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Tidal adopts FLAC, forks MQA…again

  • At the end of last week, Tidal CEO Jesse Dorogusker posted on Reddit that ‘HiRes FLAC is almost here’. With MQA now in administration, the Norwegian-based streaming service will soon break from its MQA-only stance on hi-res audio delivery to offer streams in open-source FLAC: up to 24bit/192kHz. HiFi Plus subscribers can expect to see these FLAC streams appear sometime in August.

    Here is Dorogusker’s statement in full:

    “Today, we’re rolling out HiRes FLAC (free lossless audio codec) to our Early Access Program (EAP) users on iOS. HiFi Plus subscribers have always had access to our highest resolution audio, and now we are offering hi-resolution content in FLAC format, up to 24-bit, 192kHz. Try it now by updating your beta app, and selecting “Max” quality in the new Audio & Playback settings screen. We appreciate your excitement and want to hear from you before rolling it out more broadly.

    We’re choosing FLAC as our preferred format for high resolution audio, and we’ll continue to support multiple formats to make sure we have as much hi-res content as possible. It’s open source, allowing greater access for artists and fans, and aligns with TIDAL’s support for open platforms. Pairing accessibility with best-in-class audio quality directly aligns with our purpose of empowering artists to run thriving businesses in the economy.

    Starting today, there are over 6 million tracks available to stream in HiRes FLAC. We’re actively working with distributors, labels, and artists to add more content in this format every day.

    I’ll be back next month to share more on how the beta is going, plus give some insight into additional changes we’re looking to make. And don’t worry, if you aren’t a part of our EAP, you’ll be able to experience HiRes FLAC soon — we’re going to be adding it for all HiFi Plus users in August.”

    Some takeaways:

    1) From August, FLAC will be Tidal’s preferred format for stream delivery
    2) MQA files will still be offered (but for how long?)
    3) A question mark hangs over whether or not new titles will be offered in MQA in addition to FLAC
    4) Tidal will make 6 million of its songs available in hi-res FLAC

    Further information: Tidal

    What now? 

    With MQA sidelined, Tidal’s FLAC adoption removes a key point of differentiation between it and hi-res streaming service rivals Amazon HD Music, Qobuz and Apple Music (which uses ALAC).

    On its home page, Tidal currently boasts a library size of over 100 million songs, which means only 6% of its library is available in hi-res. Think about that: 94% of Tidal’s catalogue is not available in hi-res audio and tops out at CD quality.

    That’s not too far from Amazon Ultra HD’s homepage claims of 100 million songs with 7 million in hi-res. Qobuz’s home page also runs with the magic 100 million number but on how many of those songs are available in hi-res it doesn’t say. What about Apple Music? It celebrated crossing the 100 million song threshold last October but like Qobuz, it makes no mention of how many of those songs will stream in hi-res. Single-digit percentages and absent figures don’t bode well for hi-res audio being close to reaching critical mass.

    Moreover, with all four hi-res-equipped streaming services claiming identically-sized libraries of 100 million songs, the listener has to dig in with a time-limited demo to see how each service’s library aligns with his/her own music tastes.

    My own extensive experience with Qobuz, Tidal and Apple Music tells me that the latter comes up empty in song searches least often and Qobuz the most often. This is especially noticeable when building playlists for this publication’s YouTube videos over on Patreon. Classical music-listening friends tell me that Qobuz suits their needs the best — but that was before Apple Music Classical launched back in March. Tidal makes more noise about its video content but, anecdotally speaking, Apple Music isn’t that far behind. But for yours truly, it’s a pity that Tidal’s TV streamer apps let video content ride ahead of music. I want to be able to choose music with the TV remote before I want a 90s MTV experience.

    To wit, I switched from Qobuz to Apple Music two years ago in order to make use of Apple Music’s tvOS app which puts library browsing, playback navigation and now playing info – including cover art – on a wall-mounted TV. That same tvOS app, mirroring Apple Music’s mobile app, tracks my listening habits as effectively as Spotify (which I also use) for a better class of music recommendation; and without Tidal’s hard home screen sell on urban/hip-hop, which forces me over to its search box.

    Furthermore, Apple Music running on an Apple TV remains the most convenient way to pipe the service’s digital audio streams into a hi-fi system. Hi-res enthusiasts take note: the Apple TV’s HDMI output is capped at 48kHz for audio (with hi-res titles downsampled to the same). Just like the defunct Airport Express. Just like Sonos devices. And just like Apple AirPlay (more on that in a moment).

    Like Spotify, Tidal offers a hi-res compatible Connect service that allows smartphones and tablets to hand off Tidal streams to a suitably-certified device. Qobuz is reportedly working on its own Connect service but at the time of writing, little is known about its development progress. Android users can fall back to Google Chromecast with the gotcha of gapped playback, iOS users to AirPlay with the double gotchas of the stream travelling through the host device on its way to the streaming endpoint and no hi-res support above 48kHz.

    AirPlay’s audiophile-related woes don’t end there. A recent piece of research by a Darko.Audio Patron confirmed AirPlay’s dirty little secret: that AirPlay 2 uses lossy AAC encoding when streaming from an AirPlay 2 device to an AirPlay 2 device. We’ll be digging further into this topic in a future podcast episode.

    And let us not forget that MacOS doesn’t yet offer the automatic sample rate switching crucial for Apple Music’s bit-perfect handling of hi-res streams so dear to many audiophiles. One workaround is to connect a third-party DAC directly to an iPhone or iPad’s Lightning (or USB-C) socket. iOS devices do offer automatic sample-rate switching.

    Breathe easy Roon users: you are not affected by Apple AirPlay 2’s AAC tomfoolery. However, with Tidal and Qobuz soon to be on an even keel with hi-res FLAC file sources and Roon effectively re-skinning the interface, how does one choose between the two? Once again, we come back to having to do our own legwork on the specifics of library content.

    Finally, for those failing to grasp the narrow nature of the audiophile niche and forever wondering “Why can’t Roon integrate Apple Music?”, the answer lies in the size of their respective customer bases: next to Apple, a giant whale, Roon is plankton. There’s next-to-nothing in it for Apple to permit Roon integration. (It’s a similar story with Spotify).

    There is no singular ‘best’ hi-res streaming service. There is only a ‘best’ for you. Finding it will depend on your streaming hardware setup, its control devices and the streaming software you use. Most importantly of all, it will depend on your music tastes.

    Written by John

    John currently lives in Berlin where he creates videos and podcasts for Darko.Audio. He has previously contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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