So, What the Hell Is Tidal? (And Should You Use It?)

Jay Z has a new streaming music service—but is it worth the price to sign up?

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Complex Original

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Nearly two months ago, Jay Z dropped $56 million to buy a Swedish tech company. Yesterday, we found out what he plans to do with it.

Jay recruited 16 musicians (Alicia Keys, Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, Beyoncé​, Calvin Harris, Chris Martin, Daft Punk, deadmau5, Jack White, Jason Aldean, J. Cole, Kanye West, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and Usher) to become part-owners of Tidal, a re-launched streaming music service that was originally created by Aspiro, the company he bought out. This was announced during a presentation that lined up every part-owner on stage—each reportedly owns 3 percent equity​ in the company—along with the news that Tidal will get exclusive content from them. Next level flexing at its best.

All right, what makes Tidal different than the other streaming music services you’re already using? There has to be something special about it since #TIDALforALL has been trending for two days straight, right? Well, that's the thing, Tidal could be for everyone—everyone just needs money for admission. Unlike Spotify and Pandora who offer ad-based plans, users can't use Tidal for free outside of a two-week trial. Instead, they have to sign up for one of two subscription options: a $9.99-per-month basic plan that streams music at standard definition with high-definition music videos, or a premium plan that streams music in a high-definition “lossless” format for $19.99 a month. Picking out streaming music services is starting to look about as bad as choosing what cable package to get.

The premium subscription, though, dishes out twice the amount of money to artists than Tidal’s basic plan, but they'll have to gain a lot more users if they want a significant chunk of change. (Basic Tidal only pays artists standard royalties​.)


Lossless CD-quality streaming is what sets Tidal apart from a lot of the competition (Pono and Deezer Elite offer it, too). But is lossless enough to shell out an extra $120 a year? And what’s so different? For starters, Spotify Premium and basic Tidal (both $9.99) have the option to stream songs at a standard 320kbps (kilobits per second), which is a fraction of the size of a large 16-bit lossless file (also known as FLAC, or Apple's version, ALAC). In order for that 16-bit audio file to become a 320kbps audio file, it has to shed some data. Removing data means reducing quality. It's like when you save a picture you found on Google to your computer, only to find out it's all distorted when you open it up. If you had the original file, you'd get more detail than the compressed image you downloaded. When it comes to audio, FLAC is that original file. That doesn't mean 320kbps files aren't good, even if they're smaller. It'll ultimately come down to your gear, and your ear, if you can catch the differences between a lossless and 320kbps song.

I tried out Tidal’s premium subscription using my Sony MDR-7506 headphones, and I couldn’t notice a distinct difference, even when switching between Smashing Pumpkins' “Tonight, Tonight,” and Clipse's "Grindin'," on Spotify and Tidal. Or maybe I did. I couldn't really pinpoint what, if anything, was different. But hey, if you’re using high-end headphones like Master & Dynamics' MH40 that are far out of my price range, you might be able to pick up the difference, especially if you're a musician or an all-around audiophile. If you’re the type of person that sticks with the same headphones that came bundled with your smartphone, listening to a lossless song on them will be like setting up a Blu-ray player on a television from '92—you're better off sticking with the set up you got, even if it ain't state-of-the-art. Already have the proper equipment? Then you've probably been hip to Tidal for months already.

The basic $9.99 Tidal package is good enough for a test drive if you're on the market for a streaming music service (remember, two-week free trial). Tidal doesn't have a desktop app right now (word is it's being redesigned), so it's only accessible through iOS, Android, and the web, which kind of blows since the web app lagged a few times when I was using it. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt and toss that to my Internet being slow, but overall, the interface feels intuitive. Tidal claims to have 25 million tracks and 75,000 videos. I got lost for a few minutes watching a video of Alicia Keys backstage. The curated playlists and minimalist designs are what you'd expect. But it also feels familiar. In some areas, a little too familiar:



One thing that's missing from Tidal are social features. On Spotify I've gotten used to following artists, friends, and subscribing to playlists made by other users (and seeing who's listening to what songs in the news feed). Also, you can't use your keyboard to pause or skip a track when you're not in the browser window. I don't want to be too picky, but that desktop app would really help.

Tidal doesn't have all its eggs in one basket, though. If you're not sold on the lossless audio, perhaps it'll reel you in with its exclusive content—the one big perk to having so many well-known artists on your team. Rihanna already made her new single “Bitch Better Have My Money” available on Tidal, while it's nowhere to be seen on Spotify. Taylor Swift, who removed all of her songs from Spotify last year, made her entire catalog available on Tidal. Yeah, shots have been fired. This is the same type of strategy that Netflix has used to differentiate itself from the competition. Adding more exclusive content may be the deciding factor for someone looking to fork over their cash to you every month. So while Tidal may not appeal to you today, because of the exclusive content on the horizon, it may look a lot more appealing in the coming months—or years, if it can last.

Still, there are people who listen to songs through YouTube, and are completely fine tuning in to ad-supported Spotify or Pandora. If you fall under this category, don't feel like you're missing out on anything with Tidal. But if you already have the luxury gear to take lossless audio full throttle, Tidal is just the luxury service you've been waiting for.

Either way, if there’s one thing you can take away from all of this talk of Tidal, it's that celebs are just as awkward as we are when they're left to talk to each other, and that's something we can cherish for free:


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