TIDAL review: sweet HiFi to my ears

If you’re familiar with TIDAL’s streaming service, you’re probably also familiar with the frequent cold shoulder that it receives. I would argue that a lot of that stems just from the fact that people choose a service and stick with it, seeing no reason to switch. It also doesn’t help TIDAL’s case that it’s not the cheapest service out there.

But TIDAL does have something that no other music service has – HiFi streaming. “So what?” I can see most people saying. That makes me chuckle a bit because of the fact that pricey headphones are mainstream now. Okay, maybe the extra fidelity isn’t as apparent as lower quality content on a HD TV, but I can argue (from experience) that it can be discernible over time if we start to listen to the music instead of just hear it.

So in the respect of the extra enjoyment that TIDAL can provide to our ears, we’re gonna check out all that the Android app has to offer and if everything about TIDAL is as refined as it should be for its top-dollar subscription cost.

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Design

If you’ve visited TIDAL’s website then I’d say you got a glimpse of what the app looks like. It follows a similar, dark theme throughout. Upon launching, you’re greeted with “What’s New” in TIDAL’s world.

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You’ll see featured content at the very top and then newest videos, playlists, and albums (in that order) as you scroll downward. Nothing too mind-blowing here. I think it’s a bit odd that videos are shown first, but I figure it’s so the company makes sure you know that there is other content offered than just music.

At the very bottom is the current list of most popular tracks. You can just click the first track and it’ll play through them all. I think it’s a pretty good idea to have this list front and center, as it changes everyday.

What I particularly like in the UI of the app is that it honors Google’s slider menu method. Swiping from the left side presents you all the navigation options in the app.

Features

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There are a few unique features here that helps TIDAL stand out from the crowd. Two of these are TIDAL Rising and TIDAL Discovery. Cleverly, these services benefit both the listeners and artists:

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In case you don’t know much about TIDAL’s background, it has a strong stance to provide artists with the royalties that they’ve rightfully earned – something that other music streaming services are said to sidestep. Therefore, seeing these two programs in place makes me glad that TIDAL is thinking about the little guys as well as the big-name artists. Regardless, for the end-user, it means a chance to discover new music that you may have not otherwise – which is fantastic.

The Playlists feature is also a great option when you don’t know what specifically to listen to. The categories cover moods, activities, classics, holidays, or a tie-in with current events. Within each category, there are tons of relevant, pre-made playlists. You’ll never feel like there aren’t enough options.

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There is of course a menu for music genres with all the categories you’d expect. When you choose one, the top of the page shows the genre you’re in and a Play button to start playing TIDAL’s compiled list of new tracks for that genre. The rest of the presented content follows the app’s launch page layout, albeit a slightly different order (playlists, videos, and then albums).

Continuing down the line, we have a dedicated areas for just music videos. TIDAL doesn’t just want to be an audio source; it has tons of relevant videos to share. The layout of the video section displays New, Recommended, Top 20, or Exclusive (to TIDAL) content.

Lastly, we get to the meat of the service – the music library. In the My Music section, you can organize your favorite content by Playlists, Artists, Albums, or Tracks. To get content in here, TIDAL uses a Favorite system (signified by a star within content you find). Click something as a Favorite and it’ll populate in this area.

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Additionally, TIDAL allows you to save selected music in Offline Mode. Within the settings, you chose what fidelity you want the downloaded music to be. Only, when saving HiFi tracks, be conscious of how much storage space your device have.

Usability

As I’ve implied, navigating through the app is pretty intuitive. However, there are some particulars that need to be discussed when you go in to tailor the app specifically for you. One of these has to do with setting up playlists in the My Music section.

Screenshot_2015-12-10-11-22-09Being that TIDAL refers to its pre-made music sets as Playlists, it kind of interferes with the traditional definition of a “Playlist” – a user-built music compilation. Fortunately in TIDAL, you can throw in both kinds into that Playlists area under My Music. However, because there is a discrepancy between them, there is a toggle to allow the user to filter what’s displayed (All, Own, or Favorites).

Adding in TIDAL’s playlists are just like how you add in albums, by favoriting them. However, creating a self-built playlist is not as obvious. You have to long-press on content, then you’ll be shown a menu to add it to an existing playlist or create a new one for it. This is no problem once you realize it, but it’s a potential frustration for new users.

Another peculiar thing on the subject is from the fact that you can Favorite the playlists you create (so that they’re the only ones displayed when you filter the section to “Favorites” only). However, this creates an interference with saved TIDAL-made playlists, because you have to Favorite them to save them. In other words, you cannot separately display your own favorite playlists apart from the TIDAL-made playlists you’ve saved.

You can bypass this by long-clicking on a TIDAL playlist and selecting “Add to Playlist”, then creating a playlist with the same name. However, that playlist will then show up as your “Own” playlist when you go in to filter what’s displayed. In my opinion, TIDAL needs to either re-think the Playlist system or call its own mixes something else…like “Mixes”!

Once you realize the long-press options, the rest of the sections in My Music work just fine. This is how you place favorite Albums and Tracks in their respective spots. To build your personalized Artist list, just mark them as a favorite when you find them.

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In case you were wondering, there is in fact a Radio function in TIDAL. You can initiate it via the popup menu when long-pressing on content. Alternatively, there’s a Radio button on the launch pages of artists.

Next up is the Player controls. Music that is currently playing is always shown on the bottom of the app. This is a standard affair, which shows the relevant song details (artist and album) and buttons to play/pause or move to the next track.

Clicking it pops up the full player. You’ll see the album art front and center and buttons for the previous track, play/pause, and next track.

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Pressing on a space in the player will drop down a menu with shortcuts to that artist’s page, to that album, or to initiate the radio based on that track. Here, you can also set the Shuffle or Repeat functions, as well as favorite the track, share, or add to a playlist. For some reason there is no way to like/dislike music from what I can see.

On the top right corner, you’ll see another menu button. This takes you to your music queue. From here you can long-press on a track for interactions (remove track from queue, add to favorites or a playlist, start radio, etc.). Alternatively, you can add stuff into the queue via the popup menu when you long-press on content. Something to know is that the queue doesn’t restart when you select something else to play. It compounds everything you play. I don’t particularly like this, as the queue list grows lengthy with no purpose.

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There’s a three-dot menu in the queue which lets you turn the queue into a playlist, empty the queue, or edit the queue. The queue editor is pretty nifty – where you can move the order of tracks around or trash them. But I’ll argue that this functionality should just be a part of the queue. Menu options like these are often unrealized because of their hidden-nature.

On last thing about the player is that there is a little “HIFI” light on the bottom right corner. Not to forget that one of TIDAL’s big selling points is HiFi streaming, this notification tells the user if they’re actually streaming the extra fidelity or not.

I’m really glad that TIDAL added this notification. By default, HiFi streaming isn’t toggled on in the settings, and the grayed out “HiFi” notification helped me realize this.

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Also, in the settings, there’s a way to make the stream adaptive to the network connection. Therefore, if you don’t see “HiFi” lit, then you’ll know to go assess the problem with the connection. However, I must mention that there were a couple times that I didn’t see it lit when I had a great, reliable connection. It looked stuck, and I wasn’t sure if the bug meant that I wasn’t streaming HiFi or if the notification wasn’t working. Restarting the app fixed the issue. But this has only occurred a handful of times.

Saving content to use offline is pretty straightforward. You can either save playlists or albums for offline use. Within each playlist or album you’ll see a toggle to start downloading it. Alternatively, you can long-press on content and request to “Add to Offline”. And because you’ll potentially be storing loads to high-res data, TIDAL was kind enough to throw in a setting to offload the downloads to an SD card.

Practicality

I felt the need to create this section to discuss something very important when it comes talking about HiFi on a mobile device. We must understand that the practicality of using TIDAL at all highly depends on our hardware. In other words, you cannot use TIDAL with stock equipment, such as a phone’s DAC (digital-to-analog converter) for sound processing or inexpensive headphones, and expect results worth the price of paying extra for more detailed music samples.

TIDAL HiFi audio equipment test
TIDAL’s HiFi audio equipment test

Fortunately, phones with thoughtful DACs are beginning to surface (like the LG V10 and HTC A9), but they are still too few. Therefore, in order to really benefit from TIDAL on a mobile device, you’ll need an external DAC.

There a multitude of portable DAC solutions, of which the functionality is made possible by Android’s ability to audio out via OTG of the microUSB port. But the reality behind TIDAL is that the user must be willing to put forth the cost and inconvenience of extra gear.

If you’re cool with all this, then the benefit of the service is unrivaled. No other streaming service even gets close to offering this amount of audio detail. With the right gear, the experience of 1411 kbps audio data is staggering in comparison to the compressed rate that other music streaming services max out at – 320 kbps. HiFi music is richer, fuller, and more impactful and engaging.

Also, if you’re like me and don’t have a collection of Lossless audio files (and love the convenience of streaming), then that makes TIDAL your only option for getting the most out of your gear.

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Final Thoughts

I hope that this review served as good insight into TIDAL’s world. The app itself is laid out well and has the asthetics and functionality to back the high-end image that the service conveys. You get all the features you’d expect from a music streaming service and some nice extras (videos, tons of pre-made playlists, and a great artist-discovery system).

Only, I emphasize the importance of having the right gear to make the experience worth the extra cost – a fact that’s stressed even further when speaking about a mobile version of the service. Phone DACs are generally not yet good enough to output the extra detail. But if the hardware is addressed appropriately, then outstanding capability should be recognized. As a music streamer, it is because of TIDAL that I can be an audiophile.

Play Store link for TIDAL

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