Is Tidal the sound wave of the future?


As I start this blog post, I am at my auto dealership having my oil changed, while streaming on my laptop (equipped with an external Xonar sound card to replace the piece of junk it came with), through pretty good NAD Viso headphones, a ravishing new recording by conductor Philippe Jordan of Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé. Heaven in the service department!

And one of the biggest reasons for my enjoyment is that I’m using Tidal. What’s Tidal, you may ask — a new laundry service?

Nope. Tidal, the property of rapper and business mogul Jay-Z, is one of the more recent entrants into the rapidly expanding field of online music streaming services, like Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody and Apple Music. Even non-users may have become aware of these services from the news coverage of music superstar Taylor Swift’s spat with Apple Music, or from Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne’s recent commentary in the New York Times. Both of these had to do with the pressing issue of artists’ royalties, which I will duck here in favor of an issue of primary interest to me, the avid music listener. The issue is sound quality. And it matters, or should matter, to you too.

For while we definitely should care about musicians’ income, we should also care about their output, and how much respect we pay it. And in my far-from-humble opinion, when we listen to their music in crappy sound quality when better is available, we treat the music and the musicians like crap too.

You see, the other more established music services only provide streams in compressed “lossy” formats like MP3 (decent explanation here). This saves on bandwidth, data use (when not in reach of wifi) and storage space (when the music is downloaded). Now, these formats may be adequate for casual listening while out and about. For even slightly serious music listening — or heck, for real enjoyment of the music, they don’t get the job done.

Because in order to compress the digital files, MP3 and the like do the equivalent of refining nutrients out of whole wheat to make Wonder Bread, or of printing a high-pixel photograph on an inkjet. You get something that kind of tastes or looks like the real thing, but is of decidedly inferior quality. And just as you could definitely tell the difference in the above examples, you can certainly hear the difference in music playback between an MP3 and, say, a CD. I know that some people say they can’t, but I don’t want to hear it. Yes you can. My friends at Spearit Sound have told me of customers who sink four figures into good audio gear, only to express disappointment in the result.

It’s because they were playing MP3s off their iPods or iPhones rather than using high-quality source material. And they most certainly heard what they were missing. Voices and string instruments, rather than sounding silky smooth, came out as patchy and grainy. Percussion thwacks lacked impact and definition. The stereo imaging was vague and indistinct, the dynamics (i.e., loud-soft) were squeezed, and the whole thing sounded like it was placed behind a scrim. Yech!

Tidal, on the other hand, has distinguished itself by offering its catalogue in, among other flavors, “Hifi” (in geekspeak, as described in this review, 16bit, 44.1kHz FLAC files with a bitrate of 1411kbps). Oh, what a difference! I’ve now moved on to the Starbucks at the Holyoke Mall, and switched selections to electronic artist Nicolas Jaar’s fabulous “Space is Only Noise.” It’s all there — every thump, swish and sample. The right-left and front-back placement of the sounds is wide, deep and precise. Things meant to be smooth sound smooth, things meant to be gritty practically permit me to count the particles of grit. And it’s all coming to me over Starbucks’ wifi, on fairly basic electronic equipment, for the price of a short cup of dark roast.

Yeah, a full Tidal subscription goes for $20/month, about twice of most other services. (According the company’s publicity, they have come up with a more fair way to distribute revenues to artists and labels, but again, I’m ducking that issue for now.) As a consumer, I think it’s more than worth it — the difference means that much to me. I won’t advise you how to spend your money. But I will advise you that to get the most out of the time you spend with the music you love, it might be an investment worth considering. I know one thing — if I were a musician, I certainly would want people to get out of my music everything I put into it. Why would the listener want to do otherwise?

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