Tidal’s relaunch in March 2015 was quite the media spectacle. With new owner Jay-Z at the helm, Tidal was introduced to a US audience by a 16-strong star-studded line up of shareholders, including Beyonce, Calvin Harris, Madonna and Rihanna.
With a focus on CD-quality lossless music, Tidal’s other promises include big-name exclusives, HD video content and better royalty payments for artists.
Tidal was originally part of the Scandinavian WiMP family of music services, following in the footsteps of Qobuz, by offering CD-quality lossless music streams, offering a noticeable leap in quality (on paper at least) over the typical 320kbps offered by the likes of Spotify and Deezer.
Now, a full subscription to Tidal's 25million track catalogue costs £20/month ($20 in the US) for lossless quality. Tidal now calls this tier, Tidal HiFi. There's also a £10/month ($10 in the US) Tidal Premium tier, which gives you access to lower quality streams (up to 320kbps, AAC), and makes it a direct rival to Spotify and the rest.
Both subscription tiers offer access to Tidal’s other big USP, more than 75,000 HD music videos and curated content, from playlists to interviews to magazine-style features, put together by dedicated teams in the UK and US.
On this subject it’s worth pointing out that Chrome is the only web browser to support lossless playback. A previously available desktop app is not currently available for download - we assume it's getting what was a much-needed update. The mobile app has no such issues.
We take a look at Tidal on the web player first (using the Chrome browser). There are only so many ways to layout a streaming music app, so the home screen, menu and various playback and search screens are fairly familiar, but importantly it's intuitive and looks smart.
Curated content is at the forefront here. The top section ‘What’s new’ section has new albums, but much of the page is given over to ‘Playlists’ – ‘created by Tidal’. There are UK and US editorial teams creating this content for the users in their respective locations – and it includes not just music but video, interviews and features, too. You can search Playlists by genre or browse all the music available by type using the ‘Genre’ tab.
In line with the latest design of Spotify, all your own music (whether your own playlists or saved artists, tracks and albums) is grouped within the ‘My Music’ tab. So you'll find your own playlists here, not in the ‘Playlists’ tab. The desktop app doesn’t look as smart and the menus are a little smaller but the functionality is similar and lossless playback is supported.
There are two new sections dedicated to new music – namely, Tidal Rising and Tidal Discover.
These offer a selection of up-and-coming and unsigned artists respectively, with artists even able to upload their music directly to the service themselves – no record label required. It’s a nice touch that shows a dedication to giving new artists a platform.
We were impressed by Qobuz (handing out a five-star review) but the mobile app experience (when we tested it) could certainly be a little buggy. There are no such issues here. Streaming music seems reliable (Tidal recommends a 2MB connection for optimum lossless streaming) and browsing tracks is fast.
The search works (there's even voice search, should you want the train you are on to know you want to listen to the Top Gun soundtrack) and it's easy to save and store music for offline playback. We did find however we have to manually select ‘offline mode’ in order to quickly access offline tracks when we don’t have network access or the connection is intermittent.
This is slightly different to Spotify, where the app presents your offline content immediately rather than going to search for it first. Funnily enough, Spotify had the same issue originally, so no doubt this could be worked out by Tidal.
The general look and feel of the service hasn’t changed much, and across the web player (HiFi subscribers will need Chrome for lossless sound) and mobile apps, it’s slick and easy to navigate through Tidal’s various menus.
As well as a handy area to keep all your favourite albums, artists and playlists, Tidal throws up plenty of chances for music discovery too, with curated playlists, new albums and songs on the home page, a tab of “similar artists” on every artist you search for and a Shazam-like audio search for naming songs you hear while out and about.
As well as music, Tidal also offers up 75,000 HD videos that you can browse, including music videos, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. It’s a unique feature that no other service can currently match to this extent.
The curated Playlists are certainly worth exploring, showcasing new music and old music alike, and across a wide range of genres, with artist showcases, weekly ‘hi-fi’ recommendations and more. The choice of music available now at the touch of a button can be overwhelming, so some thoughtful guidance is increasingly welcome and you can tell there’s been a human touch involved in the Tidal process.
You can favourite artists, albums or tracks to add them to your own collection, and Tidal will recommend alternative artists based on your listening habits. The all-important sound quality, tucked in to the settings tab, is where you should be selecting ‘HiFi’ for the best sound quality, listed at FLAC 1411. ‘High’ (AAC 320) and ‘Standard’ (AAC+ 96) are the other two options. Tidal delivers 1411kbps, 16-bit/44.1 kHz FLAC and ALAC music streams.
It will send FLAC tunes to Android devices and other network music players, and ALAC to Apple devices. It’s not as connected to social media as Spotify, but can connect to Facebook to create your own Tidal profile and pull through your mugshot, while you can add your Last.fm account on the mobile app to scrobble your data. AirPlay is supported from the desktop and iOS app too, but not from the web player.
Exclusives have started to trickle through, with Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna debuting new songs and videos on the service. Artists such as Jack White, Jay-Z and Prince have also streamed live performances directly through Tidal.
Though such exclusives could lure potential subscribers, Rihanna’s American Oxygen only stayed on Tidal for around a week before it made its way to other services. Whereas Spotify has previously had the likes of Led Zeppelin, Metallica and Pink Floyd exclusive to its service for over a year, it remains to be seen whether Tidal can exploit its connections to some of pop’s biggest names over the coming months. Not least with Apple's streaming service around the corner...
More after the break
Offline playback is here, as you'd expect, with a toggle button allowing to quickly download music to your computer, phone or tablet for playing without an internet connection. This feature is crucial if you're dealing with big lossless files that will otherwise tear through a mobile data plan.
New editorial content is promised daily, with features, interviews, videos and curated playlists offered. It isn't immediately obvious how to browse for features and interviews, instead having to find them by flicking through your chosen artist's page, which groups together their albums, singles and videos.
Videos are now front and centre on the Tidal app, showing it's almost as much as a priority for Tidal, and certainly a key differentiator.
The good news is Tidal sounds great, and better than the market-leading lossy services provided you’re using good enough kit. If you’re using free earphones on a bus you might not hear the difference, but if you have a decent source and decent headphones, or a decent home hi-fi system, you should hear that difference.
Aphex Twin’s Syro album is a fine test of detail, control and rhythm and Tidal’s FLAC stream delivers a sound with space and scale, while revealing the intricate drums and effects with impressive precision. Real Estate’s Atlas album offers something a little less busy, but the stripped-back vocals and guitars sound clean and clear, with the lossless quality ensuring extra insight in the voices and instruments.
There’s no doubt we’d wholeheartedly recommend going the whole hog and signing up for Tidal HiFi if you can. The added sound quality does make a difference. Tracks streamed in lossless offer much more detail, a better sense of space and a tighter handle on timing than their 320kbps counterparts, though there is an occasional delay for buffering.
Tidal vs. Qobuz and Spotify
A listening comparison with the other CD-quality streaming service in the UK, Qobuz – they both sound similar, if not identical.
Tidal can’t quite take its lossless rival for the best in subtlety and timing, but it’s a much better interface and stronger catalogue for the average listener.
If your budget won’t stretch beyond £10/month, the 320kbps streams are still good. In fact, we’d say they just pip their Spotify and Deezer equivalents too, with a slightly richer, fuller-bodied sound.
Having used the service for a number of weeks, often searching for some pretty obscure tunes (from techno to world music to pop and rock) we are pretty satisfied by the size of the library. It isn’t as exhaustive as Spotify, but at least 90 per cent of our music is there – and if your tastes are mainstream you should have no issues at all.
Tidal, probably more so than other services, isn’t the finished article, and for everything that we like about it, there are some notes in the ‘against’ column. Speed is one. It can be a little sluggish to respond to your request to play compared to the market-leader, Spotify. Once you’re playing, performance seems fine, but in the on-demand world, Tidal could do with sharpening its response time.
Tidal is also missing support for gapless playback – once again a problem that Spotify had for a long time but has now corrected (the lack of gapless playback will be annoying to lovers of classical and electronic music, putting a crimp in overtures and mixes).
If you value sound quality and use streaming for a sizeable chunk of your listening, then we think you will be happy to welcome another option in to the CD-quality streaming market. We certainly are. We think £20/month, rather than £10/month for lower-quality music, is a fair price to pay – not least when it’s as well put together as Tidal.
While there’s still a few things we’d like to see – like gapless playback across all platforms – it’s only fair to note that Tidal is still finding its feet. It has certainly made bold moves to become a music streaming service to reckon with in just over six months.
With an ever-expanding music catalogue, some interesting USPs, exclusive content, videos and lossless audio, Tidal stands out as a truly compelling streaming proposition in an increasingly busy market.