The battle to become the best music streaming service to offer hi-res streams is well and truly underway. Gone are the days when all a streaming platform had to do was offer up low-quality OGG VORBIS or MP3 streams and make you endure a few ads for the privilege. In 2021, the key to victory is ad-free, unlimited streaming in high-resolution quality – and, crucially, for the best price.
Tidal is perhaps the most established. It's our favourite service, too, and holder of a 2020 What Hi-Fi? Award in the music streaming service category. Since January 2017, its £20 ($20) per month HiFi tier has granted access to hi-res (typically 24-bit/96kHz) Tidal Master streams, encoded using MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) technology. So is Tidal the answer? It's certainly one answer, but not the only one.
Qobuz, which was first to the hi-res streaming game, is still kicking about with a £15 ($15) per month hi-res service. It also has a £250 annual subscription called Sublime that combines hi-res streaming with discounts on 24-bit download purchases.
There's also Amazon, which has recently announced that its hi-res-inclusive Music HD tier (which we remarked was "up there with the best") will now be free for all Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers. This means hi-res streaming for £8 ($8) per month for Prime members, or £10 ($10) per month for Amazon customers).
And then there's the recent news that Apple Music is offering subscribers lossless audio (and Spatial Audio) at no extra charge – and it just went live! That's right, Apple Music Lossless and Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos tracks are available now. That leaves the soon-to-launch Spotify HiFi looking like it will have to come as a free upgrade just to stay competitive...
So where does the arrival of these newer, competitively priced hi-res services leave Tidal and Qobuz, and even services not in the hi-res game (Deezer, for example, 'only' offers CD quality)? How will they convince customers to stick around for hi-res audio at comparatively hiked prices next to the likes of Apple and Amazon?
And, what's more, which service best deserves your monthly subscription?
Below, we try to help you decide just that, starting with the differences between lossless and hi-res music, and offering a breakdown of the services and their USPs. Get ready: your music is about to sound a lot better.
Streaming services compared - at a glance
|Service||Free tier||Monthly hi-res price||Supported formats||Max streaming quality|
|Spotify||Yes, ad-supported, 128kbp||-||OGG||320kbps (for now)|
|Apple Music||No||£10 ($10)||AAC, ALAC||24-bit/192kHz|
|Tidal||No||£20 ($20)||MQA, AAC, ALAC, FLAC||24-bit/192kHz|
|Deezer||Yes, ad-supported, 128kbps||-||FLAC||16-bit/44.1kHz|
|Amazon Music HD||No||£10 ($10), or £8 ($8) for Prime Members||FLAC||24-bit/192kHz|
|Qobuz||No||£15 ($15)||AIFF, ALAC, FLAC, WAV, WMA Lossless||24-bit/192kHz|
|YouTube Music||Yes, ad-supported, 126kbps||-||AAC||256kbps|
What is hi-res streaming and why should you want it?
First things first, should you care about hi-res streaming? High-resolution (often shortened to 'hi-res') audio is a term used to describe music files that have a higher sampling frequency and/or bit depth than that of CD-quality, which is specified at 16-bit/44.1kHz. So a hi-res file can be 24-bit/44.1kHz, where bit-depth is higher than CD quality but sampling rate is the same, and vice versa.
So what do the numbers mean? It might help to think of an audio signal as a sound wave being plotted on a graph. Sampling rate – the second number – refers to the number of times per second that the wave is measured during the analogue-to-digital conversion process. The higher the sampling rate, the more times the audio signal has been sampled, and thus the more detail resolution you get.
The first number is bit-depth, which indicates the number of 'bits' of information present in each sample of the signal. Going from 16 bits to 24 bits results in a massive increase of dynamic range, which is the gap between the quietest and loudest sounds that can be captured. In numbers, it's a jump from 96dB to 144dB, which is huge.
Streams from Spotify and Apple Music use compressed file formats with relatively low bitrates, such as 320kbps Ogg Vorbis streams on Spotify Premium (if you're a Spotify Free user, your file quality will actually max out at 160kbps) and 256kbps AAC files on Apple Music.
This 'lossy' compression means that certain data is scrapped in the encoding process for the sake of convenience and smaller file sizes. Obviously, this affects the sound quality.
To illustrate why hi-res should sound better than, say, an MP3, we need simply to compare the relative bitrates (the amount of information being transferred measured in kilobits per second). The highest quality MP3 has a bitrate of 320kbps. A 24-bit/192kHz file takes that to 9216kbps. Music CDs are 1411kbps – remember, they're your starting marker for hi-res.
The hi-res 24-bit/96kHz or 24-bit/192kHz files should, therefore, more closely replicate the sound quality the musicians and engineers were working with in the studio. Provided your system is transparent enough, playing hi-res music can bring you more detail and texture, thus bringing you closer to what the artist wanted to say when they recorded their work. And isn't that what we want?
Although hi-res audio songs and albums have been available to download for several years now, streaming hi-res audio is relatively new across popular music subscription platforms – and some still don't offer it.
Hi-res vs lossless: what's the difference?
While the terms 'lossless' and 'hi-res' may be used in close connection – Apple Music has launched Lossless and Hi-Res Lossless labels and, to complicate matters further, Amazon Music prefers the terms HD and UHD when referring to its more premium audio offerings – music that is 'lossless' is not always hi-res.
Here's the thing: where hi-res audio is defined as music that has a resolution higher than CD quality, lossless audio has no set specification in terms of bitrate. The term covers only how much data has been thrown out during the encoding process and, as a result, how much quality or “loss” you will experience when you play it.
If no compression algorithm (or codec) has been used to compress the audio within your particular file, two things happen: lossless (though not necessarily hi-res) sound quality, and pretty soon a storage warning on your device.
WAV and AIFF are the most prominent uncompressed audio file formats, both based on PCM (Pulse Code Modulation), which is the most common digital encoding method employed. They can both store CD-quality or high-resolution audio files. The drawback? These audio files are big. A CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz) lossless file will take around 10MB of your hard drive per minute in length.
Now, let's introduce FLAC. As its name (Free Lossless Audio Codec) suggests, it's a lossless file, but it has been cleverly packaged to nearly half the size of an uncompressed WAV or AIFF of equivalent sample rate. Other lossless but compressed audio file formats include ALAC (Apple Lossless) and WMA Lossless (Windows Media Audio).
So far, we've talked about uncompressed lossless files and compressed lossless files. Now, we'll talk compressed lossy files. This is where our old friend the MP3 comes in – a file format that compresses a file and reduces its size by discarding data that cannot be retrieved again. Other examples of lossy compressed files are OGG (of Ogg Vorbis fame) and Apple's AAC.
Which streaming services offer hi-res music?
Short answer: Tidal, Amazon Music HD, Qobuz and now, Apple Music.
Spotify's announced 'HiFi' tier is also imminent, but the company remains tight-lipped on whether its leveled-up proposition will actually offer hi-res streams or whether it will top out at CD quality.
Here's an explainer on each service, the tech they use to deliver hi-res, what you'll need to play it, and, crucially, for whom each service will likely suit best.
Tidal – for MQA-enabled kit
Tidal has been riding the hi-res wave since 2017 when it began offering hi-res audio streaming thanks to the adoption of MQA technology. These hi-res (typically 24-bit/96kHz) 'Tidal Masters' tracks now have a significant presence in the catalogue alongside CD-quality streams – all available to subscribers of its £20 ($20) per month HiFi package.
Tidal’s availability is on the rise, too: there's desktop and mobile apps, web player, Google Chromecast, Apple CarPlay, Apple Watch support, and integration into several networked hi-fi products’ offerings, from Sonos, Bluesound and DTS Play-Fi platforms to Linn, McIntosh, Naim and Cyrus streaming products. But not all of these support hi-res playback of Tidal's Masters.
Masters are now available via both Android, iOS and desktop apps, and hi-fi components and platforms that support MQA. Tidal Connect – a similar concept to Spotify Connect – also allows for easy streaming to compatible products from within the native Tidal app, and it's able to cast Tidal Masters too.
Now for the hi-res small print: playing Tidal Masters through the Tidal desktop app on a computer, via its 3.5mm headphone output or a connected (non-MQA-enabled) DAC gives the Tidal desktop app the reins 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 complete only the first 'unfold' of MQA file decoding, outputting streams at a maximum of 24-bit/96kHz. The only way to entirely unpackage an MQA file for playback (and therefore give you the best representation of the file data) is by pairing your computer or 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, the NAD C 658 music streamer, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M and AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DAC – is that all decoding is done by the hardware, which can unpackage the entire MQA file for playback in its original resolution.
Tidal also offers a growing catalogue of immersive audio tracks via its support of Dolby Atmos Music and Sony 360 Reality Audio. The former means you can play Atmos tracks through Atmos-compatible kit, from soundbars and TVs to AVRs and smart speakers. Tidal HiFi subscribers need to connect their Atmos-enabled device to a compatible streamer running the most recently updated Tidal app. Supported streaming devices include the Apple TV 4K, Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, Fire TV Cube, Fire TV Stick (2nd gen), Fire TV (3rd gen), Nvidia Shield TV and Nvidia Shield TV Pro (2019 or newer).
Amazon Music HD – hi-res on a budget (especially for Prime members)
Whichever way you approach it, Amazon has gone super aggressive on pricing. In response to Apple Music's hi-res streaming announcement, Amazon has now made its Music HD tier free for Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers. The Individual Plan still costs £8 ($8) per month for Prime members and £10 ($10) per month for Amazon customers – but now, your subscription fee includes Amazon's highest-quality audio at no extra charge. The Amazon Music HD tier was previously an additional £5 ($5) per month.
You can access Amazon Music HD through three different avenues: a web browser, the desktop app, or through the Android and iOS mobile apps. However, it’s worth noting that you can’t actually stream CD-quality music or hi-res tracks through your browser, only the apps.
We need another hi-res terminology discussion, though. Confusingly, Amazon Music HD doesn't use the term 'HD' when it’s discussing high-resolution audio. Where you see tracks labelled 'HD', this actually means that they’re CD-quality. Amazon has decided to refer to and label hi-res music as 'Ultra HD'. Why? Presumably it feels that this labelling will prove clearer for a mass audience. And perhaps it's right. Anyway, the files you'll get are actually FLACs.
Amazon refers to HD tracks as having a ”bit depth of 16-bits, a minimum sample rate of 44.1 kHz (also referred to as CD-quality), and an average bitrate of 850 kbps”. UHD tracks, on the other hand, “have a bit depth of 24-bits, sample rates ranging from 44.1 kHz up to 192 kHz, and an average bitrate of 3730 kbps.”
To Amazon’s credit, it pushes Ultra HD content extremely hard on the service with dedicated playlists and clear labelling, e.g Best of Ultra HD, Ultra HD: New Arrivals, Ultra HD Hip-Hop and Ultra HD Jazz. It doesn’t take long to find a steady stream of UHD music to listen to.
Should you own an Amazon Echo Studio speaker, you’ll also be able to access Amazon’s catalogue of 3D audio tracks, of which Amazon claims there are well over 750 encoded in either Dolby Atmos or Sony 360 Reality Audio.
Qobuz – for Sonos users and/or avid downloaders
Qobuz is the first streaming giant to have dropped MP3 streaming entirely, going all-in on CD-quality and hi-res streaming. In truth, taking a stand is nothing new to Qobuz, a company that tends to do things differently from most of its rivals in the music streaming world.
The French service has been around since 2007 (the same amount of time as Spotify) but it left its home borders only in 2013, when it became the first CD-quality streaming service to hit the UK. Tidal joined the ranks a couple of years later. It was also the first to offer hi-res streams.
There are two packages from which users can choose: the Studio Premier plan (£15/$15 per month or £150/$150 per year) for streaming of Qobuz’s 50 million-track library; and Sublime+, which also throws in discounted purchases of 24-bit downloads, priced £250/$250 for the year (down from £350/$350 last year).
The main sticking point for us at the beginning, despite it also sounding a little less sweet than its Tidal equivalent, was the service’s high price. But Qobuz’s most recent discount – not to mention its latest Family deals – has seen it rise quite significantly in value.
Qobuz is now available on lots of devices. There's a web player as well as desktop (Mac and PC) and mobile (iOS and Android) apps, plus integration into a wide range of hi-fi products. Google Chromecast is a big deal here, as it means adding Qobuz to an existing 'dumb' hi-fi is as simple and affordable as adding a Chromecast dongle, and many hi-fi companies are now adding Chromecast support into their streaming components, thereby increasing Qobuz's availability.
Broadly speaking, most devices that support Tidal also support Qobuz and vice versa, and both services are available only in CD-quality via some streamers.
A major feather in Qobuz's cap, however, is that it is the first service to make 24-bit hi-res streaming available on Sonos products. Given how long we've waited for our favourite multi-room family to adopt hi-res, it's quite a big deal.
Qobuz's (comparatively) high price has always been partly justified by its exhaustive library of hi-res music. Recent figures put the total number of hi-res tracks at more than 2m, while Tidal claims 'only' more than 1m. Numbers rarely tell the whole story, but we regularly find hi-res albums on Qobuz that are available in only CD-quality on Tidal. On the flip side, however, we often find albums on Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer that aren't available on Qobuz at all – which we would argue is a far bigger issue...
With Qobuz, bitrate and frequency are displayed in the playback bar, and hi-res albums are clearly flagged with the familiar ‘Hi-Res Audio’ logo, both in the library interface and playback bar – little things that we wholeheartedly wish other streaming services would include.
Apple Music – for Apple device owners
Apple Music regularly uses AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) streaming at 256kbps, but Apple is now offering CD-quality (16-bit/44.1kHz), Apple Music Lossless (24-bit/48kHz) and Hi-Res Lossless (up to 24-bit/192kHz) streams via its ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) codec. And the best bit? If you subscribe to Apple Music at £10 ($10) per month, there's no extra charge for these higher-quality streams. That puts it on a par with Amazon, and much cheaper than Tidal and Qobuz.
All of Apple Music's 75-million-strong music catalogue is now available in CD quality or Apple Music Lossless. At launch, 20 million tracks will be accessible in the highest quality Hi-Res Lossless format, with the whole catalogue following "by the end of 2021".
We haven't heard too much of Apple's Hi-Res Lossless catalogue yet, but there's plenty to get excited about – unless you just bought a new pair of AirPods.
Here's the rub: although Apple Music with Dolby Atmos will work with all headphones and Apple's own HomePod and HomePod Mini will support Lossless at some point (following a software update), Apple's own headphones don't support lossless audio. None of them. That means even if you've spent £549 ($549, AU$899) on a pair of AirPods Max, you can't listen to Apple Music in the highest quality. Peeved? We don't blame you.
Apple's iPhones (since the iPhone 7) natively support lossless – but only Apple Music Lossless, and not the highest quality Hi-Res Lossless. If you want to listen to Apple Music tracks above 24-bit/48kHz on your iPhone, you'll need to connect an external DAC and use a wired pair of headphones. Check out our guide for how to listen to hi-res audio on an iPhone.
Like Amazon and Tidal, Apple Music also now has immersive audio tracks – this time through Apple's proprietary Dolby Atmos-powered Spatial Audio format, designed to provide "multidimensional sound and clarity"; to deliver surround sound and 3D audio via your headphones. These tracks will play automatically on AirPods or Beats headphones with a W1 or H1 chip. The HomePod and HomePod Mini also support Spatial Audio, so you can fill your room with virtual 3D sound from a single device. As do the iPhone 11 onwards and iPad Pro (but not iPad, iPad Mini or iPad Air). Playing from an Apple TV 4K into a Dolby Atmos soundbar or system will work too.
Services that do not support hi-res... yet
Another short answer: Deezer, Spotify and YouTube Music are yet to offer (or even promise to offer) hi-res audio. We know that Spotify is set to launch its 'HiFi' tier later this year, but it remains to be seen whether hi-res will be on the menu at launch or whether it will stick to CD quality – and if it will try to undercut the competition.
So will Deezer (which offers CD-quality) or YouTube Music (which maxes out at 256kbps within its paid-for tier) ever go hi-res? Alexander Holland, chief content and strategy officer at Deezer, recently offered some choice words on this: "Our goal is to make sure that Deezer brings value to both artists and music fans. We’re not ready to announce anything just yet but are considering the implications on our users, technology and business. It’s clear that our industry shifted overnight and HiFi is the new de facto standard for audio quality. We would never want to stand in the way of that. You’ll hear more from us soon."
Verdict: which hi-res streaming service is best?
Ultimately, the delicate balance of budget and device compatibility within your home will determine which service you opt for.
Tidal is our current Award winner: it sounds that little bit better than the competition, the user experience is spot on, the catalogue extensive, and the accessibility of hi-res Masters streams on MQA-supporting devices is only growing. That said, it has yet to react to the latest price war on hi-res streams. It's now double the price of Apple Music and Amazon Music HD.
Qobuz is now a good shout for Sonos users looking to bring hi-res audio to their homes and it does have the biggest hi-res catalogue. Admirably, it offers users the chance to purchase and download music (at a discount for Sublime+ members), although we'd note the sizable holes in its standard CD-quality album offering.
Amazon Music HD has recently positioned itself as one of the cheapest hi-res options, and could well be the service of choice for non-Apple users who want the best sound for the least pound.
With its high-quality catalogue present and growing, Apple Music is a no-brainer for iPhone owners and a prerequisite for owners of the excellent HomePod/HomePod mini. The downside is that even if you're heavily ensconced in Apple's ecosystem, you'll still need to invest in third-party products to enjoy lossless and hi-res at their fullest.
Got the service? Now read how to choose the right speakers and get the best sound
Is the Spotify HiFi launch imminent? 'HiFi' icon spotted in service's iOS app