Before I get into this, let me just say that this is my own opinion, based on music that I like & using the kit that I currently own. I’m by no means an audiophile & I don’t pour thousands of pounds into my home hi-fi kit. I’ve been trying to find the best combination of streaming & local storage of AAC to suit my needs & these are my findings.
Over the last few months, I’ve been trying out Apple Music, Spotify Premium, Amazon Music Unlimited & Tidal. I also have my own music collection which is ripped to iTunes. My own collection is around 26,000 tracks, ripped from CD in Apples 256kbps AAC codec format using iTunes. I combine this with iTunes match both to backup my collection on apples’ servers in case of a disk failure & also to give me access to my music on my Apple & iOS devices. For years this has served me well & is a habit I will keep, but I was definitely interested in new music discovery so ventured into the world of streaming services.
I’m not going to write much about Spotify, Amazon or Apple Music. After trying all three I’ve got to say I found Spotify the best for music discovery but Apple Music the best for sound quality & overall experience. Bear in mind that I use iMacs, MacBooks, iPhones & iPads so I’m heavily into the Apple Ecosystem already.
I did find however that Apple Music offered no significant benefits over my locally stored AAC, so I cancelled that subscription & went back to sourcing & curating my own library.
On the whole, I’ve been very happy with 256kbps AAC. I mostly listen to music using my iMac and Creative Inspire 2.1 2400 speakers with bass sub (these powered speakers with sub are ancient & connect via a 3.5mm jack).
These speakers are pretty old now but they’ve always sounded great & as an average consumer I’ve never felt the need to upgrade them. I’m sure many people reading this will have fancy monitor speakers & separate DAC’s, but this is aimed more at the home user so you could probably skip the rest.
Last week I decided to give Tidal a go on their free trial. I’ve always played with the idea of Tidal, but with only a one month trial & a £20 a month price tag I’d always dismissed the service. I don’t personally know anyone else who has a Tidal account so it’s just not been on my Radar. After visiting Bang & Olufsen in Truro and hearing the most amazing sound, only to notice the owner was running tidal off his own iMac for that sound, I just had to give it a go.
What can I say, I’m blown away by Tidal. I signed up for the Hi-Fi account which offers 320kbps AAC, but also all tracks are available as lossless quality FLAC files. The FLAC streams sound incredible, even on my modest setup. I can hear aspects of favourite songs I’ve never heard, such as plectrum scratches in Steven Wilson tracks & high-frequency percussion in Porcupine Tree tracks.
I can hear a lot more high-frequency sounds, and vocals sound much crisper and cleaner. When compared to my AAC the sound is a lot more clear & less muddy. In comparison to my 256kbps AAC, it’s like listening to normal audio and listening with a towel over the speaker.
I’ve got a few albums in FLAC, but storage of my entire collection has never appealed to me due to the time it would take to manage the files & the various backups I’d have to keep. I’m now keeping my music collection in AAC for personal use & use on the go, but predominantly listening to tracks on Tidal if they are available.
Then we come onto the Tidal Masters. I could probably get even more out of them with better monitor speakers & an external DAC plugged into the mac, but as an average consumer listener, I’d rather hear the best I can with the kit I’ve already got. Masters do sound wonderful even on my kit, and although the MQA streams will be software decoded & downsampled slightly for my sound card in the iMac, there is no doubt the audio quality is sublime.
I’ve had no issues with buffering of the streams & I even love the Tidal interface, especially the spinning disc effect on full-screen mode.
I’ve got no problems at all with my personal collection staying in 256kbps AAC. The Matched tracks on iTunes match are deleted from my machine & re-downloaded so I have Apple’s own iTunes store copies/rips of the tracks. I’m not prepared at this point in my life to spend thousands on pro audio gear or a listening room. I just like to get the best out of the stuff I have & mixing my own collection in 256kbps AAC with a Tidal subscription seems to be a great compromise.
At £20 a month it is quite expensive, but well worth it if you listen to more than a few hours of music every month. I’m really enjoying the Tidal experience & the extra boost in sound quality seems to be worth it. I can cancel at any time & fall back on my own vast collection, but I’ll play it by ear month on month.
Tidal also sounds great played in hi-fi on my iOS devices, even when outputting to Bluetooth speakers, there is a definite improvement over my AAC tracks.
In the living room, we have a stereo pair of Sonos Play 1’s. We live in close proximity to neighbours & have a modestly sized living room as I expect most of my readers will, and the Play One’s in stereo are more than sufficient in terms of both sound quality & power output. I’ve added My local music library to the Sonos system & I’ve now added Tidal as a music service. Tidal works really well with Sonos & again it’s a definite sound upgrade from my AAC. Sonos will only support the Hi-Fi FLAC streams at the moment, but these are of CD quality on the whole so it’s a clean and crisp sound.
The Tidal App for iOS also supports Sonos as an output device so you can use the Tidal App and output your audio to your Sonos system. This is great for music discovery or to resume your listening when you come from outside listening on Headphones or in the car.
When using earbuds on my iPhone 6 with Tidal, the improvements are more subtle. Tidal tends to have a little less bass than Apple AAC files, but the sound on Tidal tends to be more rounded & a slightly nicer experience. When listening to my Sony headphones, there is definitely an improvement over AAC.
All of my kit is pretty standard and consumer level. It’s by no means audiophile quality, but most people I know are not that interested in investing thousands to listen to their music. I have a few Audiophile friends who have spent upwards of £20k on kit, and while it sounds wonderful, it’s a little bit of a diminishing return for the size of the improvement.
For now, I’ll enjoy all of my favourite tracks on Tidal and keep my own curated library in AAC to supplement and archive my music. It’s not a great deal to pay out each month & the quality improvement is of tangible value. 256kbps AAC to FLAC is a big jump in quality. Anything above that on consumer kit just seems like overkill for the size of the improvement you would see.
If you decide to give Tidal a go on a Mac, make sure to adjust your streaming settings to max out at Master, and also give Tidal exclusive use of the built-in audio device. This way Tidal will adjust your soundcards sample rates to take advantage of the improved audio streams. This really helped Masters to sound better on my machine (yes I know so downsampling will occur as my sound card can’t support that maximum sampling rate) But it does seem to max out my sound cards abilities & sound as good as it can on my current kit.
I know I’ll get a million audiophiles telling me I’m doing it wrong, but after reading all of the reviews & What Hi-Fi magazine I was still struggling to figure out what would sound good on my relatively primitive & low-end setup. I expect most people will want to maximize what they have rather than invest heavily in a lot of extra audio gear. If that is the case, I suggest you give Tidal a go on their free trial. It has definitely changed my music listening & I’m even seeking out awesome sounding albums like Led Zeppelin & Talk Talk.
Let me know your thoughts on this post & be nice.