by Tom McNamara / April 24, 2018
While a growing number of music streamers are settling on Spotify or Apple Music, there are still some moves left on the chessboard, and Tidal continues to plan and execute from a variety of angles. It's brought in exclusive albums, live concert streams, lossless audio, and big free trial offers to entice shoppers -- but is it enough to stem the tide?
Intuitive and familiar interface: If you've used Spotify, Google Play Music, or Pandora before, Tidal should be pretty easy to navigate. In fact, it frequently feels like Spotify with a different color scheme, which isn't a bad thing. When you open an album, there's a slider at the top to download the whole thing. As you move around the interface, your last played track is visible on a ribbon on the bottom of the screen, with a play button and a track advance button. We do miss Spotify's ability to generate a playlist from a selected song, however, and its Autoplay feature that pulls in more related music when you reach the end of a playlist.
Great variety of tunes: Tidal is co-owned by the legendary rap artist Jay-Z, who's built a fortune with a career of savvy business moves. Because of his influence in the hip-hop community, Tidal is able to provide a dizzying array of rap, R&B, funk, soul, and everything in between. And since he's a major industry player, in general, Tidal has been able to score several time-limited exclusives a year -- from heavy hitters like Rihanna, The White Stripes, Daft Punk, and Taylor Swift -- despite having a smaller subscriber base. For some time, it was the only place to stream Prince's catalog, and it's still the only way to stream Beyoncé's Lemonade (Jay-Z and Beyoncé married in 2008).
Support for playlist transfers from other services: Tidal has signed up with a service called Soundizz, which for $3 can migrate playlists between a variety of streaming services so that you don't have to manually rebuild your library. With Spotify and Apple Music taking the lion's share of the market, it's important for Tidal to offer this to stay competitive.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support: While Google and Apple want to promote their own music streaming services, they do leave room for a few select alternatives, and Tidal is one of them. Don't expect the HiFi tier to stream reliably in your car, though, because that requires a pretty fast and consistent connection. However, you can download pretty much any track or album for offline listening, if you have the gigabytes of space necessary for a HiFi library (We'd suggest at least a 64GB phone, preferably 128GB).
Sprint customers get a free six-month trial: The wireless carrier Sprint purchased a 33-percent stake in Tidal in 2017, and its customers can check out the streaming service for half a year at no cost. And it's the "HiFi" version of Tidal that would otherwise cost $20 a month. With about 53 million people on Sprint as of late 2017, that's a pretty generous perk (which also extends to its subsidiary Boost Mobile). On the flipside, this deal is tied to your Sprint phone -- it won't work on your other mobile devices or with the web browser version of Tidal.
For everyone else, Tidal still offers the usual 30-day free trial, which is not device-restricted.
No equalizer: For a streaming service that's built around a promise of high-fidelity audio, the lack of manual adjustment for your bass, treble, and midtones is puzzling. These may or may not be reference-grade tracks, but most people aren't using reference-grade headphones or IEMs, and very few people have reference-grade DACs in their listening devices, so no EQ means no way to compensate for the weak links in the chain. And with the aggravating trend away from headphone jacks on our phones, it's all the more important to have tools to deal with the notorious quality issues of a Bluetooth connection.
Some Android phones have system-level multi-band EQs, some don't. iOS definitely doesn't.
Sure, you can download EQ apps, but on iOS, these only work with non-DRM MP3s or Apple Music. On Android, adding a third-party EQ usually requires root access to fully override the default setup, which is its own can of worms that most people aren't going to want to deal with.
If you're an audiophile walking around with a portable DAC amp pass-through, and you've got a premium setup at home, you may be able to drop Tidal into your routine without much fuss. But for us normies listening on our phones and tablets, Spotify's 6-band EQ will deliver consistently better results. That service may not offer Tidal's archival CD quality, but there's pretty much no perceptual difference past about 320 kilobits per second anyway, which Spotify offers at no extra charge (Tidal's CD-grade audio is an additional $10 a month).
It's tough to recommend Tidal for the majority of users who will need an equalizer to deal with the limitations of their gear, but Tidal is arguably the best place to get a rich selection of hip-hop and R&B.