Before I’m an audiophile I’m a music nut with a thirst for tunes new and old. In the 25 years since The The’s Infected first blew my adolescent hair back, that thirst has never run dry. Not once.
I dabbled a little in the world vinyl before CDs took hold of the market place in the late eighties. CDs remained my preferred format until dropping $800 – yes, eight large – on my first iPod in 2002 and three years after that, a music server.
Prior to a private MP3 (and FLAC) revolution, fresh CD releases from the likes of Grant Lee Buffalo, Suede and John Digweed saw me battle UK weather (mostly rain) to get to my local record store each Monday morning.
My music taste expanded as it evolved. In the nineties I starting signing cheques for large chunks of back catalogue releases from Genesis, Richard Thompson and Bob Dylan. There was so much to explore but CDs didn’t come cheap. Like many a music fan, I looked beyond the financial hardship of dropping well over £100 per week on those shiny silver discs, often sending personal finances into the red. My personal sacrifice was to forego the pub (mostly), drink cheap Spanish wine and eat pasta and sauce every night for a month. My waistline suffered only a little.
By the turn of the millennium I’d amassed a collection of 10,000 CDs that occupied up an entire wall of my apartment. Financial burden aside, it was a thing of beauty but also beast that demanded constant feeding.
Down under, the expense of buying CDs continued well into the noughties until the middle of the decade when I began selling off large chunks long since neglected. Times change, people change. In 2005 was a time when rare electronica would fetch good money on eBay.
The CDs that remained were ripped to a hard drive as FLAC before being put into storage. My digital library was born 5000 titles deep but it had taken thousands of dollars to get there. If I were to put a conservative estimate on it: 5000 x $10 per CD = $50K – long green for a CD store in one’s living room.
Kids today – they don’t know they’re born. That’s how my Dad sees it – it’s the ultimate cliché in parental social commentary. Modern Fathers point to mobile phones, computers and the Internet. They’re right – the cost of access to information and communication tools is at an all time low.
It’s not just hardware. Kids today no longer have to spend thousands of dollars amassing a digital music library. Streaming services have rendered redundant the MP3 piracy methods of yesteryear: Napster, Kazaa, Limewire and Bittorrent. Anyone with $10/month to spare now has instant access to any one of 30m songs at the click of a mouse or tap of a touchscreen. Spotify users prepared to tolerate ads between songs can access the same content as their cashed-up brethren but for free. One could even argue that with Spotify providing free access to music, they render it worthless.
The compromise of Spotify, Deezer, Rdio and (soon) Apple Music is the lossy encoding. It’s a bridge too far for the majority of audiophiles. I don’t disagree. Whilst I would never describe MP3 or Ogg Vorbis (as used by Spotify) as unlistenable, all other things being equal, lossless audio tends to sound more wholesome than lossy. It has me listening with more enjoyment, for longer. That’s the number one reason for maintaining a FLAC library at home and supplementing it with a cloud-based subscription service…
…which brings us to Tidal, the streaming service the mainstream press loves to kick and kick again. Yes, the Alicia Keys fronted re-launch could have been handled better but that doesn’t mean that what lies beneath Tidal’s star-studded surface is without merit. Think about it this way: no one is pointing the finger at Tim Cook for being a greedy billionaire.
Since being acquired by Jay-Z (Sean Carter), Tidal has added a lossy service to its streaming holster. Does this US$9.99/month service compete with what can be had from Spotify for the same cash? The answer, as always, is “it depends”. On library size, Spotify wins out: ~30m songs to Tidal’s ~25m. Tidal counters with hi-definition video content, editorial pieces and their associated playlists. Spotify boasts over 1 billion (!) user-generated playlists. Putting Spotify at the number once spot in in the lossy audio space are its smart device and desktop apps. Their elegance and ease of use are unsurpassed.
However, as polished as that user experience is, Spotify cannot compete on ultimate sound quality because it doesn’t offer a lossless service. For that, we look to Tidal’s Hifi service. $19.99/month nets access to the same 25m tracks but streamed in lossless FLAC (instead of lossy MP3). The perfect solution, right? Not quite. When set against the backdrop of Spotify’s free access and more bountiful library, Tidal Hifi presents as a tougher sell, especially to the man in the street who cares far less about sound quality. The DAC and op-amp combo that handles audio on his laptop and smartphone isn’t good enough to expose FLAC’s sonic superiority to Ogg Vorbis. When comparing Spotify Premium to Tidal Hifi he sees a saving of $10/month for access to more songs. You can’t fault his logic.
Surprising then to hear complaints about Tidal’s comparatively smaller library emanate from the audiophile community, specifically via forum chatter. When confronted by a series of holes in Tidal’s collection, the disgruntled audiophile complains that US$19.99/month is too much to pay; the lossless audio advantage is rendered insufficient. The glass, as he sees it, is now 10% empty rather than 90% full. That’s odd because I see Tidal as one of the single greatest audiophile-centric developments of modern times. Is is not more important to first rid the scene of lossy codecs than convince folk of hi-res audio’s possible merits?
It is to these Tidal Hifi refuseniks that I offer a fresh perspective…
Imagine you have a friend. Now imagine this friend owns a million CDs, some of which are to your taste and some are not. He offers to lend them to you indefinitely. They’ll take up zero space in your house because your friend will take care of off-site storage (at his expense) after each disc is ripped to a server. Your access to these CDs will be via streaming. Not only that, your friend will also drop a bevvy of new releases onto the server each week. It’s a virtual CD store in your house. Not everything will be your taste and there will be some notable omissions – Peter Gabriel’s entire catalogue is M.I.A. and I couldn’t spy Elvis Costello’s Blood & Chocolate – but there are thousands upon thousands of albums by artists you love already or are curious about.
The cost to you? All your friend asks is that you give him one bottle of half-decent wine every month. You don’t have to spend big: $20 will do it.
Go on, I dare ya: tell me that isn’t a killer proposition? Sure, there might only be a two Thomas Fehlmann albums in your friends collection and the new Ben Salter has yet to show up – but so what? Just pick something else to play; there are one million albums here. A lossless library for that costs you US$20/month or US$240/year. In ten years you’ll be out of pocket by US$2400. That’s one heck of a long way from the US$50K sucked up by my mid-00s music server.
My advice to anyone who cares about lossless streaming: pony up the cash for Tidal Hifi and focus on what is there. If you find an album missing from its library that you simply can’t live without, buy the CD or submit a request to Tidal via their online form here.
Tidal is a business, not a charity. It’s not for everyone but the audiophile appeal of its Hifi service is unassailable. If you can’t move beyond what’s missing from the library, try re-framing your view of Tidal as that of a mate loaning you his 1 million strong CD collection in exchange for the pitiful compensation of a good Shiraz each month. Hic.
Further information: Tidal