer hi-res audio streaming, thanks to its adoption of MQA technology.
That saw 30,000 hi-res tracks (typically 24-bit/96kHz), which it calls ‘Tidal Masters’, become available to subscribers of its £20 per month HiFi (CD-quality) package at no additional charge, proving that Tidal is a gift that keeps on giving.
But Qobuz has since caught up, offering 70,000 24-bit/192kHz albums alone to those willing to pay the £350 upfront annual fee for its Sublime+ tier. So where does that leave Tidal?
Hi-res and CD-quality streams aren’t the be all and end all of Tidal’s offering. With the 25 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.
Previously, 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.
Mind you, there are complications. Listening through a computer, via its 3.5mm headphone output, or through a connected (non-MQA-enabled) DAC gives the Tidal desktop app the reigns 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 to 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’s Explorer DAC 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 last year, but unfortunately it remains an issue.
Another problem was that only a minority of tracks (just over 450 albums-worth) were easily discoverable in the Tidal desktop app, found in the album tab under the ‘What’s New’ umbrella, labelled ‘Masters’.
The other 25,000-odd Masters (such as Fleetwood Mac’s remastered Tusk) were buried within Tidal’s 40m+ database of tracks, and not searchable in the search bar.
That’s still the case, but Tidal has built on its discovery with 30 Masters playlists: ‘Tidal Masters: New Arrivals’ and ‘Tidal Masters: Essentials’, as well as some genre-specific (‘Tidal Masters: Motown’) and artist-specific (‘Tidal Masters: The Smiths’) ones.
It’s 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. The top section, ‘What’s new’, is headed up by featured content, and below are tracks, albums, playlists, videos and podcasts that are each sorted into ‘new’, ‘top 20’ and ‘staff picks’ tabs. There’s still a sense of rap, hip-hop and R&B genres being prioritised in those listings, but it doesn’t dominate enough to put off users with alternative music tastes.
Tidal Rising, the next section down, promotes up-and-coming artists, and below that are genres, and playlists categorised by moods, as well into ‘new’, ‘recommended’ and ‘exclusive’ tabs.
In line with what’s become standard music streaming service topography, your own music (your own playlists or saved artists, tracks and albums) is grouped within the ‘My Music’ tab.
The 30,000 Masters tracks cover a range of musical tastes. The majority are back catalogues of renowned artists, from Coldplay and The Black Keys to Pink Floyd, The Doors, Muse and David Bowie.
There are newer titles too, including Eminem’s Revival, Sam Smith’s The Thrill Of It All, Greg Porter’s Nat “King” Cole & Me, and The War On Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding.
But the Masters offering barely scratches the surface of Tidal’s overall catalogue of 48.5 million tracks, which is the most exhaustive of its rivals (Qobuz and Apple Music claim 40 million songs, Deezer 43 million).
For that reason, it’s hard to find a gap in its offering outside of rival services’ exclusives, such as Garth Brooks’ back catalogue being available to stream solely on Amazon Music Unlimited.
Tidal has its own exclusives – it’s the only service with Jay-Z’s full discography, including his latest 4:44 album – but even if windowed album releases are still big hits for Tidal and Apple Music, ‘exclusives’ are, thankfully, beginning to be seen as bad practice.
In addition to music, Tidal also offers up thousands of Full HD videos to browse, including music videos, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.
Whether you’re listening to 320kbps, CD-quality or hi-res streams, Tidal sounds great compared to its rivals. There’s no doubt 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 clearly 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 Qobuz’s hi-res streams, which lack a little sonic cohesion in comparison.
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 makes it stand out from the crowd.
Last year, Tidal successfully laid down solid foundations for its MQA and hi-res streaming experience to evolve – and it’s doing so slowly in the past 12 months.
There is still room for improvement, and growing the number of Masters tracks, as well as the number of devices that can play them, would close that gap. After all, Qobuz’s Sublime+ service offers many more thousands of tracks in hi-res, even though it is a pricier option.
Still, for people with £20 to spend on music streaming every month whose priority is sound quality, Tidal is better placed than its rivals in the race for their direct debit details.