Welcome to Sunday Morning Hi Fi #9! I want to hear from you, and start a conversation about high-end audio. Share your thoughts, whether positive or constructive criticism, and I will listen. But of course, my goal is to spread the high-end gospel, and bring as many newcomers to high-end audio as possible. I hope you will join me on this quest.
For the Love of Hi Fi
Life has made sure that I have been busy all the time in the last couple months, as I’m sure is the case with everyone at some point in the year. There are certain times of year, which seem cyclical with every revolution of the sun, that are exponentially busier. My busy time has made me think a lot about my hi-fi system, because I haven’t logged as many hours with it as usual. Ironically, this busy time has allowed me to reflect upon the nature of my stereo system even more—not less—even though other things have been stealing my time.
My stereo system is like a best friend. No, I don’t mean that in an anti-social kind of way; I don’t replace my friends with my stereo system. What I mean is that it is always there for me, and even if I don’t have time to hang out with it, I miss it. It’s like a friend that I haven’t had the chance to call back, but as soon as I do it’s as if we haven’t been apart at all. As soon as I walk into my listening room and let my system warm up, that old rush of excitement washes over me, and I’m elated to listen to brand new music—or the same album I’ve heard 500 times—once again.
I think many of you would agree: My hi-fi system isn’t just a thing that plays music; it’s a vital part of my wellbeing and happiness. Even if I miss one day of listening—much less three or four—I feel a pang of regret and pine for some quality listening time. If I’m ever feeling down, the cure isn’t pharmaceuticals or some other substance—it’s my stereo system. It’s one of those things I can always rely on to make me feel better, and when I turned it on this morning that’s exactly what happened. Happy Sunday morning!
Andrew Quint recently published his first impressions about TIDAL, but I wanted to give you my two cents about this much-anticipated service. After about two weeks of playing around with TIDAL, the CD-quality music streaming service known as WiMP in Europe, I have a pretty good idea of its sonic capabilities, user interface, integration with third-party components (the only components I have that integrate TIDAL are from Bluesound and NAD), and catalog. Here are my two-week ratings thus far, based on a scale from 1 to 5:
Again, these are based on two weeks of listening, so my ratings will shift over time. Let’s break it down a little further.
Sonics: Even with the claims of CD-quality streaming—which it is—TIDAL still doesn’t sound as good as a physical CD in a quality transport. Music streamed via TIDAL seems a little bright at times, and low-end detail suffers a bit. Even though the “HiFi” symbol is lit up when I stream (indicating that TIDAL is streaming in CD quality), I wonder if TIDAL compresses music at all or limits bitrate in order to provide uninterrupted service. I assume not, because the service has cut out and lagged a few times when other people in my house are streaming other things—movies, for example. This would indicate that instead of lowering bitrate to ensure uninterrupted service, TIDAL simply cuts out; annoying, but it's better than listening to compressed music. I currently have a 20Mbps line in my house, but will be upgrading to a 100Mbps line in the next week. Maybe that will help with the lag.
Interface: The TIDAL interface is very similar to Spotify and other streaming services, with all of the features you could hope for. There is a desktop version, and then portable versions for iOS and Android. The service is brand new, so I can’t judge it too harshly right now. There are some quirks about using TIDAL features, too. You can download songs for offline use, but make sure you are connected to a really fast Internet connection in order to download them. I tried downloading a playlist of 21 songs on a 5Mbps connection, and things didn’t work very well. After downloading three songs without an issue, things went awry and I couldn’t download any more. Songs would start to download, then stop, then start, then I would receive an error message, but then they would continue to download, but once half way downloaded things would reset, then start, then stop… You get the point. Also, streaming over LTE or 4G isn’t really viable, since most of us in the U.S. have limited data plans. Unless you have unlimited data, don’t stream or download to your cell phone without WiFi. So, that makes streaming on the go kind of pointless, right? Well, again, you can download songs for offline use, but you need to do that at home on a fairly fast ISP—no dial-up for TIDAL.
Integration: The integration with my Bluesound multi-room/multi-zone wireless system is pretty decent. A lot of this is on Lenbrook/Bluesound, rather than TIDAL, but the integration is again, just decent. There are a lot of hiccups, lack of features, and quirks right now. I’m sure a lot of this is being worked out and Bluesound will push another update to the devices to improve things (we have already seen three updates since the launch of TIDAL). I can’t speak to other companies’ compatibility, but the NAD/Bluesound integration is still a work in progress, and nobody should expect stellar performance. I’ve been having a lot of connection issues and dropouts since the latest updates, plus the app is a little cumbersome at times. Maybe in a month or two things will be smoothed out.
Catalog: The TIDAL catalog is way better than I was expecting, and is actually very impressive. I’ve really been enjoying the pre-made playlists that TIDAL puts out, which have allowed me to discover tons of new music. Andrew Quint noticed some holes in the catalog, and I did too, but I think there are some very good reasons for the missing artists and albums: Licensing. Not all artists want to be a part of streaming, case in point the band Radiohead. Now, Radiohead is considered one of the greatest bands of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by many, and has led the way with vinyl sales. When Radiohead released In Rainbows, they sold more vinyl copies than all other bands—combined. Serious clout, in other words. But when I searched for them on TIDAL, they were nowhere to be found. I suspect that this is because they give away their music for free, and have adopted a “pay what you feel it’s worth” model for all future albums (barring physical albums like vinyl). And they have been really successful doing this, too. So maybe they said, “Hey, we give away our music for free, why should we provide it to TIDAL?” Other labels and bands probably have similar reasoning, except more because of money than anything. Supposedly Taylor Swift left Spotify in favor of TIDAL for her new album. The point is, we can’t look at gaps in catalogs as TIDAL’s fault—it’s much more likely to be an issue with licensing than anything.
Try TIDAL for free for 30 days. It’s worth it, trust me. Don’t think of it as a replacement for your physical media; think of it as a way to discover new music, and lots of it.
Until next time, Happy Listening!