I first tried Tidal around its initial launch, and then I ignored it for a couple of years. It was cool that they used FLAC for streaming, but nothing else about it grabbed me.
A number of months ago, Tidal signed a deal to become the first major streaming platform to support MQA files (Master Quality Authenticated), a new type of lossy encoding that carries data for standard and high resolution audio in the same file simultaneously with less overall storage and bandwidth requirements, along with purporting to give content authors “better control” over their audio thanks to an authentication system.
But cynics said that this was just another way for the music industry to put DRM into digital music, and that since it was a lossy format, it wouldn’t sound any better than the FLAC codec which Tidal already used for all of its files in “Hi-Fi” mode.
Because I’m a sucker for new things, I signed back up to give MQA a listen.
We’ll have to wait a while to see if the industry as a whole jumps behind MQA, and what ramifications that’ll have for consumer rights, but in terms of sound quality…the cynics were sort of right.
FLAC VS OGG
Tidal uses FLAC, the Free Lossless Audio Codec, to present most of its music if you subscribe to the $20-a-month premium tier. It’s a standard, sort of like Zip, that compresses music without destroying any information whatsoever. The final uncompressed audio stream will be completely identical to whatever source you created the FLAC from.
Ogg Vorbis, the audio system behind Spotify, is a lossy codec. This means that when the music is compressed, certain information is thrown out in order to reduce the filesize. Typically, information that’s thrown out is either outside the audible human hearing frequency range, or so buried in the mix as to be effectively inaudible anyway. The result is a much smaller file that should still mimic the original’s audio quality.
The debate over lossless vs lossy encoding has raged online for years and years, with each having its proponents.
The nice thing about FLAC is that you can be sure that you’re getting all of the data. It requires more bandwidth and more storage space, but you don’t have to worry about missing out.
The reality is that, for 99.9 percent of users, a well-compressed lossy file is completely indistinguishable from a lossless one. And the Ogg system was designed by Xiph.org’s Christopher Montgomery, a true wizard of audio compression, to hit the perfect sweet spot between audio quality, decompression performance, and efficiency.
FLAC was designed originally for archival storage. How can we keep perfect copies of all these digital masters or a collection of CD’s without needing rooms and rooms full of shelves?
Also, FLAC and Ogg are both maintained by Xiph.org. The same company. And they’re both crafted to present a perfect end-user listening experience.
An Ogg file with the right amount of bitrate (which Spotify’s paid tier accomplishes and which their free tier gets very close to) will show you all the flaws/delights in an original master just as well as FLAC.
So Tidal’s hi-fi offering is really there for purists, who want a bit-perfect match for what would have come on a CD.
I can’t hear a real difference between them. They both sound exceptional, regardless of playback equipment I used in my vain quest to tell a big difference. A road I’ve gone down many times in the past, too.
“Your hearing SUCKS!”
No it doesn’t. I can hear out to 16.5khz, not bad for a 34 year old, and I’ve worked in audio production for 15 years. You can absolutely hear the difference with badly encoded lossy tracks.
But with enough bits? They’re wonderful. Just like FLAC.
WHAT ABOUT MQA?
MQA also sounds really good.
I tried about a hundred of Tidal’s new “Master” tracks and…it sounds about as good to me as Ogg and FLAC do.
MQA does have one unique trick up its sleeve, and that’s high resolution audio support. Each compressed MQA file contains data for multiple different sample rates, so whether you play it back on a 44.1khz system or a 96khz system, it will scale accordingly. MQA’s creator calls it “unfolding.” Tidal will do all of this processing for you in software, and some DACs like Blackmagic’s Dragonfly series will do the decoding in hardware instead.
Here’s the thing though…ahem…hi res audio provides less benefit than FLAC. And in many cases, it’s adding extra distortion to the signal, capturing ultrasonic frequencies that then echo distortion down into the human hearing range.
I’m sure some of you are once again out there getting your fingers ready to write inflammatory comments about how I’m wrong and you can hear a big difference, but there’s reams of science proving that you can’t, that high res audio’s benefit is usually expectation bias, and that all of these digital formats are equally amazing, sound-wise.
Proponents point to supposed stairstep flaws in the Nyquist Theorem and lower noise floors, but none of this is really true. High resolution audio is a marketing gimmick. The equipment being certified with the Hi-Res Audio logo usually is produced to a higher standard, but never in my life do I need to hear 40,000hz tones accurately reproduced.
Because I can’t hear them. Nor can any human.
My neighbor’s dog might enjoy them however. Or it might make him run away.
I get it. I get the desire to get something better and to feel good seeing a shiny logo and bigger numbers. I like those feelings too. I’ve fallen into those traps many times in the past, auditioning hi-res audio for any meaningful differences and trying desperately to convince myself of something.
If you want to read a great take down of hi-res audio, Christopher Montgomery of Xiph.org has written an exceptional, science-backed look at it.
In some cases, high resolution audio isn’t outright hurting your experience, I guess…but it also isn’t adding anything either. It’s literally just giving you a better feeling and some confirmation bias for your extra dollars.
So do I hate MQA? No, not at all! It does a great job of presenting audio, and it’s neat that Tidal does all the heavy lifting without requiring external software or hardware.
But it’s not any better than FLAC. Or Ogg. Or AAC. Or CD. Etc.
My least favorite thing about Tidal when I first tried it was that the design felt like a copy of Spotify that had all the fun removed. Spotify has a time-tested interface, and Tidal has always been a brazen clone. But they don’t have the social and friends features I’ve come to enjoy in Spotify, and they don’t have quite as wide-reaching of a music library.
Sometimes I just want to listen to old Sega music, okay?
I like being able to look at the sidebar and see what my friends are listening to in Spotify. I like Spotify’s volume-levelling and crossfade functionality. And I think that Spotify’s audio quality is exceptional.
A couple of years ago I reviewed Google Play Music and Apple Music. I think both of those services also have more fun and general design excellence in their UI’s than Tidal does.
But that’s just my opinion. Only with Spotify can my friends see how much girl pop I listen to every week.
TECH OVER DELIGHT
Tidal has always pushed the high-tech angle as a main selling point, offering the best possible streaming quality. And that’s still technically true. But compression is so good at this point that you’d have to be the most anal, hyper-aware listener in the entire world to get any sort of benefit out of it.
Perhaps Tidal’s small library of exclusive songs or their video collection will appeal to you. Perhaps their branding is more to your liking. Or perhaps you really want to see what MQA is all about.
For me, nothing they’re offering is worth the $10 dollar premium they charge over all the other streaming services. If they were at the same price point instead of a premium…that would be much more interesting.
The sound quality is good, but not appreciably better than Spotify. Their social features are lacking. And their client design isn’t the most modern.
Oh, and every month or two another story comes out about how the company is about to go bankrupt. That’s probably not great.
I didn’t hate MQA at all. But I think hi-res audio has devolved into a silly marketing trick. Maybe some day an end-to-end high-res production will come out and blow my mind as I listen to them on my high-res capable gear at home. (I bought the Arctis Pro for review and still have it around).
I’m still waiting for that magical “this is better!” moment I got the first time I listened to CDs, and forever cast aside the humble cassette tapes of my burgeoning youth. I approach each of these new formats with optimism, but so far, nothing really beats standard Red Book audio for me, as far as raw audio playback performance.
Maybe it’s time for the music industry to stop chasing new standards solely for the sake of marketing and, I don’t know, invent new production techniques? Invest in better mixing engineers and microphones? Work on new lower distortion headphone driver systems that aren’t shoved into thousand dollar prestige products? That would all have a more dramatic impact on sound quality for the average listener than these new file formats.
A fancy gold badge on a box will only work for so long. At least for me.