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Tidal review

What Hi-Fi? Awards 2021 winner. Still the best option for streaming-savvy audiophiles

Tidal review
(Image: © Apple / Tidal)

Our Verdict

Tidal's expansive, accessible and hi-res-inclusive catalogue remains the best option for streaming-savvy audiophiles

For

  • Great sound quality
  • Hi-res Tidal Masters
  • Intuitive and expansive

Against

  • Hi-res tier undercut by Amazon, Apple

Tidal has been riding an encouraging wave of momentum since its celebrity-studded re-launch back in March 2015 – not least because, in 2017, it became the first service to offer hi-res audio streaming thanks to its adoption of MQA technology.

These hi-res (typically 24-bit/96kHz) tracks, which it calls 'Tidal Masters', initially numbered in the tens of thousands but now make up a catalogue in the millions – all available to subscribers of its £20 ($20) per month HiFi (CD-quality) package at no additional charge.

But Tidal is now far from the only hi-res player in the music streaming game, with Qobuz, Amazon Music HD and Apple Music also offering better-than-CD streams – and, in the case of Amazon and Apple, at significantly lower monthly fees too. (We await the arrival of Spotify HiFi.) So, is Tidal still number one?

Features

Tidal review

(Image credit: Apple / Tidal)

Hi-res and CD-quality streams aren’t actually the be-all and end-all of Tidal’s offering, with the 70-million-track catalogue also available to stream in 320kbps to subscribers of its Spotify-rivalling £10 ($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 expanded into Apple and Android TV apps, and Apple CarPlay.

Tidal apps also form part of several networked hi-fi products’ offerings, from Sonos, Bluesound and DTS Play-Fi platforms to Linn, McIntosh, Naim and Cyrus streaming products. Google Chromecast is supported as well, while Tidal Connect – a similar concept to Spotify Connect – also allows for easy streaming to compatible products from within the native Tidal app. Tidal Connect is unique in its ability to cast MQA and Dolby Atmos files, too.

Tidal Masters are now available via desktop, Android and iOS, as well as being supported by a number of those aforementioned hi-fi components (either natively or via Tidal Connect) and software platforms like Roon.

There are a few complications, however. Listening through a computer, via its 3.5mm headphone output, or through 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 only complete 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 most accurate representation of the file, 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, the NAD C 658 music streamer and the Cambridge Audio DacMagic 200M and AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt DACs – 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.

Tidal also offers a growing catalogue of Dolby Atmos Music tracks, with support opened up to include most Atmos-compatible kit – from soundbars and TVs to Award-winning AVRs and smart speakers.

To play these immersive tracks, 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).

Tidal's Android and iOS apps also support Sony's 360 Reality Audio immersive audio format, with a growing number of tracks from Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group available on the streaming service.

Ease of use

Tidal review

(Image credit: Apple / Tidal)

Kit with built-in MQA decoders are also helpful to identify a Masters file’s resolution. The Meridian Explorer 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 but, unfortunately, it remains an issue.

We also originally noted that Masters tracks and albums (all marked with an 'M' logo) could be hard to find, but Tidal has worked to make this less of a sore spot by offering a growing number of Masters playlists and increasing discovery of these hi-res streams.

The Masters home page in the 'Explore' tab is a good place to start. Or you can type 'Masters' into the search bar, filter by 'playlist' and see curated selections for pop, rock, hip-hop, R&B and even for more niche genres such as K-Pop and latin. 

Masters-specific playlists expand past genre, too: there's now ‘Tidal Masters: New Arrivals’ and ‘Tidal Masters: Essentials’, genre-specific (‘Tidal Masters: Motown’) and artist-specific (‘Tidal Masters: The Smiths’) options, plus ‘Master Edition’ Artist Radio and Track Radio stations, which allow subscribers to listen to an uninterrupted stream of Tidal Masters tracks based on their listening habits.

Tidal review

(Image credit: Apple / Tidal)

The streaming service’s layout is exemplary, too. The desktop app's large number of tabs has been reduced to match the smartphone app, with the majority of content now grouped under the catch-all 'Home' tab.

At the top is a big and bold selection of featured content, while below that you'll find playlists created for you, based on your listening habits. 'Recently Played' allows you to quickly hop back into an album or playlist, while 'Suggested New Tracks' and 'Suggested New Albums' guides you to the latest new releases that Tidal's algorithms believe will be up your street.

Tidal appears to have taken a leaf out of Spotify's book by prioritising the discovery of new music tailored to your tastes, and it does so effectively. Just a couple of weeks of listening and favouriting is enough to start getting worthwhile recommendations. Tidal has launched 'My Daily Discovery', 'My New Arrivals' and 'My Mix' playlists, which further tailor the experience.

Below these personalised sections in the Home tab, you'll find sections dedicated to the most popular playlists and albums on the service, as well as mood-based playlists, podcasts, radio stations and the Tidal Rising section, which helps promote new talent.

Away from 'Home' the two main tabs are 'Explore', which duplicates many of the discovery elements of 'Home' and seems rather redundant, and 'Videos', which hosts music videos. The final tab is 'My Collection', which groups all of your favourited music and custom playlists and also houses your downloads.

Tidal has also partnered with Tune My Music and Soundiiz to offer two ways of importing playlists from other streaming services, meaning you needn't drag and drop everything again if you're migrating from one of its rivals.

Performance

Tidal review

(Image credit: Apple / Tidal)

Whether you’re listening to 320kbps, CD-quality or hi-res streams, Tidal sounds great compared to its rivals. 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.

Tidal review

(Image credit: Apple / Tidal)

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 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 the hi-res streams offered by rivals Qobuz and Amazon Music HD, which lack a little sonic cohesion in comparison. 

Amazon Music HD does counter with an occasionally more open and detailed delivery, but it's the Tidal Masters that are most musical. Apple Music's ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) streams match Tidal for openness and subtlety, and actually we noted how, in comparison, they can sound just a touch clearer.

And the fact you can now cast these hi-res files to compatible devices via Tidal Connect makes listening to high quality music only more convenient. Bluesound is one of a handful of manufacturers that supports Tidal Connect – along with Cambridge Audio, KEF, Dali, iFi, Lyngdorf and NAD.

Verdict

Tidal review

(Image credit: Apple / Tidal)

While Tidal’s £10 ($10) per month tier is arguably just as appealing as similar offerings from Spotify, its top HiFi tier is the biggest draw.

Where Masters were once a niche sub-section of the service's offering, the catalogue is now much bigger and much easier to take advantage of, thanks to broader device support and improved discovery features. 

The arrival of Amazon Music HD and Apple Music's lossless offering, not to mention their half-the-price monthly fee, has no doubt had Team Tidal looking over its shoulder, and you wouldn't bet against the service being forced to lower its subscription cost in order to stay competitive in the near future. We wonder if the late-2021 arrival of Spotify HiFi (a CD-quality albeit not hi-res tier) will endeavour to shake up the music streaming market, too.

Right now, we believe Apple Music is the most attractive and best-value hi-res streaming service out there... for Apple device owners. But for everyone else looking for superior music streams right now – and especially those with MQA and Tidal Connect-supporting gear, of course – Tidal is a service we can heartily recommend.

SCORES

  • Performance 5
  • Features 5
  • Ease of use 5

MORE:

Everything we know so far about Spotify HiFi

Our pick of the best Tidal Masters albums

What Hi-Fi?

What Hi-Fi?, founded in 1976, is the world's leading independent guide to buying and owning hi-fi and home entertainment products. Our comprehensive tests help you buy the very best for your money, with our advice sections giving you step-by-step information on how to get even more from your music and movies. Everything is tested by our dedicated team of in-house reviewers in our custom-built test rooms in London and Bath. Our coveted five-star rating and Awards are recognised all over the world as the ultimate seal of approval, so you can buy with absolute confidence.


Read more about how we test

  • Ramborme
    I left Tidal, now I use Spotify and Qobuz,Tidal doesn't give me suggestions near as good as Spotify does,Tidal try's to force too much rap and hip hop, I'm older, Spotify adapted to my choices, and Qobuz sounds better on my system don't need MQA Dac for hi res,Qobus does need some work, I'm in the US, sometimes it's slow to load and it's missing a lot of songs I have on my Spotify playlists.
    Reply
  • abacus
    Way overpriced for what's on offer.
    Reply
  • Rockerrollin65
    abacus said:
    Way overpriced for what's on offer.
    Couldn't agree more! Brings up the question whether Spotify has some sort of interest in Tidal and they're splitting up the market......(Spotify stays out of Hi-Res, Tidal skimming it), Interesting to know what US, EU and (future) British competition authorities' opinions are with regard to this matter!
    Reply
  • smbmetal
    I’ve never tried Tidal so can’t really comment on how good or not it is.

    I’m currently almost one month in to Amazon Music and have to say I’m really impressed with it. The HD and Ultra HD catalogue is excellent. This is one subscription I will keep I think and at £12.99 a month (I’m already a Prime member) I think it’s good value.
    Reply
  • Mad Bob
    I'm gobsmacked people are complaining at £20 a month for unlimited lossless streaming and download. I'm pushing 50 now and remember paying 11.99 for one CD whilst at university in the early 90s. I would have killed for this then, and utterly love it now.
    This + my own rips + Roon is pretty much perfect to feed my Sonos / Uniti Nova / chrome sticks.
    Reply
  • I think sound wise the best I have heard is Apple Music at £10 a month.
    Reply
  • Blackstarr52
    Mad Bob said:
    I'm gobsmacked people are complaining at £20 a month for unlimited lossless streaming and download. I'm pushing 50 now and remember paying 11.99 for one CD whilst at university in the early 90s. I would have killed for this then, and utterly love it now.
    This + my own rips + Roon is pretty much perfect to feed my Sonos / Uniti Nova / chrome sticks.
    I am right there with you! I have had the service for a few years and would never settle for less. I even have the Family Plan and top-tier streaming. I am quite pleased.
    Reply
  • EricLeRouge
    Tidal is great, but I would like to remind a few facts:

    - No one is checking the actual "high resolution" of the files that Tidal is making available to its subscribers. Interestingly, some music is available in bitrates that are highly unlikely (e.g. some music was remastered @176.4 kHz by publishers on DVD-Audio, and is now re-sampled at 192kHz — a change that is not trivial by any means, since 192 is not a multiple of 176.4, 88.2, 44.1, etc).

    In my view an analysis of the actual quality of the files (e.g brickwall filters, etc) should be seriously considered when discussing Tidal, Qobuz, Hi-Res Audio. I am not suggesting that Tidal has worse files than Qobuz (I have no reason to think so), but having checked the quality of many so-called MQA master titles, I feel that the quality of the so-called masters varies significantly, with a lot of music which clearly doesn't sound right for the nominal bitrates advertised (this is particularly obvious for a lot of old RnB, jazz stuff from before 1980)

    A note on Tidal's pricing - Tidal charges €19.99 for 30 days, which in practice represents €0.6663 a day or €20.28 per month (if you subscribe on the 1st of January of any given year, your 13th payment to Tidal that year will be on the 360th day of the year — people with fixed pension dates beware). If you factor the €0.28 per month per subscriber for 1 million subscribers, this represents a cool €280.000 per month, and €3.36 million per year... :)
    Reply
  • Big Bob
    I have been using Tidal for quite a while now and love it. I do most of my listening in the evening using headphones. The masters stream I find very open and revealing. Talking to my friend, he asked “what’s the difference” to which I said listen to the bits between the notes. The ambience is much clearer and as such adds depth to the recording.
    I have made a number of playlists for various situations. The main one contains about 3000 tracks (not all masters). I have also downloaded this playlist to my phone for listening whilst walking or in the car. For what I get from it Tidal is good value for money and it takes up less shelve space and weight than all those CDs, albums and singles.
    Reply
  • Minkey1
    Just to clarify, Tidal now supports Android Auto.
    Reply