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Review: TIDAL high-fidelity music streaming

Better than Spotify?

Tidal Logo

When we listen to music, we often have to choose between sound quality and convenience. I’ll admit to settling for “good enough” in the past, from MP3 downloads to quickly pulling up songs on YouTube and listening through my phone's built-in speaker.

But what if you could get uncompromised sound alongside instant gratification? That's what TIDAL offers. It's an online music service that touts higher-quality audio than Spotify® and Beats Music™. I got a chance to try it out.

UPDATE MARCH 2017: TIDAL recently started streaming high-resolution music via a new audio fortmat called "MQA." MQA encoding "folds" studio-quality audio into files that are small enough to stream. Called TIDAL MASTERS, it is currently available on the TIDAL desktop PC app and through the Bluesound multi-room music service.

When I reviewed the Bluesound Pulse Soundbar, I tried it out. Here's what I thought:

"The sound seemed to open up and breathe a little more with the higher-resolution files. Roberta Flack’s “Killing me Softly” was a highlight.

The strong thump of the bass and percussion took over my rapidly nodding head at first. Then my movement was forced to slow down by Flack’s beautiful “can’t-be-rushed” vocals as the song went on. Her voice was crystal clear, and there was an extra spaciousness to the song."

TIDAL MASTERS MQA menu on Bluesound

Bluesound lets you stream studio-quality MQA music files via TIDAL MASTERS.

What is Lossless streaming?

Most streaming services compress music files for fast delivery to your smartphone or tablet. Part of the music is essentially chopped off. While that leaves the meat and potatoes, you lose musical nuances that can give a song more life and substance. 

TIDAL, however, offers CD-quality music streaming. It streams FLAC files at 1,411 kbps – that delivers far more data than the lossy streams offered by Spotify, Beats Music, and most other services.

FLAC chart

TIDAL lets you choose and toggle between three different sound qualities.

TIDAL offers two “tiers” of streaming plans — $19.99 a month for “HiFi” streaming  and $9.99 a month for “Standard” streaming. The HiFi plan gives you gives you CD-quality lossless streaming capabilities, while the Standard plan streams music at 320 kilobits-per-second (kbps), on par with Spotify, Beats Music, and Google Play.

You can toggle between sound quality settings. TIDAL HiFi takes up a lot of data, so if you're out and about and listening on, say, a portable Bluetooth speaker, you'll probably want to choose a lower setting. You can also download songs to your phone to play when you're away from an internet connection. Handy when you're on a road or plane trip, or when you don't want to use your data plan.

It should be noted that TIDAL HiFi can tax less robust wireless networks. I had no issues on my computer when connected by Ethernet, but occasionally had problems on my Android phone over Wi-Fi. Every once in a while, the audio would drop out or start skipping near the end of a song.

streaming quality on mobile app

You can set different streaming bitrates on TIDAL's mobile app, so you don't have to manually toggle when on Wi-Fi or your data plan.

So how does it sound?

I fired up TIDAL for a first impression through some nice portable headphones — the Sennheiser HD 1 On-ears. I plugged directly into my Android phone as I cooked a hearty weekend breakfast. I put on some jazzy horns-and-percussion hip-hop in the form of the new Oddisee album. Well-rounded bass laid the foundation for a rich mid-range that felt light and bouncy. It was a perfect Sunday morning soundtrack as the energetic sound added oxygen to the room. What I heard was on pace with the attack-of-the-senses aroma of my morning mugful and scrambling skillet.

Sennheiser headphones

TIDAL sounded great through the Sennheiser HD 1 On-ear headphones.

At work, I used the same headphones at my desk and played the Tom Petty track “Melinda.” The HD 1 On-ears have a pretty up-front sound, but this felt more open with instruments playing from different directions. As the keys melodically lulled me into the groove, I barely noticed the percussion building the beat. By the time I caught my toe tapping, the rhythm guitar kicked in and the pace picked up. Then Petty’s vocals started, perfectly placed in the track, taking the rollercoaster ride home.

So how does TIDAL's sound quality compare to Spotify's? I used Preservation Hall Jazz Band's "St. James Infirmary, Part 1 and 2" (featuring Jim James and Trombone Shorty) as a test track. It’s one of my favorite live recordings, because it's closest to how I heard them perform it here in Charlottesville. I had listened to it many times on Spotify, and TIDAL gave me a much stronger illusion that I was there in the building. It was so powerful, that I could practically recreate that memorable concert by closing my eyes.

Best gear for listening to TIDAL

It was striking how good TIDAL sounded just through a decent pair of headphones connected directly to my computer or phone. Of course, better headphones yield better sound. Add a headphone amp or digital-to-analog converter to your listening setup for some extra power and depth.

If you want want to use TIDAL with your home stereo, you have some options. There's no stereo integration on the level of Spotify Connect, but you can play TIDAL wirelessly on a receiver with Apple Airplay. For better sound, use TIDAL's web player and connect your computer to a DAC or digital inputs on your home system.

TIDAL is also integrated into Bluesound, DTS Play-Fi, Denon HEOS, and Sonos, multi-room systems that let you play music through your whole house. I tried it out with a Sonos wireless home theater we set up — the music sounded bigger than the speakers themselves. Like everything with Sonos, there’s seamless control between TIDAL and other music services.

User experience

I admitted earlier how much convenience matters to me, so all the praise of the sound only matters if TIDAL is as intuitive and engaging as the other music services. Both the desktop browser and mobile app succeed here.

Desktop is super easy to navigate, with all your main options to the left and the “search” field up top.

shot of My music

I typically gravitate to the “My music” area so I was pleased to see it highlighted and “expanded” so could quickly get to my saved playlists, artists, or albums.

The playlists are also very good, usually having something to do with recent news or a cultural event. I also like how you’re given an easily digestible amount, and can choose to view more if you would like. It makes music discovery simple without overwhelming you with choices.

Picture of playlists

You can search playlists by genre or mood, and I found a pretty dense catalog of playlists in each category.

Cool features and content

TIDAL allows you to use multiple devices at the same time, which is super convenient. I pulled up the mobile app on my phone and it's just as user friendly as the desktop, with a similar layout. Topical content is displayed first under "What's New." Along with the curated music, TIDAL offers high-definition music videos, as well as concert footage.

app screen shot

The mobile apps' home screen serves up new content every day.

In just the few weeks I had for my trial, TIDAL had two really cool live events – Jack White played an acoustic show, and Jay-Z himself (who recently purchased and relaunched TIDAL)  performed in a smaller, intimate club. He dug in the crates and ran through his B-sides backed by a live (and lively) band. As I bobbed my head along, it reminded the most jaded hip hop fan of his excellent back catalog. I felt like I was part of an exciting, exclusive music club.

There are even daily longform articles and in-depth artist interviews. They practically served as liner notes, one of the things I miss most from CDs and LPs. It may be the closest thing left to the ritual of pulling a new disc or platter out, and soaking in the packaging, art, and words.

I scrolled through a Q& A with an artist as I listened to a new album, immersed in the experience like I was back in my room as a teenager, fresh from the record store...at least until my kids shouting in the other room woke me from my nostalgic daydream.

app shot of articles

TIDAL's Q&A's and articles are enjoyable companions to the music.

Final thoughts

Like I said, I’ve often sided with convenience. But if I can get something nice, and it’s just as effortless, it’s worth considering – even at a higher price. Let’s put it this way: I’m not exactly clamoring to go back to black bars on the side of my movies. TIDAL gives me access to all my tunes through an intuitive, straightforward, and fun interface while preserving essential musical details.

Now that I’ve had a taste, I understand what a difference that makes.

  • Andreas from San Carlos

    Posted on 4/14/2018

    Have been using it now for 2 years. It's excellent - in HiFi mode no difference in quality from playing CDs

  • kevin brust

    Posted on 3/20/2018

    I would recommend to use MusConv tool.

  • Dennis from Carrboro/Chapel Hill

    Posted on 2/8/2018

    For best sound quality use the Tidal desktop app on a computer and output to a USB DAC connected into your stereo system. I have done this and the sound quality is excellent. I also bought a cheap, used netbook for 60 bucks, installed Ubuntu on it and streamed Tidal from Tidal.com on the Chrome browser. I have a very nice streaming machine for 60 bucks that is connected to my USB DAC and then to my Oldchen K3 KT88 tube amp with some nice speakers hanging off of it. l love the sound. Also be aware that Tidal gives a 50% discount to veterans. I am a very happy camper using this setup. I can also line out to my tube headphone amp from the USB DAC and listen on headphones so as not to bother anyone. My first choice is still vinyl, but if I am feeling lazy then I fire up Tidal and listen. Not quite as good sound wise as my vinyl sounds, but it is damn good, and much more convenient. It really gives you an opportunity to audition albums that you wouldn't typically get the opportunity to listen to. Highly recommended.

  • John from Leicestershire, UK

    Posted on 10/21/2017

    I've been streaming music for quite some time from a popular service I won't mention and got used to the sound, it sounded ok (good ?) but certainly in my car I was always messing with my audio settings - it never sounded 'quite right'. I decided to try Tidal, not really expecting much as I assumed the 'sound' I was hearing was just my car stereo (streaming via bluetooth), first track I heard from Tidal my mouth was wide open with shock, just an amazing sound, clear lows, highs, extra detail in the audio I never knew existed. I',m not an audio buff but I have ears, the difference is obvious and worth every penny. No chance whatsoever I'm switching to any other streaming service - really it's that good. Play Tidal via some reasonable audio equipment and you're be in for more shocks. I can't remember the last time I came home and sat in front of my stereo (AV amp with mission speakers) putting on tracks I'd never normally even consider listening to. Mobile app (Andriod) and Windows desktop client are excellent, finds every track I've searched for instantly and gives you even more suggestions, lots of other music related stuff on Tidal - I'm just enjoying the tunes so much I've not had chance to check out. I can't praise Tidal enough, try it you won't be disappointed.

  • Mark Flavin from Indianapolis

    Posted on 10/16/2017

    Absolutely loving the "space" and separation between voices and instruments using Tidal's lossless hifi stream. Running through a Peachtree Nova150 amp/DAC and Monitor Audio Silver 8's. Just use the Tidal app on your smartphone if you want to bypass the Sonos app. If you are having a problem with the stream it's most likely due to a router that should be upgraded, assuming you have a good internet mbps feed.

  • Joe Miller from Columbus, GA

    Posted on 7/17/2017

    DO any of you know how to use the Tidal desktop app instead of Sonos app when streaming? The Tidal app interface is far superior.

  • Jeremy Johnson

    Posted on 7/17/2017

    Tidal is Great. If you're having problems your internet service/hardware needs improvement. I Never have an issues streaming HiFi on ATT Wireless in ND, MN, SD. Good to hear Pioneer Elite now has integration, but that also would indicate more of a full PC experience which can be detrimental to Home Theater performance. Too bad there wasn't still places to go to actually experience the product pre purchase, I've always been a Yamaha fan and can't get over that not even the Aventage line has Tidal.

  • Jerry Sander from Warwick

    Posted on 5/12/2017

    I'm just wishing/hoping/praying for Android Auto integration. Finally have a new car -- '17 Honda CRV, which offers seamless Android Auto integration of Google Music and Spotify and...no TIDAL. C'mon, TIDAL, hop on the bandwagon and enable a few more million people to be able to regularly use your superior-sounding service. Please?

  • Sue from Greensboro

    Posted on 4/6/2017

    Tidal is awful! It stops midstream and it's definitely not user friendly. Scrolling through to find songs on my playlist is such a headache,this should be done I'm alphabetical order. I would think someone like Jay-Z would make sure his steam is FLAWLESS!

  • THOMAS from STATEN ISLAND

    Posted on 3/23/2017

    PIONEER ELITE A/V RECEIVERS,now stream TIDAL

  • Rich from Chicago

    Posted on 6/1/2016

    How can it stil be lossless if you have to use AirPlay as a way to get music to your home system?

  • Nelson from Seattle

    Posted on 2/16/2016

    I just saw the light this is the best sound I've heard from my lightly modified Fostex T50RP headphones. I'll say I wish it had chromecast like or some receiver compatibility to use with my Martin Logan's electrostatics, it would be glorious. I agree is the best spend money in audio quality.

  • Vince from Brooklyn

    Posted on 2/12/2016

    My best use of 20 bucks per month ever. My headphones, cell phone and stereo are high end so compromising on my stream quality just doesn't make any sense at all. I'll never go back to any other service.

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