TIDAL changes the music game with high-fidelity streaming

With the advent of music streaming services such as Spotify and Google Play Music All Access, companies saw fit to forgo high-bitrate audio files in favor of lossy 256- and 320-kbps MP3s to conserve users’ mobile bandwidth and allow for less buffering time.

However, that changed last Tuesday with the arrival of a new streaming subscription service, TIDAL. Differentiating itself from the competition, TIDAL serves music in a 1411 kbps FLAC format instead of MP3. This lets users hear music as close to “the way the artist intended” as possible.

The service has a $20/month subscription price, with clients available for OSX, Windows, Android, iOS, and web. Not all music is available in FLAC form, but they should add more as deals with labels are established.

In use, the service works as you’d expect. From the music browsing view, you can pick artists, albums, and tracks to add to your “favorites.” TIDAL also has a staff-curated playlist section which will be updated with new playlists every now and then, a la Spotify.

I wish there was a better way of organizing my music, like the “My Library” view that Google Music and Spotify both have, but it’s a start. I could find most of the music available on Spotify and Google Music, and I’m confident that more will be added in time. The Android app works more or less the same way as the desktop and web clients.

All the pieces are there, but something important is missing. Google Music and Spotify both have what I would call an attractive interface. TIDAL’s UI is a thrown-together black-and-gray hodgepodge. It doesn’t exhibit the visual polish that Google Music has, nor the social features of Spotify. It also has no local library importing.

According to an email from TIDAL’s support group, music importing is being looked into, though regarding the visual design, TIDAL told me they “had many subscribers that love the look and feel of TIDAL,” and “do not currently have any plans to do a complete overhaul on [their] mobile applications.”

I tested streaming over the last week from my laptop and phone using a set of Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones. The sonic difference between FLAC and MP3 files is not a myth. I could immediately tell I was listening to an uncompressed file by the crispness of the high frequencies. These are typically the first to go during MP3 compression.

Background hissing that one often hears in low-quality MP3s is completely absent here as well. The only time I could detect it was in tracks that used low-quality samples themselves. Low-end frequencies tend to lose their detail and richness in MP3 conversion. Not so here. Bass sounded intricate and detailed in the FLACs that I streamed on TIDAL.

The best word I could use to describe the sound quality on TIDAL would be “clean.” After listening to nothing but streamed MP3s on Google Music for the last few months, the listening experience on TIDAL was a breath of fresh air.

As audiophiles know, music is traditionally recorded in the lossless WAV format in studios, where it’s converted to MP3 by compressing the audio, done by removing bits of information from the file until it’s small enough to be stored on an MP3 player or streamed online.

The problem with this practice is that it compromises sonic detail of the music. If you’ve heard what a song should sound like in 24-bit FLAC, it’s very hard to go back to MP3s. TIDAL’s $20 monthly asking price and lackluster visual design will be a big turn-off for a lot of potential users, and if you don’t have great headphones to listen with, you may not even notice a difference between TIDAL and your current music service of choice.

But if you ask TIDAL CEO Andy Chen, that’s okay. “The service is not for everybody,” he told The Verge last week. Whether or not TIDAL will prove to be a hit, they’re certainly providing a much-needed premium service that the playing field has lacked up to this point.