Downstream

The art of digital music streaming

Downstream

 

Part two of our brief look at streaming services. Part one is entitled Upstream. Although not compulsory, your journey may be less complex if you read that one first!

 

Streaming music is very much here to stay. It suits listeners and suits the record industry too. There will in time, become a consumer-led polarisation in terms of popularity. For now, most are still finding their way and grabbing the service most closely aligned with their listening technology. However, just because you own an iPhone does not mean you are locked in to Apple Music and in fact as previously mentioned, this particular service is one I dislike.

 

I stream via a Raspberry pi installed with a Hifiberry digital sound card, running Volumio in my house while I stream directly from my laptop in my office. On the move, I stream from my iPhone. Recently, I have been introduced to Tidal. This service has been around for a good long time and I always had it in mind to try it out. Bizarrely the very marketing that has made it popular has put me off in the past, but I am now able to look beyond that.

 

Tidal was born in Norway via a publicly owned company called Aspiro. Considered to employ some of the finest coders in the business, Tidal launched a massive attack on the youth market particularly in America. It did this by aligning itself with small independent labels and promoted their up and coming artists. With exclusive interviews, video and music content, Tidal created a community feel which spurred it to its current levels of greatness.

 

Along the way, Tidal has attracted investment from many musicians including Jay Z, Alicia Keys and Coldplay amongst others. As with Qobuz, Tidal has remained very close to record companies and artists and has access to studio masters. Again, the way they process these is a matter for myth and legend but what I can say without doubt is, Tidal renderings sound fantastic! As mentioned before, Qobuz has a lot of hi-res content. Tidal also has high quality renderings which it calls “Master Quality Audio” (MQA). Tidal renderings are delivered in the Flac format offering great flexibility and high quality. It’s user interface is young and funky compared to the more conservative Qobuz but both are easy to use.

 

Purists have a thing or two to say about Tidal vs Qobuz. I am in the privileged position of being able to enjoy them both. I would say Tidal has more content but from a quality perspective, there really isn’t a lot in it, and I enjoy them both equally. It does seem that Tidal is a little beefier in the bottom end, which would make sense due to the music they promote most actively. I would also say that instrument separation is slightly better with Qobuz but I would not stake my life on either of those two observations.

 

Comparing different versions of the same track is full of risk. I have clearly demonstrated however, that Spotify and Apple Music are inferior by far! Care must be taken however, as the source of a file is very, very important. Legend and rumour, have it that some of the more “popular services” reproduce some of their catalogue from greatest hits masters. These can be quite different from the original studio masters particularly where dynamic range is concerned. This could go some way toward explaining the perceptible difference in sonic quality. Music “legends” tend to keep their catalogues fresh by constantly remastering and sometimes re mixing past work and so comparing apples with apples can be a bit tricky in fact I have given up trying to AB test streaming services in favour of living with one for a day or two before making qualitative judgements. We are at a point now where some tracks sound better on Qobuz while I prefer Tidal versions of others. Nothing sounds any better than average on the other services I have tried however.

 

In terms of cost, Tidal’s entry package is £10 per month while the premium hi-res package is only £20 per month. Tidal has less hi-res content than Qobuz presently, although Qobuz focusses on Orchestral and Jazz genres where more hi-res masters are available.

 

Both Tidal and Qobuz run perpetual free 30-day trials. I would strongly recommend that all streamers of music to whom quality is important, take full advantage of these offers. Both are very keen to help audio manufacturers interface with their systems which can only be a good thing!

 

There are of course other services that I have not yet tried and I would think that once the general public begins to buy on quality rather than the depth of tunes available, that all services will move closer together as far as quality is concerned. In the meantime, I am throwing my support for what it’s worth behind Tidal and Qobuz.

 


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