TIDAL’s HD Music Streaming Service: First Impressions Andrew Quint

Music servers and computer audio
TIDAL’s HD Music Streaming Service: First Impressions Andrew Quint

I returned from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest three weeks ago more than a little pumped about the prospect of the imminent launch of TIDAL, the first HD streaming service available in North America. The TIDAL folks seemed to be everywhere at RMAF (as did their shopping bags, a freebee that show attendees picked up at the company’s room) and that included a well-attended seminar hosted by Chris Connaker, which was a barely disguised infomercial for the Finland-based concern. There was a good deal of traffic in that TIDAL room, with a steady stream (sorry) of music coming from nine time zones to the east sounding quite good through Electrocompaniet electronics and speakers. I was reassured by the fact that TIDAL had been up and running in several European countries for some time now and was getting some traction. The single most amazing fact that I picked up in Denver was that something like 75% of music sales in Finland are for streaming services. Most of that is Spotify, I’m sure, but even a relative newcomer must be doing OK.

So, a couple of days ago, I signed up for TIDAL, installing the software on my Baetis music computer. (Don’t tell John Mingo—he has conniptions if you so much as check the occasional email on one of his devices. His caution is probably not misplaced.)

It’s quite easy to do at tidalhifi.com, accomplished in a matter a minutes. The cost is $20/month. I was so hot to trot I didn’t even bother to notice how long I was signing up for. Turns out that you can cancel anytime you want; otherwise, TIDAL renews your subscription every month using the credit card information you gave them at sign-up. TIDAL does require the use of Google Chrome as your Internet browser. That’s free and not hard to install, of course, though I’m not wild about the pop-ups I’m getting regularly now. But the service does operate smoothly and, so far, flawlessly.

Once logged in, you can start exploring the music available intuitively, though there’s a Help button to click on that gets you to a screen with several dozen topics to choose among for more information. TIDAL also leads you through the set-up of your associated devices—you can listen to the streamed material on your phone or tablet, several of them, in fact. But it’s when you click on “Open Web Player” that the fun begins. Start typing in the names of favorite artists and prepare to be impressed. I immediately punched in Todd Rundgren and 39 albums came up; John Coltrane had 103 albums. I didn’t know there were 103 Coltrane albums. (Obviously, there’s duplication of material on those albums, but that’s an old story.) I asked a friend with more wide-ranging experience outside of classical music than I have to give me some artists to check on. Here’s what I found:

21st Century Jazz
Brad Mehldau  6 albums
Kurt Rosenwinkel  5 albums
Ambrose Akinmusrie  2 albums
Greg Osby  10 albums

New Orleans
Galactic  5 albums
Eric Lindell  3 albums
Shannon McNally  4 albums

World Music
Gilberto Gil  41 albums
Jorge Ben  6 albums
Cesaria Evora  13 albums

And my buddy’s a fan of the Texas Country singer Ray Wylie Hubbard: there were 9 albums

Of course, classical is where I know my way around, and I gave Neeme Järvi a shot: 121 albums, most from Chandos and BIS though I saw a Naxos and a LPO release in there as well. Bernstein? Close to 200 albums. Richard Goode has 21 albums listed, including his essential (IMO) complete Beethoven sonata set for Nonesuch. But, speaking of pianists, why are there only six Martha Argerich titles available? There are just six Marc-André Hamelin programs to choose among—none of them are from Hyperion, so I assume that label didn’t join the TIDAL juggernaught. Also, it would appear that some labels are holding back. Type in Anne-Sophie Mutter and you get just nine titles, mostly compilations. Very hit-or-miss.

But who knows if I was actually seeing everything of Mutter’s that TIDAL had available? Searching by composer was very disappointing, in terms of letting one find everything on the site efficiently. I searched on Olivier Messiaen, and three programs came up. But there were many others, for example a Quartet for the End of Time found under “Olivier Messiaen & Barnaby Robson & David Cohen & James Clark & Matthew Schellhorn”. It’s the old iTunes disease, with the composer considered to be an “artist.” Classical listeners need to search by composer, and this has to be fixed. And, as far as I could tell, there was no way to explore by label, also important to both classical and jazz aficionados.

The sound is, as promised, CD-quality (44.1 kHz/16-bit) and it’s no better or worse than a Redbook silver disc. (I went right to Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters”, the sound of which I know very well, in all incarnations. At RMAF, there were promises made for the eventual option of better-than-CD-quality streaming. I wonder what that will cost? If the content I wanted was there, I’d certainly pay more than $20/month. Though I tend to doubt multichannel will happen anytime soon.

So, TIDAL makes a very good initial impression in many areas but is still a work in progress, especially for the classical listener. They do offer a 7-day trial, so give it a whirl.