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Tidal brings high quality audio streaming to everyone — for a price

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Is high-definition music ready for the mainstream?

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Last month the streaming-music service Deezer introduced Elite, a premium take on Spotify that offers lossless, 16-bit FLAC streaming — more than five times the quality of existing services, Deezer says. But there was a huge catch: for now at least, Deezer Elite only works with Sonos speakers. In order to access high-quality music, you need to already own pricey hardware. Today a Swedish company named Aspiro is releasing a similarly high-end service called Tidal, but it’s much more widely available. You can listen on iOSAndroid, or a web app, along with 34 home audio systems including Sonos, all for $19.99 a month.

The sound is stunning

That price represents a huge premium over services like Spotify and Rdio, which cost $9.99 (or less if you share a plan). But in a few days of testing Tidal, I can see its appeal to audiophiles — you can absolutely tell the difference in sound quality between existing services and this one, and at times its 16-bit FLAC files can be stunning. Tidal is built on the back of WiMP, a goofily named Spotify competitor in Europe, and so it comes with a catalog of 25 million tracks that so far has had most of what I’ve searched for. (It also has 75,000 ad-free music videos in high definition.)

What Tidal doesn’t have is great design — if you’re used to the elegance of Rdio, or even the more workmanlike Spotify, Tidal’s black-and-white hodgepodge likely won’t impress you. And those huge files you’re streaming have downsides of their own: there’s a noticeable lag when you skip tracks as the file buffers; saving files to your mobile device can quickly chew through your storage; and streaming for even a few hours over LTE could be hell on your data plan.

tidal

Still, if you identify as an audiophile, Tidal is worth a look. "This service is not for everybody," says Andy Chen, the company’s CEO. "Spotify is for everybody. You don't even need to pay! But for quality, you have to pay." Chen says Tidal is aimed at audiophiles who have suffered as audio has gradually worsened in the transition from vinyl to compact discs to MP3s. "It’s for people frustrated by the progressively worse fidelity we’ve gotten from music," he says. Streaming music is the future, and if you’ve invested in a high-end sound system — or even just decent headphones — you’re going to want to take advantage of them.

What I really want is for Spotify and Rdio to offer a high-definition version of the service that most of us already use — I like those products, my playlists are there, and so are most of my friends. I’d like also like to be able to access high-quality audio for less than $20 a month. But in the meantime, you may want to give Tidal a try. It sounds like the future.