Mark Henninger compares the sound quality, track selection, and usability of three leading subscription-based streaming-music services.
I gave up buying music on physical media many years ago, back in the early MP3 era when Napster and Real Player were competitors and there was no such thing as an iPod. The books of CDs that sit in my basement are all two decades old and stand as a dusty testament to progress. Aside from playing a vinyl record on occasion, all the music I listen to these days comes from digital files stored on a solid-state drive or streamed from the cloud.
The catalyst that caused me to switch from ripping CDs and buying downloadable albums from iTunes was the launch of Tidal, and specifically its Hi-Fi subscription package. The promise of millions of truly CD-quality tracks for $20/month proved irresistible. I first encountered Tidal streams at CES 2015, where they served as the source for a variety of audio demos; I loved the idea that I could go home and hear the exact same track play on my system.
For a few months after getting Tidal, it was as if iTunes had ceased to exist. I own hundreds of downloaded albums purchased on iTunes and a couple hundred more albums ripped from CDs. Tidal offered almost all the titles contained in my collection. Most of what I had purchased from iTunes was now available at superior quality as a stream. Therefore, I began the process of rebuilding my collection on Tidal.
The impetus for this article was Apple's recent introduction of its Apple Music subscription service. Because I already use iTunes, it was a no-brainer to sign up for the three-month free trial.
In order to make the comparison a bit more interesting, I decided to add Spotify Premium to the mix—after all, it's currently the most popular streaming-music service. When I logged onto Spotify, I discovered that I had used up my free trial about two years ago. Apparently, I did not find it compelling enough to pay for at the time, so I forked over the $10 monthly fee and I was back in.
I quickly discovered I enjoy having access to all three services, because the catalogs of the three services are not identical; when I started to search for various artists, I'd find an occasional album that I could only access on one of the services. However, more often than not, the service with the largest selection turned out to be Apple—the service with the lowest bitrate.
Apple's music offerings feature a 256 Mbps bitrate using the AAC format (the successor to MP3) while Spotify Premium offers 320 kbps streams in Ogg Vorbis format, which is a high-performance open-source streaming codec. Tidal's lossless offering is identical to CDs: 16-bit/44.1 kHz with a 1411 kbps bitrate delivered in FLAC format. The service also offers 320 kbps AAC-encoded streams for a lower monthly rate: Tidal charges $10/month for that, half as much as uncompressed CD-quality streams.
Tidal offers a convenient tool to test
if you can hear the difference between its 320 kbps and lossless streams. Although it's meant to show how clearly superior uncompressed music sounds, I found it relatively difficult to identify the lossless versions of the tracks. Listening on high-quality headphones in a silent room and concentrating on the task produced the best results. When listening through speakers, I found it was effectively impossible to identify the uncompressed stream with total confidence.
When it came to uninterrupted playback, Tidal stood out from its competitors—and not in a good way. In my network, on four separate PC-based systems, it was consistently the least reliable at streaming audio.
At first, I thought Tidal's troubles were due to the bandwidth required by uncompressed tracks, but in reality, 1411 kbps is not a very demanding data rate. My broadband service is 75 times faster than what's required for a steady CD-quality stream, and I watch 1080p Vudu HDX streams almost daily without any interruption.
A switch to 320 kbps AAC streaming did not fix Tidal's comparatively spotty performance. However, every time I update the Tidal app, reliability does appear to improve—because the service is so new, I'm willing to be patient and forgiving for now. Notably, I have not had any issues streaming Tidal on my iPhone, regardless of the quality level. I've heard anecdotal reports of other Tidal users suffering similar issues when streaming from a desktop.
Apple Music was quite a bit better at keeping the music flowing, but it still suffered an occasional pause when I used iTunes on a PC. On my iPhone, Apple Music performs flawlessly as long as I have Wi-Fi or a decent 4G cell signal.
Spotify Premium has yet to hang up on me, either at home or on the road. I found that it's the champion in terms of reliable high-quality streaming.
Most of my music listening is done either at home through full-sized audio systems using a PC as a source, or on the road using an iPhone 6 Plus and a pair of good headphones. For my needs, all three services have apps that make it easy to get the music I want, when and where I want it.
I like the look of Tidal's desktop-player app for PC, and I found the interface quite easy and intuitive to navigate. The layout is clear and self-explanatory. A menu on the left offers music-discovery options such as the What's New, Tidal Discovery, and Tidal Rising sections. Genres and Videos offer additional opportunities to find something fresh. Under the My Music menu item, there's a variety of submenus offering access to your personal music collection sorted by artist, album, track, or playlist.
The Tidal iPhone app is similarly easy to use, with the same menu layout and options as the PC app. With portable devices, Tidal offers an offline mode that allows you to download content, which is great for loading up on music while you're in a Wi-Fi zone so you can enjoy uncompressed music without hitting your monthly data cap. The Android version of the Tidal app is effectively identical to the iOS version and worked flawlessly on my Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro.
Apple Music relies on iTunes when using a PC. That's both a gift and a curse. On the plus side, iTunes is very familiar—I've been using it for many years. Conveniently, Apple Music seamlessly integrates with my existing music collection—including ripped CDs and albums bought on iTunes. It really brought my music collection together. I also appreciate iTunes' support for third-party visualizers—I use Aeon by SoundSpectrum. The problem is, iTunes is a bit bloated compared to the apps from Tidal and Spotify because it handles numerous other duties—unlike the others, it's not 100% focused on music.
Apple offers pathways to new music discovery. A menu at the top of the screen offers several options including For You, Apple's attempt to intuit what you might like based on what you listen to. The New tab offers the latest releases, and iTunes Radio offers genre-specific channels. The Connect tab is the social element of the platform; it's all about commenting on and connecting with specific artists.
My Music and Playlists buttons let you access your local content as well as songs and albums, and you can essentially treat tracks obtained with an Apple Music subscription the way you would with purchased iTunes content.
With an iPhone, it's easy to take advantage of Apple Music on the go. A recent update to iOS enabled the service, which can be found under the Music icon. There will be an Android app for the service, but that's a couple months away. I like to think I am tech savvy, and Apple likes to think it makes intuitive software, but the process of getting everything working—namely the need to use iCloud Music to manage my music collection—struck me as somewhat tedious and annoying. I'm not a software critic, but I found it less elegant and intuitive than Tidal's app. Nevertheless, if you have an iPhone, the software is already there and you can't remove it, so perhaps it's best to embrace it instead.
Spotify impressed me with the snappy response of its PC software. The speed with which it launches, searches, and navigates sets it apart from Tidal and Apple Music. While I preferred the look and layout of Tidal's player, Spotify earned my loyalty because it is fast. Another aspect of Spotify I enjoyed is how it shows what your Facebook friends are listening to and shares their playlists.
Spotify offers a comprehensive set of music-discovery tools. Under the Browse menu, you can choose between Charts, Genres & Moods, New Releases, and Discover (Spotify's recommendation engine). The Spotify app also sees and plays local content—except Apple Music downloads.
The mobile Spotify app had the same snappy feel as the desktop app. As with Tidal, the interface is the same on iOS and Android. Everything about the app felt just a bit faster than Tidal or Apple Music, from the installation to login to searching for content. I had no issues with navigation
All three services offer varying degrees of compatibility with music-playback devices like dedicated music servers and wireless speakers such as Sonos and Denon HEOS, both of which support Spotify and Tidal as well as many other music-streaming services. Spotify's app is everywhere, even on many smart TVs as well as networked AVRs. Apple Music is restricted to iOS devices, PC, and Mac. Apple TV and Android compatibility arrives this September.
All three services offer deep catalogs of music across many genres. In a few cases, one service has an exclusive—for example, Prince's music is only available to stream on Tidal, and Apple has an exclusive on Taylor Swift's latest album, 1989.
For the most part, if one service had an album in its catalog, all three had it, but I found enough exceptions to make having more than one subscription seem worthwhile. When it comes to great music, more options are always better.
The overlap between catalogs is not a huge surprise; each service has around 30 million tracks to choose from. Ultimately, though, the catalogs are not identical. Moreover, as Neil Young's recent declaration that he's removing his music from all streaming services
shows, music that's available now might not be available in the future.
My personal interest in streaming-music services started with Tidal. The promise of CD-quality uncompressed streams was more than enough incentive to get me to sign up for the $20/month service. I've spent a fair amount of time performing ABX tests using online tools as well as Foobar 2000, and I can reliably tell the difference between 256 kbps compressed streams and uncompressed CD-quality audio.
It's a lot harder to tell the difference between 320 kbps streams and CD-quality audio. Good headphones help—using the Tidal test I mentioned earlier, I was able to choose the uncompressed version about 70% of the time. For me, that's enough to justify the extra 10 bucks a month cost of a Hi-Fi subscription on Tidal. Nevertheless, to my ears, the differences are vanishingly small and require concentration to detect.
After listening to a wide variety of music spanning the gamut from Bill Laswell's In Dub to the new Snoop Dogg album Bush, from Enya to Beethoven to Bassnectar to the Beatles, I started to gravitate toward using Spotify as my primary go-to player. Tidal served that purpose in the past, but its unreliability grew tiresome. The difference between uncompressed Tidal streams and Spotify Premium streams are trivial enough that I went for the faster, more reliable platform: Spotify.
Unfortunately, with Apple Music, the audibly inferior quality of its 256 kbps streaming was detectable. There was a very slight loss of dynamics and clarity—nothing to panic about. When I first switched to Tidal, it was because I heard an improvement over standard iTunes 256 kbps downloads. That remains the case with Apple Music.
Ultimately, the quality of each service is a byproduct of the bitrate it uses. Apple is the stingy one at 256 kbps, while Tidal and Spotify have parity at 320 kbps. Tidal ups the quality ante with 320 kbps AAC streams as well as uncompressed streams—albeit at a higher monthly cost. In the near future, the service promises beyond-CD-quality streaming using the new MQA format from Meridian
. I hope that with MQA, Tidal can widen the quality gap between its top-tier streams and 320 kbps AAC.
Exploring new music and growing an album collection without having to worry about buying anything is intoxicating. Currently, I plan keep my Apple Music subscription when the free trial runs out. While I wish the company would offer a higher bitrate as an option, I'm a sucker for the sense of security Apple offers. I also plan to continue subscribing to Tidal Hi-Fi because—at 20 bucks a month—it serves as my primary music source when I review gear. For now, it's just about the only game in town when it comes to uncompressed streams.
While I can tolerate an occasional playback glitch when writing reviews, that's not the case when I'm relaxing with friends. For that, Spotify turns out to be the best bet—especially considering the social-media integration and the large user base Spotify enjoys thanks to its free offering—something Apple Music and Tidal don't have going for them.
One of my primary concerns is the future survival of any given service. I'm not so much worried about losing the music—the cloud is literally the best thing ever for music collectors. Even so, I do worry that if I carefully construct a collection in Tidal and it goes out of business, I'll have to rebuild the collection somewhere else. I don't have a similar concern with Apple; the company appears to be here to stay for a while. As for Spotify? I suspect it will survive and thrive as a stand-alone service—that's not tied to a major brand like Apple or a major celebrity like Jay-Z—because it does what it does faster and more reliably than its competitors.
Of course, the three services I examined for this article are far from the only streaming-music options out there. Amazon, Google, Rdio, Xbox Music, and Rhapsody all stream music. In other words, there are many options when it comes to monthly music subscriptions.
If Tidal was a more established company and its player was as reliable as Spotify—the most recent update appears to be stable—it would be my first choice among the three streaming services I've discussed here. If you are already invested in Apple's ecosystem, it could be worth subscribing to Apple Music.
Ultimately, if I had to choose just one streaming music service, I'd opt for Spotify Premium. For now, it offers the best balance of price, performance, quality, compatibility, and selection. As it stands, I'm going to opt for keeping all three.
One final note—if you love an album and want to support the artist, buy a CD, hi-res download, or vinyl record of their work. Streaming is a great way to discover music and grow a collection, but nothing beats actual ownership of great albums from great musicians. I'm sure the artists appreciate the financial support—especially the ones who are not world-famous and super-rich like Prince, Taylor, and Neil.
I look forward to your comments. Do you pay to stream music? Is there a streaming service you prefer? What are Tidal and Spotify's chances of long-term survival with Apple in the game?
Two DIY PCs (Windows 8)
Sony Vaio Windows 8 laptop with SSD
Asus Windows 8 laptop
Apple iPhone 6
Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4
Amplification and Processing
Crestron Procise PSPHD pre/pro
Crestron Procise ProAmp 7x250
Pioneer Elite SC-85 receiver
Classe Sigma SSP pre/pro
Classe Sigma AMP5 amplifier
MiniDSP DDRC-88A Dirac Live processor
MiniDSP nanoAVR HD with Bass Management
MiniDSP nanoAVR Dirac Live
Behringer B215XL PA speakers
GoldenEar Triton Five towers
Klipsch RP-280F towers
Klipsch RP-160M bookshelf speakers
PSB Imagine X2T towers
PSB Imagine XB bookshelf spakers
SVS Prime Tower speakers
SVS Prime Bookself speakers
SVS Prime Satellite speakers
Klipsch R-115SW subwoofers (2)
JL Audi e112 subwoofers (2)
PSB SubSeries 300 subwoofers (2)
GoldenEar ForeceField 5 subwoofers (2)
SVS PC-2000 subwoofer
Klipsch Reference On-Ear
Monoprice 12-gauge OFC speaker cables
Mediabridge Ultra Series subwoofer cable
Mediabridge Ultra Series HDMI cables
Monoprice Premiere Series XLR cables
Like AVS Forum on Facebook
Follow AVS Forum on Twitter
+1 AVS Forum on Google+